it's just a woman's film

Ripley Saves the GirlThe new Sex in the City movie is out this weekend, in case you haven’t noticed the extensive promotion. In all likelihood I’ll go see it at some point – maybe not the opening weekend. Sex in the City was a show I watched, but often felt ambivalent about its messages. What was enjoyable, however, was the women’s perspective on the world. I’m not even the perfect target demographic: I don’t obsess about makeup, clothes, or shoes. I don’t own anything by Chanel or Manolo Blahnik. Yet, I liked the female dynamic on the show.

So, I go into a slow simmer of anger when I read this article from the Associated Press, which speculates on the success of the film.

You only have to look back two years to “The Devil Wears Prada,” another female-oriented film heavy on fashion (with the same costume designer) and juicy female characters, to find a movie that scored big despite an overwhelmingly female demographic.

But there’s a difference: “Prada” was rated PG-13, whereas “Sex and the City” is rated R, with good reason, as any fan of the series knows. That will severely limit the teen audience (those under 17 must be accompanied by a parent or guardian).

“This movie really will be a paternity test for R-rated female-driven romantic comedies,” said analyst Jeff Bock of box office tracker Reel Source. “There haven’t been a lot of movies like this.” Bock predicts the movie will have a strong opening weekend, then a big drop-off. “There’s no getting around that this is a film oriented to women and gay men,” he said. “It will be very hard to get past that, especially with a lot of testosterone-driven films out there this summer.

(My italics – am I the only one who finds this particular phrasing incredibly telling?)

Yes, because despite the demographic evidence that women constitute at least 50% of the population, and make most of the significant financial decisions in homes, the studio executives don’t know if they can trust women to go to a girlie film when there are all those buff superhero films as an alternative.

In the past few years I have despaired at the paucity of strong or interesting roles for women in feature films. This is a situation that is getting worse, rather than better. At the moment on the big screen women proliferate as secondary characters who must be saved by the hero after being menaced by the villain, or their purpose is as a two-dimensional plot device that propels the hero towards his destiny, or as the funny side-kick, or at the impossibly attractive girl who ends up validating the ego of the nerdy guy. The “chick” films that have traipsed past me recently – and I can’t bring myself to watch them – are either centred on weddings or finding the perfect man. Of course there are a couple of exceptions, but otherwise tumbleweeds are bouncing along the desert landscape that is women’s films.

I’m not the only one who has noticed. Manohla Dargis writing in the New York Times a few weeks back asked “Is There a Real Woman in This Multiplex?” She pointed out: “Last year only 3 of the 20 highest-grossing releases in America were female-driven, and involve a princess (“Enchanted”) or pregnancy (“Knocked Up” and “Juno”).”

Women want to see themselves in films. Therefore, even films that laud the 1950s status quo about women’s aspirations (27 Dresses) will get an audience, because there is so little out there aimed at a female audience. Would it be too much to ask for a decent story and three-dimensional characters too?

Women will watch and enjoy films that are dominated by male actors because those films are properly financed and well-crafted, and the hero’s journey is privileged in our society as the important story to tell. We all respond to that kind of movie because we are conditioned to do so – partly because there have been so few alternatives for women.

At the end of her article Dargis says:

Among the pleasures of the movies are the new worlds they open up, but there are pleasures in the familiar too, like seeing other women bigger, badder and more beautiful than life. And whether it?s Sigourney Weaver in “Alien,” Rosario Dawson in “Death Proof” or Meryl Streep in whatever, I am there. The black filmmaker Tyler Perry has built his success partly on the truth that when audiences look up at the screen what they want to see are faces much like their own. In 2008, when a white woman and a black man are running for president and attracting unprecedented numbers of voters partly because they are giving a face to the wildly under-represented, you might think that Hollywood would get a clue.

Nah.

Ripley Saves the GirlI suspect that women around the world are examining the list of films coming out soon and are appalled at the representation being offered. It might explain the articles appearing about this very subject. Such as the recent piece in the LA Times about the dearth of female directors in Hollywood. Incredibly, it still hovers at a paltry 6%. Here’s another nugget: “According to Media by Numbers, all 30 of the 30 top-grossing films from last summer were directed by men. According to my informal survey of major studio films from this summer, only two — “Mamma Mia!” and “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2″ — are directed by women.”

What made me grind my teeth while reading the piece was the implication that women simply aren’t interested in directing a summer action blockbuster (someone better inform Kathryn Bigelow about her trespass on male territory).

What really puts female directors behind the eight ball is that the film genres studios are most eager to make — rowdy guy comedies, horror and superhero films — are rarely of interest to women. “No one would dream of hiring Nora Ephron or Sofia Coppola for the new James Bond movie, but then again, why would they be interested?” says Terry Press, the veteran studio marketer.

You’d think some studio chief would have approached Hardwicke, who makes movies about teenagers, but she’s never been asked. “I’ve worked as an animator and an architect — I’d love to do a superhero movie where you could create a whole new universe. I wouldn’t say I’ve been shut down, but no one’s been offering me the next ‘Narnia’ either.”

There you have it. Women are not on the shortlist when studio executives are looking to hire a director for a summer flick. And the excuse that women aren’t interested in directing these films really pisses me off. What, women aren’t interested in landing a challenging and top-dollar project? Women don’t want the prestigious jobs? Women are best suited to low-budget touchie-feelie Indie flicks?

Oh yes, I’ve heard that argument before: stay in the kitchen girls, within your safe domestic sphere, and leave the epics to the boys who can handle the pressure.

That’s it, I’m writing my action blockbuster film this summer. Which features a woman as the central character.