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‘Female Agency’ In Film Takes the World By Storm

A new breed of empowered women takes the reins in film and society

It’s a brave new world out there. With Hillary Rodham Clinton and Carly Fiorina in the news each day and an array of strong, self-assured actresses storming the silver screen, both cinema and society seem to be embracing a new wave of empowered women.

This upsurge of strong, smart, and central leading ladies is most clearly apparent in film, where actresses such as Amy Schumer, Charlize Theron, and Meryl Streep are blazing bold new trails. It coincides with a resurgence of women on the political and social stages. No matter what the results of this wave happen to be, it’s hard to deny that ladies are having a major moment right now.

The new motion picture Suffragette follows the inspiring fight for women’s right to vote, and is a perfect example of this new trend. Starring Carey Mulligan and Meryl Streep, Suffragette boasts a big budget and even bigger names. However, strong women on the screen are not exactly new. In fact, actresses have long assumed roles classically considered exclusively for men.

But there’s no denying that something new is happening.

“Two genres in which male protagonists have tended to dominate are the action film and the comedy,” notes Sara Ross, Ph.D., a professor at Sacred Heart University and expert in the subject of gender and film. “It is interesting to note that both of these types of films have recently found box office success with female protagonists.”

Mad Max: Fury Road, a hugely popular action flick, is the most notable example of this trend in contemporary cinema. The movie begins like many other run-of-the-mill action features, centered on the taciturn, brusque, and eminently macho character, Max. However, the movie soon evolves into a story almost exclusively focused on the female character Furiosa, played with equal parts bravado and ferociousness by an inspired Charlize Theron.

It is Theron’s character who proves to be the movie’s true hero, slaying bad guys, directing the movement of her fellow characters, engaging in violent battles, and even going so far as to use Max as a gun stand when he proves to be a far worse shot.

Make no mistake: Fury Road is as big budget as movies get. It cost approximately $150 million to make and has earned a whopping $374 million worldwide in box-office take alone. It’s surprising that movie is (at heart and on the surface) a tour de force of female agency and empowerment. Even the final scenes bring in a rag-tag team of crack-shot elderly women. One of them muses, “I have killed everyone I’ve ever met out here.” To call such a depiction of women unusual would be an understatement.

Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games

Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games

Ross believes that this current trend began with a crop of notable female-led movies over the last 5 to 10 years. “The Hunger Games and Divergent franchises both feature female protagonists in the kind of coming-of-age, action-heavy roles that have historically usually been reserved for the boys,” she says. “It is interesting to note that both of these examples also draw their success in large part from ‘pre-sold’ titles from the literary genre of post-apocalyptic young adult fiction. ”

Ross, however, sees Mad Max as a bit of an outlier even with these previous films in mind. “Mad Max: Fury Road is a little different, in that we see a female protagonist stepping into the ‘action hero’ role in a franchise that featured male protagonists in the past,” Ross says.

The upcoming Ghostbusters movie, which boasts a leading cast composed entirely of women, is another example in which female stars have come to assume roles previously reserved for men. While Ghostbusters is undoubtedly a comedy, it proves that the trend of women taking up classically male positions is a fairly broad one. Whether it is a gritty, tent-pole blockbuster like Mad Max, a scrappy indie like Diary of a Teenage Girl, or a light-hearted comedy such as Ghostbusters, it seems women are truly taking charge across the filmic spectrum.


Amy Schumer in Trainwreck

When it comes to strong women in comedy, however, there is no name currently bigger than Amy Schumer. Schumer has seized the spotlight with her hit show Inside Amy Schumer, a fleet of television appearances on everything from Girls to The Bachelorette, and now a widely lauded movie, Trainwreck, directed by Judd Apatow. Trainwreck tells the tale of woman who uses men in much the way men have used women in more conventional flicks.

Her character (also named Amy) is self-assured, confident, and sexually aware. She has one-night stands, parties hard, and betrays her goofy boyfriend all while maintaining a great career. The movie also seems to refrain from judging Amy for these actions, showing her progressing despite her forays into drugs, alcohol, and questionable sexual exploits.

“The comedian has license to be unruly and overturn conventional behavior, while everyone else has to play it straight,” says Ross. “The fact that comediennes like Amy Schumer and Melissa McCarthy are currently headlining comedies gives women a chance to be the unruly ones, which can be great fun and maybe even a little subversive of traditional gender roles.”
Much of this subversion lies in the trend of comediennes assuming a level of bawdiness and crudeness only men had previously been allowed to exhibit. “There is sometimes a sense that [McCarthy and Schumer] are appropriating derogatory female stereotypes, such as the ‘fat chick’ or the ‘slut’, taking ownership of them, and turning them to their own ends,” says Ross.

Indeed, it is the men of Trainwreck that come off as clingy, nauseatingly romantic, and doting, whereas Schumer’s acerbic lead is firmly in the emotional driver’s seat for much of the film. Unlike Mad Max, however, Trainwreck unfortunately does have an ending that belies much of the empowering aspects established in the first half of the film.

