Having a female lead in a film is nothing new, but I think most critics and moviegoers would agree that the scales are tipped rather favorably to male leads. And while this is likely to continue, it is clear that young adult adaptations have introduced profitable big budget female leads to the Hollywood zeitgeist.
There are many classic films with strong female leading characters: Gone With the Wind, Wizard of Oz, and even films as recent as Alien or Silence of the Lambs. However, a quick examination of the IMDB top 250 shows us that roughly 21 of the 250 films feature females as the main character, with an additional 14 of them sharing the lead with a male co-star. This is fairly indicative of the films we receive year to year; the marketplace is highly saturated with male leads.
Back in February, Olivia Wilde commented on a gender swapped reading of the film, American Pie, and hit the nail on the head.
It was fascinating to feel their discomfort [and] to discuss it with them afterward, when they said, "It's boring to play the girl role!" And I said, "Yeah. Yeah. You think? Welcome to our world! -via Hillary Crosley at Jezebel
Plain and simple, female actors aren’t seeing the same kind of roles as males.
With litmus tests provided by those like Alison Bechdel, we are given a few tools with which to critique a film’s representation of women. But critics power over how Hollywood saturates the marketplace seems to be something of constant debate.
Taking a step back, let’s look first at the top ten highest grossing films of all time:
- 1. Avatar
- 2. Titanic
- 3. The Avengers
- 4. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
- 5. Frozen
- 6. Iron Man 3
- 7. Transformers: Dark of the Moon
- 8. the Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
- 9. Skyfall
- 10. Transformers: Age of Extinction.
One of those films has two main female characters. Arguably, Titanic is a shared lead. But let’s also look at these years in past three decades: 2014, 2004, 1994, and 1984.
In 1984: the top 5 highest grossing films were: Beverly Hills Cop, Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Gremlins, and The Karate Kid. Zero female leads.
In 1994: Forrest Gump, The Lion King, True Lies, The Santa Clause, and The FIintstones. One shared female lead (Flintstones).
In 2004: Shrek 2, Spiderman 2, The Passion of the Christ, Meet the Fockers, and The Incredibles. For the sake of argument let's say that despite her integral role in Shrek 2, Fiona still shares the lead with Shrek, and The Incredibles is an ensemble.
In 2014: Guardians of the Galaxy, Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Lego Movie and Transformers: Age of Extinction. One female lead film.
Couple the success of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 with last year’s Frozen, and the added fact that the sixth highest grossing film in 2014 is Maleficent, we see a trend starting. A trend towards higher grossing films with female leads.
Young Adult Books to Movies
Back in 2001, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone became the number one highest grossing film of the year, both domestically and worldwide. In many ways, this opened the floodgates for films that are based on young adult novels. Since then, we’ve had such franchises as A Series of Unfortunate Events, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Twilight, Percy Jackson, The Hunger Games, Divergent and a host of other films that have not yet gotten a sequel.
The Harry Potter franchise may have kickstarted this trend in adaptations, however since then we’ve seen a shift in focus of these films to feature female leads. While over-saturating the market with YA adaptations is debatable, its influence on what films are being greenlit cannot be denied.
Jennifer Lawrence and the Hunger Games franchise not only reached the top 5 this year, but is the number 2 highest grossing film, behind only Guardians of the Galaxy. This may be repeated next year when The Hunger Games franchise reaches its end with Mockingjay: Part 2, and could even then be continued by other franchises that are just beginning their run.
Point being, that in the foreseeable future, we will have female helmed films topping box office charts via young adult novel adaptations. To studio execs this demonstrates that it isn’t just worth putting a strong female lead in a romantic comedy or drama, but also in big budget blockbusters.
In the end, studios will invest money in projects they will find to be most profitable, and while female leads are strong within the YA genre, they are beginning to leak into the superhero genre as well. Hopefully this means we’ll see the rise of female leads in all genres, so that both sexes might be equally represented on screen.
What do you think? Personally I want to see more Ellen Ripleys.
For more discussion on film check out The Zach and Zack Podcast or follow me on twitter @zgriffin22.