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Jul 03 2014

I’ve seen that movie so many times

SMBC nails it on the role of the female costar in action movies, everywhere.

ActionWoman

39 comments

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  1. 1
    brett

    Sadly true. And what’s so annoying about it is that it’s not just wrong, it’s a stupid business decision as well – people love big budget movies with good female characters and female protagonists. Frozen and Maleficent are money machines right now. But instead we get much of the same crap over and over again, because that’s what studio executives are familiar with and the directors are frequently comfortable with.

  2. 2
    brett

    Ugh, sorry, the phrasing on that is bad. I didn’t mean that it was only annoying because it’s a bad decision – I meant that it was extra annoying that on top of simply being wrong, it was also bad business.

  3. 3
    CaitieCat, getaway driver

    And the studio executives and directors are pretty much all men, so they don’t see any real importance to having women characters who have any significance to the story other than as plot devices/rewards/things to rescue or do sex to. And their confirmation bias says that when they do make a movie ‘for women’, which they underpromote and underbudget as much as they can, and which then fails to break the bank with financial success, they can write it down to “no one wants to see movies for women”.

    It’s a nice little racket.

  4. 4
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    CaitieCat

    and which then fails to break the bank with financial success,

    What is even worse is that this involves a second layer of creative accounting, since the first layer says that all movies, regardless as to the financial success, are a loss. Hollywood is lies all the way down. They essentially need to go out of the way to be sexist in a business model, since they damn well know where their markets are.

  5. 5
    Esteleth, [an error occurred while processing this directive]

    I read an essay about how script writers are explicitly told not to pass the Bechdel test, or really put anything of value (apart from sex appeal) in female characters.

    Because, you see, male viewers are incapable of paying attention to women who are other than pure sex.

  6. 6
    Ibis3, Let's burn some bridges

    And the more they say movies with women in them (as opposed to props played by actresses) are boring and financially unsuccessful, the more people don’t want to see them, ghettoising them as unserious “chick flicks” even when they’re not boring or unserious (not that there’s anything wrong with light entertainment, but not every movie has to be a variation on While You Were Sleeping). My mother watches a lot of old movies and it’s strange to see how substantial women’s roles were (even as in the real world, women’s roles were more restrictive), and how many popular, mainstream movies passed the Bechdel test.

  7. 7
    pharyngsd

    That’s why Ellen Ripley (from the Alien franchise) is one of my heroes.

    We need more Ripley’s!

  8. 8
    Esteleth, [an error occurred while processing this directive]

    The thing about Ripley is that in the early drafts of the script Ripley was a man. When Sigourney Weaver was cast, they flipped the pronouns, added a line or two (and the, ah, panty scene – but that isn’t really written in a prurient manner and could easily have been in the original as “Ripley fixes the thing while wearing his boxers”), and named her “Ellen.” Subsequent films where the scriptwriting had Ripley = female embedded from the beginning has her being rather less badass.

  9. 9
    Chris J

    @Esteleth:

    Sooo… what your saying is, we know how to make female protagonists now?

    I feel like the same thing happened with Mass Effect, where FemShep was basically just a model and voice insert, and everyone loved her. I’m sure there are other examples.

  10. 10
    Kevin, Youhao Huo Mao

    @CaitieCat:

    That same thing is why female-centered video games fail. They’re underfunded and underadvertised, do crappy, and the studios say “see! Games with women just don’t sell.”

    @Esteleth:

    It’s saying something that making the most bad-ass female character involved just writing her like Hollywood would write a male character – by tossing out all the “female-specific” character traits.

  11. 11
    flippyshark

    Brett, I hope that the fact that Frozen and Maleficent are such money machines can serve as a glimmer of hope. I just plain don’t go see Summer franchise action tentpole movies anymore, and I haven’t for the better part of fifteen years. But the face of family entertainment is slowly starting to change and to move in some positive directions. Thoughtful stories with interesting, driven characters and plots that are more than a checklist of tired tropes? I can dream.

    Esteleth, it would not surprise me in the least to learn that this happens. I recently talked to a friend in Hollywood who told me about one major studio he worked with that insisted on dumbing down all scripts so that they can be easily understood on basic visual content alone. This is supposed to make their product more conducive to overseas markets. Hero-Antagonist-Fight. Those are the beats, that is the template. Nothing else matters. Interesting women with ambitions, ideas, inner conflicts, talking to each other about them? Not in the template! I hope more of the mass audience starts getting sick of this idiotic formula.

  12. 12
    microraptor

    There’s something that SMBC got wrong there:

    Sometimes, the woman’s role is to instead get killed by the villain late in the film. This gives the hero extra resolve in order to win their big showdown. Bonus points if the villain actually stuffs her remains in the fridge.

