In which I try to fix Hollywood

New York Times film critic Manhola Dargis had an interesting piece in yesterday’s paper about the state of movies carried by a leading female role. This is an issue I talk/rant/complain about a lot, so it’s always nice to see it addressed by someone with an actual platform. However, as usual, I sort of think the issue is being simplified. She basically says: 1) there are way fewer good roles for actresses than for actors, especially in summer movies; 2) if a few female-centric movies don’t do well, studio heads give up on them; 3) the success of movies like Baby Mama and The Devil Wears Prada proves that women will go to female-centric movies if they’re not talked down to. For me, most of this is “duh” territory. It gives a broad picture of the problem without getting into why the problem exists or how to solve it. So let’s talk about that.

First, everyone needs to admit that there are actual valid reasons beyond “chicks don’t sell tickets” that cause such a skewed ratio of male to female roles. The fact is, there are a lot of really interesting scenarios for films that just don’t leave much room for women. War movies of any sort, movies about the mob, epics based on book series like The Lord of the Rings, anything dealing with historical court cases or politics, even anything to do with contemporary politics—these, and any number of others, all take place in already established realms that are heavily populated by males. You can have a token woman here or there, but the ratio remains in favor of the boys. Unless we want to go back in time and rewrite history so that women were allowed to get in on more of the violent, life-or-death stuff we love so much, or at least ask J.R.R. Tolkien to throw in a few more skirts, the problem stands.

Second, we need to think about the role of the “star” in Hollywood, and how those stars get made. Dargis talks about the recent disappointing box office takes for movies starring Sandra Bullock (Premonition), Hillary Swank (The Reaping) and Jodie Foster (The Brave One), and how studio heads use this sort of info to justify not greenlighting more movies with a female main character. She’s got a great point, but I think she misses a chance to call out the studios on why that logic is flawed: putting aside the fact that at least two of these movies looked awful and I’m guessing the actresses took part mostly for lack of anything better to film, it’s just not fair to pick out samples like this and use them for this type of evidence. Most movies don’t make much of a profit at the box office. Studios bank on ongoing revenue from DVD rentals and sales and eventual runs on network TV, and they hope to have a couple of films a year that are true blockbusters and boost their overall numbers. Just because not every non-romantic-comedy, female-centric movie is an Alien or a Million Dollar Baby doesn’t mean the next one isn’t right around the corner. Will Ferrell’s made a couple of underperformers lately, does that mean we won’t be seeing much of him anymore? No, because that would be stupid. The hope that his next movie will be another Anchorman far outweighs the fear that it will be another Semi-Pro. The same could be said about a lot of other actors: Ben Stiller, Vin Diesel, hell, even Ben Affleck. In Hollywood, writing something off completely is rarely a good idea. If it’s worked before, it will probably work again.

So, besides being nice to the female stars they’ve already got, Hollywood also needs to start manufacturing more of them. Other than throwing an attractive unknown into a high-profile starring role and hoping she sticks it, or importing someone from TV (which provides far more quality roles for women than movies do), there’s one path to film stardom that I think could easily help create a few more bankable female actors that is woefully underused. Frankly, I put a lot of blame on the writers. Here it is, my grand, crazy plan: how about a few more female supporting roles?

“Whaaaaa?” says Hollywood. “You mean that quirky waiter who causes the hero so much grief in a few brief but hilarious scenes of our movie could actually be a quirky waitress, and the movie would still work? And perhaps she could then parlay that scene-stealing role into solid fan appeal that could then make us money? And plenty of male stars have done just that sort of thing? Hmmmm…”

Watching the average Hollywood movie, it’s obvious that writers default to male for those sorts of small but career-building supporting roles that really could be cast gender blind. A cop pulls your hero over while he’s high and puts into motion a hilarious series of events? A doctor gives your hero bad news and then treats him for his problem? Your hero interviews for a job with a humorless executive and keeps putting his foot in his mouth? All of these roles could go to women, but it seems like they rarely do. If a character isn’t sexualized in some way, it defaults to male. And that’s just silly. It’s also a much more fixable problem than the whole women-weren’t-Spartans one.

So I’m calling on writers to be the beginning of the attempt to improve the pathetic ratio of male to female roles in Hollywood. Some screenwriters might be able to write a movie about the Revolutionary War or the Watergate scandal or whatever and pick a new angle that allows more room for female participation. Others should look at their scripts and wonder if they didn’t make some of those characters male just because they didn’t stop to think about it. Some things might get changed along the way as the script becomes a real movie, but it stands to reason that if more female parts were written in those original scripts, more would end up on screen. And I don’t know anyone who’s going to go to the movies less if that happens, no matter what the execs might be scared of.

You can do it, Hollywood. Remember: Ripley was originally supposed to be a man.


9 Responses to “In which I try to fix Hollywood”

  1. 1 Becca May 5, 2008 at 1:27 pm


    Best post yet.

    And the habit extends beyond just defaulting to male over female. Roles tend to default to young-to-middle-aged straight white male unless there is some plot hook or joke requiring Asian/gay/little person/accent/very old/fat, etc.

    Your example of the waiter reminds me of Jack McBrayer (forgive the young white male example, but what else is there to pull from?) as Gob’s waiter boss from the day he accidentally worked a day in his life on AD. McBrayer has never bothered to drop his Southern accent, and rather than being distracting, it helped me place him from yea those many years ago when he was still at Second City and we saw him speak at the UW. So throughout the trajectory of Second City-AD-30 Rock, I’ve been one of those fans you talk about.

    Now, let’s just get some more broads following that same path with similar success and we’ll be set.

  2. 2 Becca May 5, 2008 at 1:29 pm

    PS: Though I was glad to see her piece getting time on the mid-page banner of the NY Times site, I think you nailed the issue much better than Manhola. You should adapt this into a Letter to the Editor!

  3. 3 patty May 6, 2008 at 12:59 pm

    seriously, brandi, you really should be in charge of hollywood. very well said.

  4. 4 patty May 6, 2008 at 1:00 pm

    ps – whoa! we’re so pretty and geometrical!

  5. 5 Brandi Sperry May 6, 2008 at 1:23 pm

    Yeah that’s new, huh? I guess I have options now for what the icons look like.

  6. 6 Brandi Sperry May 6, 2008 at 1:27 pm

    I made you guys into monsters! You’re so cute now!

  7. 7 Carly May 7, 2008 at 11:41 am

    i have loved the way you’re calling out the ridiculous good-old-boy defaults these days. it’s a retarded, outdated form of green-lighting that lacks imagination and makes the entertainment less entertaining.

    but i do think there are some pretty rich sources for historical stories featuring women that remain untapped. i thought both HBO’s Rome and Showtime’s The Tudors managed better-than-most, if definitely sex-heavy and fairly trashy, inclusion of women in the political scene. HBO in general gets a thumbs-up from me, if not way up, for featuring writing that includes charismatic, integral female characters – Carmella Soprano, anyone?

    but seriously. no Catherine the Great biopic? Elizabeth Taylor’s going to be our only Cleopatra? our history textbooks may not be full of interesting, aggressive, in-the-action women, but that doesn’t mean history isn’t.*

    *i am NOT advocating for a long shot of barbarella-bedecked lady-warriors. merely pointing out that there are untapped lady-stories throughout the ages.

  8. 8 Carly May 7, 2008 at 11:41 am

    oh my goodness i love monster-me!

  9. 9 patty May 12, 2008 at 9:29 am

    yes, nice choice with the monsters, brandi. i have wings!

    and i would totally watch a good updated film on cleopatra. brandi, make hollywood get on that, will you?

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