Strong women, weak box office

Why are movies with tough female protagonists, like "Amelia," tanking so badly these days?

Published October 26, 2009 1:27PM (EDT)

In this weekend's Washington Post, Ann Hornaday questions whether Hollywood is through with “strong women.” She notes both the reluctance of movie executives to invest in movies with empowering female leads and women's apparent unwillingness to pay for movies that are meant to empower them -- the "Whip Its" and "Jennifer's Bodies" of the cineplex -- and cites "Amelia," the just-released Earhart biopic, as an example of the dilemma facing the strong-heroine genre: "If 'Amelia' earns respectable receipts, 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."

"Amelia" has failed, as it happens. But if you want to know why, it might be more informative to watch the trailer. Every shot is burnished to a monotonous gold, there are period costumes and a booming score, and every other line out of Hilary Swank's mouth is something about freedom or overcoming obstacles or believing in dreams. (“It can't be done!” “Let's change that!” “No one has made it!” “I will!”) No matter how much you like strong female characters, this isn't interesting. And I'm reluctant to see any movie that looks this predictable and obvious out of some kind of womanly obligation. “Strength” can be just as bland as anything else – and just as limiting.

It's disappointing that more daring movies like "Jennifer's Body" and "Whip It" have done poorly. And of course women deserve roles better than the beautiful girlfriend-bots they're all too often assigned to play. But what irks me is the assumption that women should be seeing movies with “strong female protagonists,” whether or not they want to, because those movies are good for them. Hornaday has a note of condescension in her voice when she points out that women are going for romantic comedies like "The Proposal" or "Sex and the City" rather than dramas. Of "Amelia," she writes, “No Manolo Blahniks! No Abba! No vampires!” Yes, but: No good reviews, either!

Women are buying movie tickets and shaping the marketplace. They're just steering it toward escapism. People have always gone to the movies to enjoy fantasy, but in a collapsing economy, people want to distract themselves that much more. Horror movies, much-beloved by women, are also doing well right now ("Paranormal Activity" and "Saw VI" topped the box office this weekend) – and horror movies are often stories about women triumphing over adversity, though they forgo noble speeches in favor of gory catharsis. Much as some might like to drag women out of their chosen theaters and make them see inspirational tales of female fortitude about women long dead, that's not what they've decided they need. And we've earned the right to make up our own minds.



By Sady Doyle

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