  13. 13
    Esteleth, [an error occurred while processing this directive]

    I’m reminded of the interview I saw with GRR Martin (the author of A Game of Thrones and its sequels) where someone asked him how he writes such well-rounded and realistic female characters. His reply was something along the lines of, “Well, I always thought that women were people.”

  14. 14
    Pteryxx

    Esteleth #5 – it was probably this essay:

    http://thehathorlegacy.com/why-film-schools-teach-screenwriters-not-to-pass-the-bechdel-test/

    Only to learn there was still something wrong with my writing, something unanticipated by my professors. My scripts had multiple women with names. Talking to each other. About something other than men. That, they explained nervously, was not okay. I asked why. Well, it would be more accurate to say I politely demanded a thorough, logical explanation that made sense for a change (I’d found the “audience won’t watch women!” argument pretty questionable, with its ever-shifting reasons and parameters).

    At first I got several tentative murmurings about how it distracted from the flow or point of the story. I went through this with more than one professor, more than one industry professional. Finally, I got one blessedly telling explanation from an industry pro: “The audience doesn’t want to listen to a bunch of women talking about whatever it is women talk about.”

    Lots of follow-up, including:

    http://thehathorlegacy.com/if-audiences-dont-want-women-as-leads-why-did-aliens-succeed/

    Or here’s a slight twist on my above theory: what if audiences never rejected female leads, but instead reject leads they can’t take seriously? When someone’s being served up on a sexual silver platter for you, it’s hard to imagine they’re in control of their destiny, or even trying to be. Action leads need to have agency.

  15. 15
    Kevin, Youhao Huo Mao

    @my 10:

    Little unclear what I meant. Hollywood writes women by just slapping female traits onto a blank sheet and writing within that template. Men are written a lot more dynamic, with more options and more character traits. Men can be bad-asses, villains, cowards, sneaks, liars, lovers, husbands, kings. Women can be women.

  16. 16
    NelC

    I think it’s worth pointing out that the writing is only a certain proportion of how a character is depicted on the screen. Some of it is down to the directing, and even more to the actor’s depiction. Ripley may have been written as a man, but once you give the lines to a woman, she’s going to deliver them as a woman, or her interpretation of how a woman in those circumstances would say the words.

  17. 17
    monad

    @12 microraptor:
    That happens, but this is about superfluous female protagonists. If she dies for some other hero to avenge, she’s probably more of a superfluous female secondary character.

  18. 18
    Pteryxx

    NelC: sure, but if the project doesn’t get written, funded and into production (not necessarily in that order), it’s never going to matter how a woman might have delivered the protagonist’s lines if she’d had the chance.

    That said: (from 2011)

    http://thehathorlegacy.com/open-thread-sigourney-weavers-aliens-costume-choice/

    The 62-year-old actress still scoffs at how the costume designers tried to dress her in a light blue shirt with pink embroidery. Fortunately, she uncovered a closet full of old NASA uniforms at Pinewood Studios in England and found an asexual flight suit that “fit me like a glove,” she recalls. “I feel sad for other women who are playing action heroes in these [skimpy] costumes. [snip to get to the rest of the quote] They need to wear what’s practical. Yes, Ripley’s a woman, and women are always underestimated as hysterical people with no courage. But Ripley has tremendous strength and determination.”

  19. 19
    Esteleth, [an error occurred while processing this directive]

    Yes, that’s definitely the essay I read, Pteryxx.

  20. 20
    Pteryxx

    and to top it all off, Nate Silver’s analysis shows movies that pass the Bechdel test cost less to make and earn a better ROI, both in the US and internationally.

    Hathor Legacy, Variety (quoted below), Silver’s report

    The data showed that the films that passed the Bechdel test actually grossed more at the box office than those that failed. The median gross return for a film that passed was $2.68 for each dollar spent, as opposed to $2.45 for a film that failed the test. However, the median budget of passing films was 35 percent less ($31.7 million) than that of flunking films ($48.4 million), showing to no one’s surprise that male-dominated pics get higher budgets to work with.

    Contrary to the popular assumption that women aren’t box office draws in international markets, findings were the same overseas. Movies that passed the Bechdel test made $1.17 per dollar of their budget overseas, while pics in which women only talk to each other about men — or don’t talk much at all — earned $1.06 per dollar.

  21. 21
    pharyngsd

    Esteleth

    Subsequent films where the scriptwriting had Ripley = female embedded from the beginning has her being rather less badass.

    She was pretty badass in “Aliens.” Was that script written with a man in mind?

    Also, Aliens has “Vasquez.” I don’t know if her character was written for a male character originally, but she is badass through and through.

  22. 22
    Howard Bannister

    Aliens is actually a bit of an interesting thing… because James Cameron didn’t write it to be Aliens. The original script was something quite a bit different.

    But he got asked to do a treatment for an Aliens sequel and his mother character got massaged into Ripley.

