“I don’t want to give spoilers, but there will be more female characters and more female stuff.”
That’s Lego Movie co-director Chris Miller talking to the BBC last week, along with creative partner Phil Lord, about their plans for the upcoming sequel to their 2014 film. And while on the surface, that statement seems promising—the movies could always use more female characters who actually do stuff, female or otherwise—the context and phrasing give it troubling mercenary undertones.
Lord and Miller say the right things in the interview, namely, “It’s important to us that the movie plays broadly and that we inspire young women as much as we inspire young men.” But Lord’s reasoning for that decision—“You can feel that the whole movie culture is now starting to wake up to the fact that half the audience are women… Frozen is reflective of that”—speaks to the increasingly troubling trend of “womaning up” mainstream projects, in hopes of riding a cool new wave of female empowerment. And while Miller’s terrible phrasing was likely unintentional, “female stuff” reduces the inclusion of women and stories that speak to them down to a gimmick, something to be grafted onto a project to expand its potential consumer base.
It bears mentioning that Lord and Miller almost certainly have their hearts in the right place, as does, presumably, Paul Feig, who recently officially confirmed the long-gestating rumor of a “female Ghostbusters,” directed by him and co-written by Katie Dippold, screenwriter on his film The Heat. Feig has established a solid track record of working with women on movies chockablock with “female stuff,” namely Bridesmaids and The Heat. Both of those films were among the top 20 highest-grossing releases of their release years, and both incited a lot of chatter about the box-office potential of film projects driven by women. So it makes sense that Feig would want to return to that model for a project that many people felt didn’t need to be taken on in the first place. Turning the oft-derided idea of an extremely belated Ghostbusters sequel into a “female Ghostbusters” reboot turns what seems like a bad idea into an intriguing conversation piece.
The problem is, the announcement of a female Ghostbusters sans any confirmed cast members or a script appears to be based entirely in the movie-news hype cycle, rather than the project itself. A Ghostbusters movie starring a bunch of funny women could absolutely be great—I hope it is—but at this point, it’s nothing more than a logline, a pitch for a movie that doesn’t yet exist. And it did get people excited about the project, and talking about the movie’s potential. (That includes us.) But the mere promise of “female stuff” in a movie that’s at least a year away isn’t advancement, it’s advertising. It’s a way to get people considering a movie as a concept rather than an actual product, which turns the inclusion of female characters and filmmakers in a movie into nothing more than a stunt.
Nowhere has this approach been more blatant or transparent than in the superhero-movie universe, namely Warner Bros.’ stated objective of securing a woman to helm DC’s first foray into a woman-led superhero film, 2017’s Wonder Woman. Again, the idea is promising on the surface: Female directors are almost never entrusted with multimillion-dollar franchises, and such a project would be a boon both to the director who’s eventually chosen, and to the overall visibility of women in film. But there’s a whiff of tokenism around the idea that the company’s first lady superhero movie needs a lady director—not one specific lady director, just any lady director—to properly realize Wonder Woman for the big screen. Think of it this way: What if Marvel put out a statement that it was searching for a black director for Black Panther? Would that be seen as an achievement for the industry, or blatant pandering?
There’s sound reasoning to the idea that a woman behind the camera would do better by the character than a man: Wonder Woman is an inherently feminine character, albeit one created by a man, William Moulton Marston, who wanted to see “a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.” She’s also one of the very few high-profile women in a male-dominated field—superheroism—which is something a woman director might have more experience with, and insight about. On the other hand, it’s easy to imagine the outcry that might result if Wonder Woman were put in the hands of a director like, oh, let’s say Sucker Punch director and avowed feminist Zack Snyder—who will actually have first crack at Diana Prince in her first big-screen appearance, in 2016’s Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice. Presumably his version will influence the character’s eventual solo incarnation. Warner Bros.’ announcement that it’s looking for a woman specifically to direct the film feels more like an attempt to head off those complaints than an attempt to find the best person for the job.
Director Lexi Alexander—who has actually directed a superhero movie, of a sort, with 2008’s Punisher: War Zone—alluded to the loaded nature of the Wonder Woman proposition when she told Fast Company she isn’t drawn to the project (which she has not actually been offered):
“Imagine the weight on my shoulders. How many male superhero movies fail? So now, we finally get Wonder Woman with a female director, imagine if it fails. And you have no control over marketing, over budget. So without any control, you carry the fucking weight of gender equality for both characters and woman directors.”
