Distaste for the Female Lead: from TOY STORY to the Marvel Cinematic Universe

It’s easy to track the advancements of the film industry since its inception at the turn of the nineteenth century; after all, every contribution to cinema is, consequently, highly visible. From the Lumière brothers’ The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station (1896) or Victor Fleming’s Gone With the Wind (1939), to David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) or Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), all the way to Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013).

Countless actors, directors, writers, and other visionaries have contributed to cinema’s public evolution over the past hundred-something years. What’s not always been apparent throughout film’s rich history is the unbalanced gender representation that still exists in today’s mainstream cinema. Though the push for inclusiveness has been more prominent and acknowledged in recent years, it has long been a problem. Since the birth of the film industry itself, men have dominated roles both in front and behind the camera.

Imagine what the history of cinema would look like if we carefully compiled every reel of film and removed all of the male characters. It’s an odd thought; however, seeing iconic film posters without men paints a different picture of cinematic history; one that’s less inspiring and more discouraging. Remove men from film posters and you’re left with blank spaces — remove females, and you might not even notice a difference at all.

So what’s happening currently in the film industry, and why are women not always seen at the center stage?

Aversion to Female Leads, from Ghostbusters to Captain Marvel

This year has already proved to be a turning point for female lead roles in Hollywood. Marvel Studios released Captain Marvel on March 8th, starring Brie Larson as the titular character. Marvel films are almost guaranteed box office success and Captain Marvel is no exception. The film brought in $456 million during its opening weekend, absolutely annihilating its projections.

But as Tyler Aquilina wrote for Entertainment Weekly:

It took 21 movies for Marvel to put a female superhero at center stage, and nearly 11 years for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to get its first female-led film.

Despite Captain Marvel’s wildly successful opening weekend, the film has received its fair share of anti-women criticism. Audiences have described the movie as being “a completed disaster”, while others claim the film is simply a bad product of “SJW nonsense” (SJW is an abbreviation for ‘social justice warrior’, a disparaging term for people who campaign for progressive social action). While the thought of a female superhero is bothersome to those who adhere to archaic cinematic prototypes and representations, there’s something else about the film that may be distressing — the film’s star, Brie Larson.

Larson’s list of accomplishments have far preceded her involvement in Captain Marvel this year. To say that Larson is qualified, talented, and capable would be an understatement. At just 29 years old, the actress has won over 60 film awards, including an Academy Award for her portrayal of Joy Newsome in Room (2015).

Brie Larson is also an outspoken feminist. While doing press for Captain Marvel, Larson praised the film for its inter-sectional feminist themes and boasted the importance of female empowerment projected in cinema. This kind of unfettered female-focused talk proved too “controversial” for many Marvel fans. Leading up to the release, only 27% of Rotten Tomatoes users claimed they wanted to see the film (Rotten Tomatoes removed this rating from their site, for reasons unknown). Essentially, Rotten Tomatoes’ users had made up their mind about the film before they had even seen it.

While the scores have since increased on the site, they still pale in comparison to Marvel’s male-lead movies; Iron Man (2008), for instance, has a 93% rating compared to Captain Marvel’s 78%. This 78% rating is below the average Rotten Tomatoes score for most Marvel films.

Captain Marvel’s rating might actually be shockingly high to those familiar with online communities upset with Larson and her introduction into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In fact, a YouTube video titled “Brie Larson is Ruining Marvel” still appears on the first results page of the site when her name is searched.

Larson’s outspoken feminist nature and the Marvel controversy isn’t a new issue. It’s the same kind of criticism the 2016 remake of Ghostbusters received. Fans of the original 1984 film were upset the film was being redone with a new cast — especially an all-female one. The 2016 film continues to be bashed by fans and industry professionals, despite its not-bad 74% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

In fact Jason Reitman, who is set to direct Ghostbusters 3 (2020), recently stated his eagerness to “give” the Ghostbusters franchise “back to the fans”. Reitman’s remarks about giving the films “back to the fans” suggests the 2016 reboot is illegitimate, and that by putting men back into the picture the franchise becomes “correct” again.

