1939 is known as one of the greatest years in motion picture history. The biggest blockbuster didn’t arrive until December 15 but it was about a young southern woman fighting to keep her family farm among war and romances. Gone with the Wind was the highest grossing film for decades and is still argued to be the champion when adjusted for inflation or actual audience members. Also, in the top ten for that year was the Wizard of Oz about a girl befriending odd creatures and defeating two witches. Shirley Temple released the last of her hugely successful films, The Little Princess. Some theatres were even still showing Walt Disney’s feature length debut from 1937, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. There was no talk about how these films would be received by men and no pressure to downplay the main female characters. So, how is it that in 2015, only three of the top twenty box office hits of all time revolve around women and one only counts because “because Grandpa said all the dinosaurs were girls”?
In 1941, the United States entered World War II. During the war, social norms and rules were relaxed. Women were not only allowed to work but encouraged to help their country and boost everyone’s morale. When the fighting was over and the men returned, everything was expected to go back to the way it was but the rubber band could not simply snap back into place. It had been loosened too far. Women wanted rights outside of the home. People of color and other sexualities wanted police to leave them alone. Hollywood reflected that as films became overwhelmingly male. Women were relegated to animated musicals or the love interest. Disney did continue to keep women in the starring roles, whether a live-action family film or animated feature. Other races or sexual orientation were virtually non-existent.
After Walt Disney died, things got even worse, not even the company he left behind was making films about females. Then, two new hot-shot directors, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, proved how much money you could make by creating movies about men for other men. The fact that any women liked them as well seemed to be nothing more than an anecdotal remark. All the film companies wanted their own Jaws, Star Wars or Indiana Jones. For thirty years, until 1989, Disney didn’t have a single new princess film. With a few exceptions, musicals were banished to Broadway so women were allowed to have comedies that became more and more about romance than progressing in their career or having professional triumphs.
In 2010, things began to shift again. The top grossing films for that year include Alice in Wonderland, Twilight Saga: Eclipse and Tangled. All three films revolve around female protagonists who have action scenes. Since then, each year has had at least one film in the top ten about a female lead who can do battle just as easily or more so than sewing or cleaning.
In the past twelves months, audiences have been flocking to Maleficent, Lucy, Gone Girl, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 1, The Divergent Series: Insurgent, Home, Mad Max and Tomorrowland. So, apart from the sequels to previous successful films starring women, where are the new projects? Why aren’t these actresses scooped up to helm new franchises in the same way that Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger or Bruce Willis were back in their heydays?
Angelina Jolie was the lone exception: an actress able to parlay starring in a successful action film to multiple roles not related to each other. However, after Lucy, film productions have also been wooing Scarlett Johansson. She’s been linked with everything from The Creature from the Black Lagoon to Ghost in the Shell to a Hillary Clinton biopic. This only serves to highlight Disney’s odd hesitance. As mentioned before, Disney gave up on princesses for thirty years. They also kept the idea that women could only star in comedies. The first three films of the Pirates of the Caribbean series revolve around the Hero’s Journey of Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) but for marketing and merchandise purposes, the films star Johnny Depp. Enchanted was treated like an anomaly especially when The Princess and the Frog failed to live up to expectations. The problem with The Princess and the Frog‘s mediocre success is that everything gets de-constructed to know what not to do next time. This boils down to two things:
1. Always make sure a Caucasian is the main star.
2. Never push the princess angle again or anything that might turn boys off.
Rapunzel was renamed Tangled and The Ice Queen became Frozen. Then, Frozen made 1.3 billion dollars just from attendance and most of those ticket buyers ticket buyers didn’t have the Y chromosome. The film’s success allowed a slightly more feminine touch to the marketing for Maleficent and Cinderella. However, there are still no plans for a film to star a person of color until the animated Moana in late 2016. She will be a Pacific Islander.
The history of Disney having one setback and refusing to try something ever again, or at least waiting at least seven years, doesn’t bode well for future live action endeavours. Since Tomorrowland underperformed, Maleficent‘s success might be placed entirely on Jolie’s shoulders. As Tomorrowland starred two strong females who could fight with various abilities and skill levels, it is very likely that they will blame the lack of audience on having a female lead for a family action film. This was the first time that Disney had a live action family film with stunts, guns and explosions starring a female since…ever. It now seems very plausible that aside from sequels and live action remakes, like Mulan, audiences won’t be seeing another Disney live action film starring a woman in an action role until Captain Marvel in late 2018. While Star Wars: Rogue One was initially announced as the first Star Wars film to have a female lead, it’s become more and more of an ensemble film, more like Ocean’s 11 than Lucy or Salt. The failure also gives more ammunition to Marvel CEO, Ike Perlmutter, who refuses to make a Black Widow film starring Scarlett Johansson.
Men are forgiven if they have one action film flop but women have to have TEN box office hits and still put up with people bringing up Catwoman to prove why there shouldn’t be films starring them.
It needs to change and it is changing slowly, but maybe everyone needs to do their part by supporting films with their money, their social media and kickstarter campaigns to make it change better and faster.
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