Is a lack of female characters making film less universal?

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Nicolas Winding Refn has hired a female screenwriter to add some gender diversity to his latest film. Should Hollywood follow suit?

A few weeks ago, it was announced that Nicolas Winding Refn had hired playwright Polly Stenham as a screenwriter for his upcoming ‘all-female horror movie.’ Yes, this is to come from the same director whose work has been described as “violently misogynistic” (by Stenham herself). But after the initial cynicism has washed past and you think about it, perhaps what Refn’s doing is just what cinema needs right now.

The days of top billing being reserved just for the male star may be behind us, but it’s still the men who rule the film industry

Something that may resonate with fellow female film fans is the huge lack of female voices on and off the screen. The days of top billing being reserved just for the male star may be behind us, but it’s still the men who rule the film industry. The majority of contemporary cinema releases still consist of male characters in male stories. Everyone knows that female leads can work – the recent critical and box office successes of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Gravity can prove it. So why aren’t there more female stories out there, why are men still taking centre stage and why are audiences OK with it?

It’s interesting to note that the films which repeatedly make it into the ‘all time greatest’ lists have male-dominated casts, and that’s no exaggeration. Just take a look at the top 20 films on IMDb. It’s a ridiculously male-centric selection, where the very few notable female characters include an ostracised wife, a cold-hearted, sadistic nurse and a love interest whose character could have easily been left out of the film, only it would have given Forrest Gump one less person to talk about. And God knows that film needed that extra hour.

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Of course, the IMDb top 250 isn’t an exact indication of what the best movies ever made are, as it’s made up of votes from regular film fans rather than experts and critics. Still, the choices up there seem to imply that these votes were primarily made by men, which suggests that there are far more male film fans than female. It’s not only reader polls and internet statistics that argue this, but also the obvious lack of mainstream reading material for female cinemagoers.

It’s hard for women to be passionate about film when they can’t identify with any of the characters or stories on-screen

Over 75% of the readership of the UK’s most popular film magazines, Total Film and Empire, are men. As a result, both magazines have a clear male target audience, with their features focusing on mainstream cinema releases and stereotypical ‘boy genres’ such as action and sci-fi. But do these readership statistics really reflect the true proportion of film fans? I’m a self-confessed film obsessive; I know lots of other girls who are too, and there are plenty of female cinemagoers. So why aren’t more female-focused movies considered to be ‘all-time greats,’ and why is there no coverage of them in film magazines?

We are in no way demanding a weekly magazine with features determining which actor has the dreamiest eyes and polls on the best rom-com of the month, but it would be nice for those of us not in the 23% of female Empire readers to be able to pick up a film magazine and feel something other than apathy. Subsequently, there’s probably just a lot less women who are passionate about film, but I guess it’s hard to be passionate when you can’t identify with any of the characters or stories portrayed on-screen.

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We have become accustomed to male-dominated films, there’s no denying it. Perhaps there is still a stigma attached to certain roles and characters – while women are likely to recognise and favour Andy Dufresne as a defiant leading role, men would be less likely to herald Scarlett O’Hara as their favourite film character, despite her being a powerful, strong heroine. The abysmal amount of female characters making the AFI’s 100 Years…100 Heroes & Villains countdown seems to amplify this. Also, when the top producers, directors and screenwriters are men, that create their male-centric films to be reviewed by a male-dominated collective of film critics, it doesn’t really help the matter.

When the top filmmakers are men, that create their male-centric films to be reviewed by male-dominated critics, it doesn’t really help

It’s a positive sign that films like Gravity and Catching Fire are managing to capture the audience’s imagination, and it’s even better that it’s the female characters that are bringing people to the cinema. Maybe one day the most acclaimed film of all time will have a memorable leading female character who’s dealing with something other than the burdens of motherhood, the struggles of working life or her conflicted love life. However, at the moment, we’re left with an image that wouldn’t look out of place in 12 Angry Men, number 7 on our IMDb list: a bunch of men sitting around arguing about who’s right and who’s wrong.

 

Featured image: United Artists

Inset images: Paramount; MGM

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