“The world is round, people”, said the hugely talented Cate Blanchett to her 2014 Oscars audience. Ignoring the fact that Earth is, in fact, slightly oval, Blanchett’s point was that men and women were equal, just as day follows night et cetera. However, equality in cinema is still often a rare thing. Blanchett’s refreshingly emphatic acceptance speech appealed to those industry people that “are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films with women at the center are niche experiences: they are not. Audiences want to see them and, in fact, they earn money.”
According to Sky, Blue Jasmine was actually number 56 in the UK Box Office Top 100 for 2013, taking £5 million. The official statistics (from Rentrak) for the top performing films of 2013 were: Despicable Me 2 (which took £47.2m); Les Misérables (£40.8m); Iron Man 3 (£37.2m); The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug (£34m); and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (£32.5m). The pattern is obvious – big budget blockbusters with high marketing spends put the bums on seats. But what’s interesting is that the female action hero is coming into her own, with The Hunger Games leading the charge and arguably opening the door for more female-fronted blockbusters.
The amusingly pertinent Bechdel Test, named after US cartoonist Alison Bechdel, considers the roles of women on screen by asking: (1) does the film have at least two women in it, (2) who talk to each other (3) about something other than a man? A recent analysis of US box office revenues found that films passing the Bechdel Test made more money than those that didn’t – so Blanchett was right after all. How much screen time the women have compared to the men, not to mention the quality of writing, is still, though, contentious.
Whilst the acknowledgement and employment of the Bechdel Test (in 2013 Sweden introduced a cinema rating based on it) is a welcome sign that the industry is becoming more aware of gender inequality in film, there’s a risk that filmmakers will still be just ‘checking the boxes’ to get the funding/rating without providing a decent script in the first place. What actors need is great material. Blanchett got lucky and caught Woody Allen on a good day, but much of modern cinema is still just lazy storytelling. Regardless of gender, if the audience continues to love the clichéd roles that is precisely what they will be served.
Throughout history there have always been fantastic women on screen, be it in a ‘supporting’ or more ‘meaty’ role. From Lillian Gish’s mute, emotive performances through to the fire and smoke of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, women have long entranced audiences and stolen scenes from the leading men. But we’re lucky to be cinema-goers in an age where we’re offered increasingly sophisticated material, technologically and concept-wise. Consider the 3D cosmos in which floats Sandra Bullock, or the magnetic pull of Scarlett Johansson’s alien creature in Under The Skin. We’re offered literal space and figurative space on screen, and time to make our own conclusions about the women we’re watching.
And yet, as long as the film industry is dominated by male screenwriters and directors there will always be films that have the female character as the token love interest, the eye candy, the victim or the clichéd housewife. So the rallying cry really shouldn’t be ‘more great roles for women!’ but ‘more female screenwriters and directors – now!’