Hilary Swank's latest film, Amelia, is currently taking quite a critical drubbing, bad news for the film, and, as Ann Hornaday explores in today's Washington Post, for the increasingly small pool of strong female roles for women in Hollywood.
Hornaday argues that Amelia's box office results will essentially be a failure either way: "If 'Amelia' earns respectable receipts," Hornaday writes, "chances are it will be dismissed as a lucky break. If it fails, it will be cited as yet more proof that strong female protagonists are box office poison."
While fluffy romantic comedies and films based on television shows are still successful, due to excellent cross-promotion, branding, and the offer of escapism, Hornaday still wonders: "In an era when women in movies fall along a spectrum defined by Hannah Montana and 'Twilight' on one end and 'Sex and the City' and 'Mamma Mia!' on the other, where are the screen heroines of yesteryear, who could be strong, serious and sexy?"
She answers her own question later in the piece, conceding that television has become the home for dramas and the actresses who shine in them: Glenn Close, Holly Hunter, Kyra Sedgwick, Mary-Louise Parker, and Sally Field, just to name a few, have found success on the small screen, starring in quality shows that provide them with a chance to play something other than "someone's mom," or "woman who stands looking shocked while giant robots attack the earth."
The shift of dramas from film to television, and the failture of Hollywood to properly market to women are at the heart of Hornaday's piece, and judging by the slightly depressing insights she receives from Hollywood insiders, it doesn't look like dramas are going to shift back to the silver screen anytime soon. Big budget blockbusters, superhero films, and bromance comedies are the money makers, and Hollywood is eager to cash in while it can. A film like Amelia, unfortunately, isn't going to be the turn around needed to push strong female characters back onto the big screen, and part of the reason, according to the critics, anyway, is that the movie just isn't that good.
Paul Dergarabedian of Hollywood.com makes an interesting argument in Hornaday's piece, noting that women prefer films about shoes and vampires as they provide an excuse for a "Girl's Night Out" of sorts; silly, somewhat mindless entertainment that includes two hours of social bonding time with the ticket price. He has a point, I suppose, though one wishes it didn't take sparkly vampires or women waxing poetic about handbags and idiotic boyfriends in order to get women interested in seeing films together. It all comes back to escapism, I suppose; as Dergarabedian notes in a somewhat cringe-worthy quote: "It's almost as if in real life, women want to be empowered and in control, but on-screen they seem to like the old-fashioned damsel-in-distress, love-struck female."
I'll admit that I don't go to the movies as often as I used to; I typically go for an "event" film or for a comedy, as it's hard, at times, to justify dropping $10 on a ticket to a mediocre film that will most likely be out on DVD three weeks later. The loss of strong females on the big screen has turned movies, for me, anyway, into pure escapism: I go to laugh or to watch superheroes run around. Television, on the other hand, is where I turn for quality dramas; I'd much rather stay in on a Sunday night and watch Mad Men than drop ten bucks on the latest hooker-victim-doormat flick playing down the street.
I feel simultaneously guilty and frustrated by this: I should be spending more money in support of films that feature strong women as leads, but at the same time, those films are hard to find. I'm not sure I agree with Dergarabedian's claim that women are looking for "the old-fashioned damsel-in-distress," as much as they are, perhaps, looking for a happy ending to offset the often gloomy realities of the world. I suppose the only silver lining at this point is that those of us who leave the theater in search of something more than "happily ever after," can easily find it waiting for us at home, on our television sets.