    So Ripley went from ‘written as a man’ to ‘written as a different character entirely.’ (it oughta be a trope! We can call it ‘getting Ripleyed.’)

  23. 23
    anteprepro

    Howard Bannister:

    (it oughta be a trope! We can call it ‘getting Ripleyed.’)

    Ellen Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.

  24. 24
    rwiess

    I’m reading Isabel Allende’s Island Beneath the Sea, engrossed with a realistic female protagonist. When I read the author’s biography on-line, I learned she had been fired from a translation job early in her career for making changes in novels to make the women more real. The pressure is relentless to objectify women.

  25. 25
    NelC

    Pterryx @18: Sure, I’m not arguing against the main thesis, just reacting to the “Ripley-is-really-a-man” meme. When you get down to it, there aren’t really a lot of things that a man can say or do that a woman can’t also say or do convincingly, which gets back to the main point that it shouldn’t be that difficult to write women’s roles.

    In fact, given the stripped-down style of scripts as written, it shouldn’t be very difficult to write scripts shorn of all gendered language altogether, such that there’s no clue as to the gender of any given character. But that probably wouldn’t fly in Hollywood at the moment. Everyone would read the scripts filling in male roles in all cases, I expect.

  26. 26
    microraptor

    Another weird thing about Ripley in the first Alien movie is that it’s one of the few cases of there being two female characters in a horror movie and the more feminine of the two was the one who died.

    Aliens, of course, played it straight since Vasquez, being a gung ho marine, was far less feminine than Ripley.

  27. 27
    alexanderz

    Kevin #10:

    That same thing is why female-centered video games fail. They’re underfunded and underadvertised, do crappy, and the studios say “see! Games with women just don’t sell.”

    What do you mean by “female-centered”? If you mean games designed to be “for girls”, then those games fail because everything that is just “for girls” fails – they reduce women to fashion obsessed automatons or something equally ridiculous.

    On the other hand, if you mean games with a woman protagonist, then I’d want to see some research, not because I think your claims are absurd, but rather because there are just so few games with female mains that I’d really want to study the data.
    Regardless, the Portal and Tomb Raider series are very successful, with the former having a woman as a normal human being and the latter gaining their first real critical and financial success when they started to desexualize Lara Croft and turn her into a more rounded character. Games with female mains that I know of that did fail, did so because of just being poorly made. And then there are games that were well received, but their female mains were nothing but cheesecakes. Where do those games fit?

  28. 28
    The Vicar (via Freethoughtblogs)

    24, rwiess

    When I read the author’s biography on-line, I learned she had been fired from a translation job early in her career for making changes in novels to make the women more real.

    And, unless you phrased this badly and it doesn’t mean what it sounds like it means, deservedly so. A translation which deliberately fails to express the author’s intent is a bad translation. It doesn’t matter whether the changes were made with good intentions or not.

  29. 29
    Wes Aaron

    A couple movies that comes to mind for me that the female lead is not the traditional stereotype female in an action movie is Kill Bill, even Red Sonya (have always liked this movie even when I was younger it had an appeal). And these were wrote for females. There have been many action movies where the female has been a strong supporting character without being shallow or easily swayed by emotion. RED (The Falcon was kicking some trash), Avengers (Black Widow didn’t strike me as weak or lesser in her role), Dredd (Judge Anderson is not understated but has a much stronger presence in the comics), X-Men (Storm is considered one of the strongest characters). As for the majority of movies ya the stereotype fits. Sad but true.

  30. 30
    Samuel Vimes

    @NelC; You say: “…there aren’t really a lot of things that a man can say or do that a woman can’t also say or do convincingly, which gets back to the main point that it shouldn’t be that difficult to write women’s roles.”

    That put me in mind of an interview with Olivia Wilde wherein she recounts an exercise in script-reading wherein the male and female roles had been reversed. Starts at 1:35…

  31. 31
    johnmarley

    @NelC (#25)

    Sure, I’m not arguing against the main thesis, just reacting to the “Ripley-is-really-a-man” meme. When you get down to it, there aren’t really a lot of things that a man can say or do that a woman can’t also say or do convincingly, which gets back to the main point that it shouldn’t be that difficult to write women’s roles.

    You seem to be arguing against Esteleth’s point (in comment #8) while saying essentially the same thing.
    Esteleth’s point was that by Ripley originally being written as a man, the character was simply written as a person. “Women’s roles” in screenwriting tend to be written as (superficially) women first and as individuals a distant second (if at all). By the writer(s) only changing the pronouns, Ripley was by default a person first.

  32. 32
    ck

    Kevin, Youhao Huo Mao wrote:

    That same thing is why female-centered video games fail. They’re underfunded and underadvertised, do crappy, and the studios say “see! Games with women just don’t sell.”