Alexander’s response speaks to the fact that any woman who signs on for Wonder Woman is going to be placed under extreme scrutiny, because the way Warner Bros. handled the announcement of this project set it up as a game-changer for woman-driven cinema. That may be the case, and Hera knows a good showing by Wonder Woman on the big screen, which has for so long been considered a lost cause, would be a great thing for the superhero genre specifically and woman-driven blockbusters in general. But at this stage, it still comes across as a gimmick, one with the potential to tarnish the good name of both Wonder Woman and whatever woman is eventually tasked with bringing her to the big screen.
And Warner and DC aren’t the only companies responsible for honing this double-edged sword. Back in August, Sony announced that it’s eyeing a solo female superhero movie for 2017, while Marvel followed up DC’s Wonder Woman announcement by throwing down the gauntlet of a Captain Marvel movie for 2018. While it would be insane to argue that a wave of solo female superhero films is a bad thing, the one-upmanship implied by this quick succession of announcements is a little discomfiting. DC has a lady-superhero, so Sony wants a lady-superhero, so Marvel wants a lady-superhero. The creation of films, even of the blockbuster-franchise variety, should be rooted in a desire to tell an interesting story about an interesting character, not to even out, however slightly, an entire genre’s massive gender imbalance. The current comics incarnation of Captain Marvel, written by Kelly Sue DeConnick, is a great character who could make for a great movie—depending on the screenwriter, star, director, and about a million other still-undetermined factors—but the only qualification Sony’s Unnamed Female Superhero seems to have for headlining a movie is two X chromosomes.
Change rarely happens organically, and gender equality, in both Hollywood and the world at large, is the sort of issue that requires a forceful push by those who see the need for change. But the fact of the matter is, when it comes to the womaning-up of Hollywood, the people doing the pushing behind the scenes are mostly male. The Lego Movie sequel will have lady stuff as imagined by two dudes. Lady Ghostbusters was greenlit because it’s the brainchild of a man. I don’t have gender breakdowns of studio executives, but I’d bet my left ovary the decisions coming out of Warner, Marvel, and Sony originated in male-dominated meetings. And while the execs’ hearts may be in the right place, their minds are on getting people talking about their movies, and eventually getting butts in seats. If that means adding in some “female stuff,” hey, everybody wins, right?
Well, do they? While Hollywood is finding ways to slot women into its preconceived projects, female creators with their own ideas toil in the trenches to get their smaller, personal projects made. Two of this year’s best movies written and directed by women, Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child and Gina Prince-Bythewood’s new Beyond The Lights, took years of finagling and compromising on the part of their creators, and were eventually released on a relatively small scale. Meanwhile, of the 39 major studio releases originally slated for summer 2014, only one was directed by a woman, and even that comes with a big fat asterisk: That one film, Jupiter Ascending, which Lana Wachowski wrote and directed with her brother Andy, was pushed to 2015, thereby decreasing this past summer’s number of female-directed major releases to exactly zero.
A look at a list of 2014 films directed by women reveals a lot of releases with 1/1000th the profile of a Wonder Woman or Ladybusters. There are some good-to-great films on that list—as well as some stinkers—but most movie fans would be hard-pressed to name more than a handful of them, much less know where or how to see them. For all the talk about audiences wanting more “female stuff,” the vast majority of female directors are working with a decidedly lower profile than their male counterparts, bordering on obscurity in many cases. Meanwhile, the TBA director of Wonder Woman not only has a ready-made film waiting for her, she also has millions of dollars to work with and a promised release date for that project—one she might not even want much, but that at least has a degree of certainty around it that 95 percent of filmmaking projects don’t. This certainly isn’t unique to female filmmakers; most directors who aren’t Steven Spielberg or Christopher Nolan face difficulty and pushback getting their own passion projects made. But it informs the perception that Hollywood is less interested in actively backing and promoting women with original viewpoints than in finding superficial ways to add buzz to established projects.
Hopefully this trend of pushing “female stuff” will eventually settle down into a genuine shift that allows women to get their personal projects—not those foisted upon them—made in greater numbers, and with fewer obstacles. But in the meantime, male filmmakers and studio execs need to stop crowing about their projects’ feminist bona fides before actually living up to them. It thrusts the idea of gender equality in Hollywood—a vast, important, constantly shifting issue—into the realm of buzzwords and marketing, undermining the impact of any actual advancements. Once they start putting their money where their mouths are, hopefully audiences will too.