There have been plenty of unsuccessful reboots and sequels throughout Hollywood history. Perhaps 2016’s Ghostbusters was not Oscar-worthy, and it may not join the ranks of other classics, but it certainly was not a failure. But if the film had starred an all-male cast — and flopped — would it still be as harshly criticized as Ghostbusters is now, three years after its release? One can safely assume that no, it would not.

The most disheartening aspect of these arguments is this: it’s all based on fiction. Gender roles do not exist in the Ghostbusters or superhero universes because, quite frankly, they aren’t real. The rules within these films are what we make them, yet they continue to be unequal.

Female Leads v. Male Leads

The push for strong female leads in genres that aren’t typically “feminine” is not a new concept. Marvel fans have actively campaigned for a female superhero since Scarlett Johansson appeared as Black Widow in Iron Man 2 (2010). However, studio executives have been wary of putting a woman as a lead in comic book-based films ever since films like Catwoman (2004) and Elektra (2005) flopped in the box office. The idea was that the industry should cater to teenage boys, the main demographic of the superhero fan base.

The film industry assumed young boys would not enjoy seeing a woman save the world. A Marvel exec once referred to female superhero films as a “disaster”, according to leaked Sony emails in 2014. Women have since been demoted to sidekicks and villains — roles that were once progressive for women, but now are just reminders that female characters aren’t worthy of their own movies.

Many assumed the release and instant success of DC Entertainment’s Wonder Woman (2017) set the stage for strong women in this genre, and answered the question on whether or not a female superhero film could be a triumph. Judging by the negative talk surrounding Captain Marvel, it’s clear that there remains skeptics.

But the successes of Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel are just the beginning. The entertainment industry has a long way to go before the number of female leads — across all genres — come close to matching the number of men.

The graph below visualizes the disparity between gender roles in blockbuster films. Despite the growing popularity of ensemble casts and the aforementioned female superhero movies, popular cinema still fails to produce female-lead films. Over the past decade, there were 196% more leading roles for men than women in Hollywood blockbusters.

Visuals and gender discrepancy data courtesy of  Kegel8 .

Visuals and gender discrepancy data courtesy of Kegel8.

The average number of men in leading roles over the past ten years is 2.8; that number for women is 1.12. This means for every 1 leading woman there are 2.5 leading men. Take a look at the Harry Potter as a prime representation of this statistic via its three main characters: one female and two male.

The ask for more female-lead movies is not the product of so-called social justice warriors — it’s based on straight fact that women are underrepresented in leading roles in Hollywood films. As we’ve seen with successes like Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman female-lead films can, and do, succeed.

Asking for more female representation is justified and deserved; to think otherwise is ludicrous, especially when male leading roles have outnumbered female ones by about 200% in Hollywood blockbusters.

Shifting Cinema (and Culture)

The aversion to films like Ghostbusters and Captain Marvel is rarely based on educated cinematic opinion as we seldom hear talk of these movies having technical issues, like bad cinematography or poor soundtracks. Most critiques are based on “bad casting” with complaints that movies “try too hard” by putting a strong female in the lead.

The hatred comes from one thing: a franchise, universe, or genre being “ruined” with women.

The shift to include more strong female leads has been frustratingly slow, but progressive nonetheless. Even the Disney Princesses have begun to break out of the traditional damsel-in-distress trope and evolve into stronger women. In recent years, Disney has released films with more independent heroines.

Many Disney fans have embraced this new messaging with hopes that female-lead films of today will have a positive effect on future generations.

Aversion to female superheroes, princesses, and leads is learned behavior, stemming from a long history of watching men portray heroes. Films consumed at a young age can help set the expectations audiences have for what they view as adults. The absence of female leads in cinema re-enforces the idea that women are not capable of those types of roles.