With this in mind, it would be incorrect to assume women are always empowered and given agency across contemporary film. Ross suggests even a movie as progressive as Mad Max: Fury Road still falls prey to classic sexist tropes.

“In this fictional world in which women can be super-warriors, however, conventionally feminine supermodels still seem to be the most precious ‘commodity,'” Ross says. “The fact that Charlize Theron’s character is the one protecting the women gives the film a girl power vibe, and Theron is genuinely fierce in this role. But her mission to save damsels in distress is also oddly retro.”

Without giving too much away, it suffices to say that Trainwreck’s ending does far more damage to the sense of female agency established in the first half of the film than the relatively tiny degree of sexist details to be found in Mad Max.

“When you put these unruly women into a narrative film, the story often serves to ‘tame’ their unruliness,” notes Ross. “At the start of [Trainwreck], Schumer’s character is unrepentantly promiscuous and utterly uninterested in conventional domesticity. However, just as in countless romantic comedies over the last 80 or more years, we are instructed that if her character truly wishes to be a happy, mature adult, she must learn to place less value on her career and her ‘selfish’ desires, and to prioritize a romantic relationship with a man. In effect, she must leave her unruliness behind.”

This is one of the major problems of having a male director, like Judd Apatow, managing a film meant to showcase strong women such as Schumer. Despite his good intention, Apatow has long been established as tremendously conventional filmmaker, albeit one that brings in a lot of revenue. For instance, he came under fire for his movie Knocked Up after the female lead of the movie, Katherine Heigel, decried the movie’s sexism in an interview with Vanity Fair.

“[Knocked Up is] a little sexist,” remarked Heigl. “It paints the women as shrews, as humorless and uptight, and it paints the men as lovable, goofy, fun-loving guys…I had a hard time with it.”

With Trainwreck, Apatow seems to have at least attempted to curb this impulse, while recognizing the huge societal force that Schumer has become. His solution was seemingly to divide the movie into two pieces, as when children draw a line between two halves of a bedroom. Indeed, many critics have suggested that the first half of the film is “Schumer” whereas the second half is “Apatow.”

Anyone who has seen even a snippet of Schumer’s television show (or any of her startlingly confident interviews) knows that she bears little in common with the tamed woman at the close of Trainwreck. Schumer is not married in reality, and recently went viral when she rallied at a male journalist for using the word “slutty” to describe her.

Similarly, when Men’s Rights activists tried to foment a boycott of Mad Max due to its clear message of female empowerment, both Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy defended the film during a panel at the San Diego Comic-Con.

This all suggests that while each of these films might possess some shortcomings in terms of their depiction of women, both society and the reality of filmmaking is taking up the slack where tepid directors have fallen off. It is important to remember that men directed both Mad Max and Trainwreck, after all.

Within society, women are undoubtedly claiming a much larger role than ever before. There are currently more women serving on the Supreme Court than at any time in the history of this nation. Female members of Congress are also at an all-time high.

Perhaps most notably, both the Republican and Democratic parties are putting forward women as frontrunners. While beleaguered by her email scandal, Hillary Rodham Clinton is still widely considered the primary choice for the Democratic nomination. Similarly, Carly Fiorina has been gaining in the polls and will undoubtedly give other candidates a run for their money come election time.

This trend has even begun to extend to the male-dominated world of film production where, in 2008, Kathryn Bigelow became the first women in history to win the Director’s Guild of America Award for a feature film. More recently, the talk of this year’s Sundance Festival was undoubtedly the racy coming-of-age story, Diary of a Teenage Girl, directed by Marielle Heller. Diary, which won the award for best cinematography, focuses squarely on a young woman’s struggle to come to terms with her sexuality and burgeoning womanhood.

A woman also directs the big-budget feature film Suffragette, being released by Focus Features. Following in the steps of Sofia Coppola and Jane Campion, Suffragette’s director Sarah Gavron and writer Abi Morgan have created a film detailing the struggles of women by actual women.

The rise of the hash tag movement #AskHerMore, which began at the 87th Academy Awards, is yet another major turning point in the empowerment of women in film. The #AskHerMore campaign arose from numerous actresses’ refusal to be objectified by red carpet questions focused solely on their dresses or nail art. The recent rise of the “Mani Cam,” in which actresses are asked to show off their manicures, is a prime example of the low level of questioning that women are subjected to. Rarely (if ever) do male actors face such objectifying nonsense.

Actresses such as Reese Witherspoon and Lena Dunham have tweeted in support of #AskHerMore, imploring entertainment journalists to treat actors and actresses with equal levels of respect.

The state of female empowerment in society, and the way in which women are depicted in film, are also melding with the release of the documentary, Malala. Malala details the trials and triumphs of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning activist and author Malala Yousafzai, who survived being shot in the head by the Taliban and went on to inspire an entire generation of women all before the age of 18.

Both the documentary and Malala herself stand as testaments to the possibilities that lie ahead for women, in film as well as in contemporary society. Malala has said, “We must tell women their voices are important.” Filmmakers and politicians alike would be wise to lend an ear.

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