    [Warning: This post may contain tvtropes links]
    That’s why earlier games with woman protagonists largely failed (I’m thinking of Beyond Good and Evil, and No One Lives Forever, for example), but current games with woman leads fail for entirely different reasons. Current games by the big publishers can’t produce a woman lead character who isn’t either just fetish fuel/fan service or the designated victim. If they do produce a compelling female lead character, it’s nearly entirely by accident like with the aforementioned FemShep.

  33. 33
    jste

    That’s why earlier games with woman protagonists largely failed (I’m thinking of Beyond Good and Evil, and No One Lives Forever, for example),

    When I first read Kevin’s comment, that game was the first thing that came to mind. I’d never even heard of Beyond Good and Evil. And then one day, in a discussion of female character design in games, someone said “Beyond Good and Evil is an example of a realistically proportioned and sensibly clad woman in a video game” or something to that effect.

    And it’s actually a fantastically good game that deserves a lot more recognition than it ever got (imo).

  34. 34
    Amphiox

    If they do produce a compelling female lead character, it’s nearly entirely by accident like with the aforementioned FemShep.

    If you cleave to the idea that the proper way to produce a compelling female lead character is to produce a compelling lead character, then there was nothing accidental about FemShep, as that was exactly what they set out to do.

    X-Men (Storm is considered one of the strongest characters). As for the majority

    Maybe in the comic, but in the movies Storm was not a character as much as a walking prop/plot device who got no character development whatsoever. They could have replaced her with a weather machine and no one would have noticed.

  35. 35
    The Vicar (via Freethoughtblogs)

    @34, Amphiox:

    They could have replaced her with a weather machine and no one would have noticed.

    “This court finds that women are 3D printers with violent mood swings.” (Alt text for today’s Scenes From A Multiverse.)

  36. 36
    Jackie

    When the writers of You’re Next were asked if they set out to make feminist horror films they answered, “No, we just don’t hate women”.

    Luv it!

  37. 37
    ck

    Amphiox wrote:

    If you cleave to the idea that the proper way to produce a compelling female lead character is to produce a compelling lead character, then there was nothing accidental about FemShep, as that was exactly what they set out to do.

    I get the impression that the selectable sex of the main character was more of a differentiation gimmick rather than a well considered, deliberate decision. If the designers had decided to differentiate themselves in some other way, we probably wouldn’t be talking about the game here, which is why I consider it more of an accident. Saints Row 2, The Third and 4 let you select the sex of your character, as well, but I’m not about to give them many kudos for that, either, especially given how bad the sexism was in #2 and #3.

    On the other hand, games that don’t give you a choice but still do a good job at characterization probably deserve far more credit. Jade from Beyond Good and Evil is generic enough as a character that a new model, voice and pronoun swap could’ve made the protagonist a man instead of woman, but they went with a woman anyway. Kate Archer from No One Lives Forever could only ever be a woman because part of the story is the sexism she encounters with people who refuse to accept that a woman could be an effective spy as they discount her successes and offer excessive blame for even small failures. I guess there’s also Alice from American McGee’s Alice: Madness Returns since she manages to be an interesting character, but the choice of protagonist was limited by the source material in this case. There’s also Terra and Celes from Final Fantasy VI, although the game made them damsels in distress several times throughout the game.

    I think the bigger problem is that I can only name a small handful of compelling characters who happened to be women in even remotely modern games. There are a few faceless characters who incidentally happen to be female (like Samus from Metroid, or Chell from Portal), many more fairly forgettable characters (like the one from Parasite Eve) and loads more that seem to exist as little more than titillation (Bayonetta, Bloodrayne, early Laura Croft). The first two of those categories are often well populated regardless of the sex of the character, but the latter is reserved only for women characters.

  38. 38
    Jen

    Maybe that’s why I love Red so much. Helen Mirren with a 50 caliber machine gun in the first movie, and some kick ass guns in the sequel, is great to see. It’s not just the guys who get to have all the fun for a change.

  39. 39
    CorvusCorax

    I’m not sure if any of you follow the author of SMBC-comics, but he is working on an interesting project. Here’s the preamble:

    I love the old adventure books. I love Robert Louis Stevenson, Henry Rider Haggard, Jules Verne, HG Wells, Lewis Carroll, Rudyard Kipling, and so many more.

    My wife and I recently had a baby girl, and I had a sad thought: Although things are changing, there are still very few adventure books with female leads. There are books with little girls who are smart, sure, but there are practically no books about little girls who are smart, and scientific, and (here’s the crucial thing) risk-taking.

    The bad news is that the Kickstarter campaign is over. The good news is that it raised 10X its goal!
    It might be something to keep an eye out for once its published. I know I’m getting a copy for each of my nephews.

    https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/weiner/augie-and-the-green-knight-a-childrens-adventure-b/

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