Movie Studios Are Finally Cashing in on Female Protagonists

A slew, a cavalcade, a veritable quiver of lady-driven movies have come out over the last few years, and this exciting fact has led some observers to wonder if, perhaps, the era of the female action hero is upon us. Could it be? Have we grown weary of the steely-eyed, vein-choked action hero who kills Communists without prejudice and somehow manages to outrun the blast radius of a nuclear warhead set to a thirty-second timer (this, btw, happened in the last installment of Rambo)? The answer, according to USA Today's Susan Wloszcyna, is, sure, maybe.

Wloszcyna writes about the most recent box-office surge in the woman ass-kicker genre, citing the record-setting success of The Hunger Games and the big-screen reappearance of Lisbeth Salander. Though movies used to oscillate, according to Wloszcyna, between the "seductive supervixen" (Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider) or the "macho tomboy" (Keira Knightley in Domino), they now feature a new breed of complex, fully-wrought female protagonists. (Sigourney Weaver's Ripley and Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor are footnotes in all this, though it should be noted that they're both exceptional cinematic badasses.)

Ever since Rooney Mara's compelling portrait of flawed goth-chic hacker Lisbeth Salander led to her Academy Award nomination in last fall's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (whose arrival was preceded by that kid-sisterhood of Kick-Ass, Hanna and True Grit), there has been a steady stream of films featuring a more evolved species of female combatant, one who doesn't feel compelled to compromise her gender identity while taking care of business.

It's not just action movies either than are pushing women to forefront. Box-office successes like The Help or The Devil Wears Prada have also keyed studios in on the fact that there exists a market for blockbusters beyond the playpen of 18 to 34-year-old men. Jeanine Basinger, head of Wesleyan University's film department says that while this should come as no surprise (Titanic, after all, rose to box-office legend on the strength of its female audience), movies such as The Hunger Games are starting to capitalize on a whole generation of girls who grew up immersed in the pages of YA fiction much the same way that dude-geeks latched onto comic books.

Female movie protagonists, in other words, are becoming more complex because they're having to please female audiences who've come to expect nothing less than fully-wrought characters (obviously). The problem with all this excitement about female protagonists, however, is that it seems a little premature. Sure, The Hunger Games was huge, but The Avengers was bigger, and, moreover, it was part of a yet another summer catalogue of comic-book movies featuring male heroes front and center. A mega-hit doesn't necessarily change the Hollywood formula and, besides, most of the other movies Wloszcyna parades out as proof of a protagonistic shift either weren't big hits or only featured women in supporting roles. Hanna and Haywire, for instance, only made little ripples at the box-office, while True Grit's heroine had to ultimately be rescued by a boozy cowboy.

Maybe, though, people are starting to feel like the male action hero is running out of shit to break with his fists. The Expendables 2 will feature an ensemble cast of men who reached their action-prime two decades ago, and the only interesting thing about The Dark Knight Rises, according to some film critics, is Anne Hathaway's Catwoman. The New Yorker's curmudgeonly film critic Anthony Lane writes of Hathaway that "her expression is that of a grown woman who surveys all of these sombre boys, plus their whizzing toys, and sees only Bat-crap." She's out of place, according to Lane, and that may just mean that our leading men are out of interesting things to do and that it's time, at least where the blockbuster-making formula is concerned, to let the women take over.

Film females join the fight club [USA Today]