The most innocent of stories perpetuate the ideology. Even Toy Story (1995), a film heavily marketed towards children, featured mostly male characters. Children of the Toy Story-era, now in their twenties, may have a distaste for films like Captain Marvel that break from the structure they were raised to know and enjoy.

To be clear: I am not arguing that a single viewing of Toy Story twenty-five years ago is the sole source of sexism in cinema today. However, even these seemingly small observations are important, as they help fuel the fire that allows sexism to be omnipresent in and out of the film industry.

Remove the male leads from popular child or young adult films and you’re left with a lack of female representation. For every strong female film, we have more than twice as many male-lead options.

There’s a common theme among the films previously discussed in this article –– both Captain Marvel and Ghostbusters are additions to existing franchises. So if the film industry has a long history of prioritizing male-lead movies, then why do we continue to recycle them over and over?

Stop the Reboots!

The popularity of reboots, sequels, and spin-offs have long been attributed to a lack of originality or talent in the modern sphere of entertainment. This, however, simply isn’t true. The reason studios feed off of nostalgia is because it’s easy to reproduce and comes armed with a ready-made fan base. Attempting to “please” crowds who want more female leads with a sloppy reboot doesn’t give women the chance to represent solid, influential stories.

The release of Fuller House in 2016 is an example of this, as it’s a series sequel of the popular sitcom Full House (1987-1995).

Fuller House, however, is arguable one of the most poorly written pieces of television to be on Netflix. A review of the show published in Vulture (appropriately titled “Why Does Fuller House Exist?”) states:

The first four minutes of ‘Fuller House’ are four of the most excruciating TV minutes ever broadcast; shrill, garish, unfunny, and further poisoned by the live audience’s baffling apparent appetite to hear the catchphrases of the show repeated now, in modernity. ‘How rude’ elicits applause. Future societies will have no choice but to judge us harshly for our sins.

Despite this, Fuller House has lasted four full seasons with a final fifth one in the wings. The show ropes in viewers with tired callbacks to the first series and timed audience reactions whenever an original cast member enters the scene. Potentially fresh jokes and impactful dialogue is instead replaced with mocking yells of “How rude!” and “Have mercy!” with over-the-top audience admiration.

Though the reboot features a predominately female cast, the plot fails to portray the women in a different way. In fact, it mirrors the original series’ story: a struggling widowed mother moves back home and her friends volunteer to help raise her children. Fuller House pretends to give the leading women their own powerful stories when in reality, each female remains on a quest for domestic bliss.

However, nostalgia is not the sole reason franchises get recycled. Successful stories are often redone out of admiration and desire for fresh artistic representation. For example, the kitschy nature that franchises like James Bond and Batman took in the late eighties and nineties paved the way for darker, more complex reboots in the 21st century.

But the problem with reboots, sequels, and spin-offs is that they become excuses.

The reality of the situation is that each year, countless original scripts and pilots are thrown aside without a chance, while studios instead invest in rebooting old (and often tired) stories.

It’s not groundbreaking to say that the film industry needs to develop fresher ideas and be more inclusive on and off camera. But by visualizing the cinematic world without women, it becomes even more clear just how underrepresented females are in entertainment.

Nearly all of the mainstream content we consume is from the straight, white, male perspective known as the male gaze. As Melissa Strong explains, “the camera’s male gaze also is cisgender, heterosexual, and representative of conventional expectations of masculinity…movies are a product of a patriarchal culture, so naturally they tend to reflect patriarchy.”

Needless to say, the male gaze should not exist in 21st-century film. The gaze exists solely within the viewer, dependent on their specific thoughts and ideas — not dictated for them. The stories they consume should be representative of the actual world they live in.

Women are funny and can be leads in comedies. Women can also be terrific supporting actors. Women can be directors, or key grips, or producers, or writers.

And spoiler alert: Women can be superheroes.