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Katniss and Merida—Year of the Heroic Archer?


Having consulted Geena Davis, who has played her share of strong female characters, the author asks, are two successful female-driven action movies released in one year a sign of good times to come for heroic women on screen?

Starring in “Thelma & Louise” made a big impact on her life, says Geena Davis. "It made me realize how few opportunities we give women to feel like that coming out of a movie, to really feel inspired and adrenalized by the female characters that they see.”

Our tendency to jump for joy when a movie featuring a strong, independent female lead sees commercial success shows what a novelty it still is. When I spoke to Davis earlier this year, she had some ideas why.

Male-led movies are never identified as such—they’re just ‘movies’—whereas throughout her career Davis has encountered “this problem of films starring women being considered to be a one off.” Davis does, however, see some hope on the horizon in the form of two hugely successful female-led movies released in 2012. Earlier this year “The Hunger Games,” a film based upon the book following fearless archer Katniss Everdeen through a bloody battle to the death, grossed $460 million in its first three weeks. “I loved it,” Davis says of the film. “It’s so gender balanced. Which is a rarity.”

An Olympic archer herself, Davis was also excited about the potential of “Brave”—which was yet to be released when we spoke, but which came in first at North American theaters its first weekend, taking in about $66.7 million, and garnered a still strong $34 million in its second. “Brave” also focuses on a strong, independent bow-and-arrow toting female lead. Two films with great, heroic female leads in one year? Perhaps things are finally changing.

Not so fast, though. Recent big name movies may appear to be evidence of long awaited change, but over the years, most such films turn out to have been tokenistic nods to female audiences. And we’re expected to feel grateful and automatically throw our weight behind any film starring women. Actress and comedienne Kathy Burke made the controversial statement last week “I hated [“Bridesmaids”]. It’s like ‘Oh right, so we’ve got to invest in these women because that one’s more bitchy than this one?’” The uncomfortable issues raised by “The Help” also implied black women weren’t exactly thrilled to see themselves represented in a starring role only on the proviso of playing the subordinate to rich white women.

Even when movies do make strides in portraying women realistically and positively, and make box office gains too, Hollywood executives are still wont to disregard female viewers in order to return focus to the ‘real’ audience—men. Davis describes how “Thelma and Louise,” one of her best known films, was a great example of this. “There was massive reaction in press” she recalls of the movie’s 1991 release, “and a lot of the media said ‘well, now there’s going to be so many female buddy pictures, and female road pictures’, but… there were none!” Davis recounts how she had seen this pattern continue throughout her career, next with “A League of Their Own,” a film centred around a women’s softball team—lo and behold, “People said ‘well, now there’s going to be so many female sports movies’—there were none!” Davis laughs ruefully.

The pattern, Davis says, has continued over the years, with various female-led films—“First Wives Club,” “Mamma Mia,” “Sex And The City”—being cited as the start of a wave of change that never materialised. Unfortunately, she says, this has led her to become sceptical: “I was reading this last year about ‘Well, now, between “The Help” and “Bridesmaids,” everything has changed.’” Her reaction? “Hmmm, yeah, we’ll see about that.”

The very fact that female-centred movies gaining commercial success is still seen as worthy of comment is evidence that we are a long way from viewing gender parity in film as the norm. Nowhere is this more evident than in research conducted by Davis’s Media Institute, which found that 30 percent of speaking characters in family movies were female, with 70 percent of speaking roles going to male characters. With statistics like this, is it any wonder the media leaps upon any female-led movies as evidence of a new zeitgeist when, as Davis points out, it’s more likely to be a flash in the pan?

But surely the fact that “Brave” is bringing both boys and girls in their droves to the movie theater is a positive step? Undoubtedly. However, I’m going to reserve judgment on how much progress this signifies until there’s a third, fourth and fifth female-led movie this year—and one that focuses on something other than marriage, babies or women undermining each other. That one commentator could speculate the heroine of “Brave” must be a lesbian because she doesn’t conform to outdated gender stereotypes shows that some still subscribe to the idea that a woman can’t behave heroically unless there’s an exceptional reason why. “Brave” and “The Hunger Games” depict strong female protagonists fantastically, but there is always the concern that, as Davis puts it, Hollywood will then turn around and dismiss their success, saying in effect, “Don’t trust it. It might just be a one off, and we have to stick to our formula of catering to the male audience, because the women will come anyway.” So I will wait for the next decent heroine to join Katniss and Merida, and see how long she takes to materialise.

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