2013 was a banner year for women on the big screen. The Sandra Bullock-starrer Gravity pulled in more box-office bucks than Man Of Steel. Jennifer Lawrence’s The Hunger Games: Catching Fire set booking lines alight, and the Kristen Bell-led Frozen melted cash registers around the world. Then there was The Heat – a buddy cop film starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, written by Katie Dippold – which raked in $230 million dollars.
On the face of it, these are very different movies, but they have two things in common. Firstly, they give us strong portrayals of well-written female characters in the main, lead role. These are not women as fantasized by men – facilitating the accepted order of things within a patriarchy – these are women as human beings. Secondly, they did well – very well. Individually, they were huge box office successes, and collectively they proved that cinema audiences desire a more balanced approach to gender in film.
The achievement here is not that audiences embraced these films, but that Hollywood finally caught up to reality. The cultural shift that is taking place is one of perception – female-led films are very often successful in financial terms, but are generally considered ‘flukes.’ This inaccurate view has long been disseminated throughout the media, as cinematic commentators perpetuate the attitude of condescension, gasping “Look at this film! It’s doing so well, even though it’s about girls!”
This prejudiced perception of female-led film projects has, in the past, actually lent itself to the success of these films. The expectation of failure means that budgets are often lower, so when they do well at the box office, they do very well indeed. Consider Mamma Mia! On paper, it is a bizarre-sounding musical film, featuring a contrived plot wound around the music of the 70s pop group, Abba. Made for just $52 million, however, investors were most pleased with box office takings in excess of $600 million. Bridesmaids received a budget of just $32.5 million, as backers attempted to mitigate the risk posed by the untested Kristen Wiig – who had neither written nor led a feature film before. It made over $288 million. Even way back in 1979, when Ridley Scott kicked off what would become his decades-long franchise with Alien, he made that masterpiece with $11 million – small-change in today’s economy. The reason Ellen Ripley got to go to space again? She helped rake in over $104 million – and if $11 million was a lot of money in the 1970s, $104 million was a windfall.