Female Driven Movies and Male Protagonists

The perception that male consumers, particularly boys, prefer to see movies with male protagonists, while female consumers view movies with protagonists of either gender, has truth to it but not an absolute truth. Because this perception is used to justify the production of more films with male leads than with female leads, the topic becomes more complex.

No lack of female driven movies have attracted wide acclaim and audiences of both sexes, covering all genres and character types, from Gone With the Wind to Tomb Raider and The Wizard of Oz to Million Dollar Baby. Male consumers are obviously capable of enjoying films with female leads. But it is true that fewer of them are made and widely marketed, and there are a number of interrelated factors involved.

Many of the female driven films that are made are not very good. A romantic comedy built as a vehicle for a popular starlet who’s cute when she’s being funny is not necessarily a strong project for the actress, the studio, consumers both female and male, or the state of women in film. Many of these come from the spec market and are therefore rather generically written, since the screenwriters are not necessarily targeting a specific studio or interest.

These romantic comedies aren’t the only films picked up in this way, but they perpetuate the noted tendency for male audiences not to attend features with female protagonists, since they are indeed unlikely to attend these particular ones. Women, however, do. The films get released in the year’s first quarter, when competition is sparse. Women see the films because they’re there but also because they want to support pictures with female leads, and this misplaced gravitation to the mediocre sustains the impression that this is what female audiences want (and that males don’t want female protagonists, which can negatively impact stronger projects with female leads).

The dearth of women in decision-making and top creative positions is another key factor here. While being female is not a prerequisite for writing strong films about girls and women—and nor is it an assurance that these films about girls or women will be strong—filmmakers generally work from their own perspective. Once the material is written, furthermore, it needs to be picked up. Executives, too, are likely to favor ideas that they can imagine speaking to audiences, and what they imagine is similarly influenced by their perspective.

Filmmakers being asked to change the lead from female to male for the sake of opening night numbers is not a matter of historical anecdote; it continues to occur in the 21st century. The trajectory toward greater gender equity at the top of the Hollywood chain of command is achingly slow: only 16% of those in head creative positions in the top 250 films of 2010 were women. And that’s an improvement over decades. More (and better) scripts for female leads mean more to choose from for potential development.

Female characters could also use a makeover, and not the kind you get in the makeup chair. They continue to be shaped from the same few molds, for the most part two-dimensional ones. One of the more recent and popular molds is of the ambitious, talented go-getter whose weaknesses and vulnerabilities are so superficial that the character remains bland.

If female consumers fail to be drawn in by these, it’s no wonder male consumers have even more trouble. The important thing here, though, is that it’s not because the characters are female but because they’re fake. Male consumers turn out for female leads when there’s something worth seeing; perhaps there ought to be more to see.

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