Column: From ‘Black Panther’ to ‘Star Wars,’ moviegoers are getting the heroines we deserve
The 2018 Oscar broadcast is a little over a week away, but we already know who won at the box office. And who didn’t.
According to the latest report from the Center for the Study of Women in Television Film at San Diego State University, just 24 percent of the protagonists in the 100 top domestic grossing films of 2017 were female. That’s a drop of 5 percentage points from the also-anemic protagonist numbers from 2016.
Despite the fact that the top three grossing films of last year — “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” the live-action “Beauty and the Beast” and “Wonder Woman” — all featured kick-butt female protagonists, women were still a too-rare commodity on the silver screen.
How rare? Just 37 percent of 2017’s major characters were female, the same percentage as 2016. The number of speaking characters — both major and minor — was at 34 percent. Sadly, that is actually an increase of 2 percentage points over the 2016 figure.
“In an awards season when talk about women and gender has been top of mind, we need to separate hyperbole from reality,” said Martha M. Lauzen, the center’s executive director. “The numbers do not yet reflect claims of a tectonic or massive shift in the film industry.”
Off-screen, actresses have been in full warrior mode. They have been speaking out against sexual harassment and assault, aiming a spotlight at gender inequality and spearheading the “Time’s Up” movement.
On-screen, it appears to be a different, quieter story. Or is it?
While it’s true there is strength in numbers, the films of 2017 and the Oscar nominations honoring them also prove there is strength in strength. There may have been fewer female protagonists and lead characters in 2017, but the ones we got were fierce and fabulous.
Let’s start at the top with “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” the top-grossing film of the year. It was also the stomping grounds of the Furious Women of the Resistance: General Leia (the late Carrie Fisher); lightsaber legend Rey (Daisy Ridley); the formidable Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern and her violet hair); and heroic mechanic Rose (San Diego’s Kelly Marie Tran).
At No. 2, we had “Beauty and the Beast,” starring Emma Watson as Belle, the book-loving heroine who rescues her father, spurns the macho affections of the insufferable Gaston (Luke Evans) and sees the inner beauty of the terrifying Beast (Dan Stevens).
Rounding out the Top 3 (while playing third fiddle to no one), I give you “Wonder Woman.” Directed by Patty Jenkins and starring the swashbuckling Gal Gadot as the Amazon warrior princess, “Wonder Woman” brought in $821.74 million, making it the top-grossing superhero origin movie of all time.
In 2017, female protagonists wielded swords, lightsabers and big books. They also made money. Oodles of it.
In addition to conquering the box office, the women of 2017 ruled our movie-loving hearts. And Oscar’s.
Four of this year’s nine Best Picture nominees feature female protagonists. There is “Lady Bird,” starring Saoirse Ronan and a high-school senior with big dreams and a wild heart. In “The Shape of Water,” Sally Hawkins stars as a mute woman whose fierce love conquers some big evil.
Meryl Streep saves the day in “The Post,” playing Katherine Graham, the first female publisher of the Washington Post and the honcho who gave the OK to publish the Pentagon Papers. And in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” Frances McDormand stars as a grief-fueled mother out for justice and revenge.
From the box-office to the art house, 2017 was a powerful year for female characters. And guess what? This year could be just as good.
The 2018 parity party starts with “Black Panther,” a box-office beast whose three female co-stars — Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia the spy, Danai Gurira as Okoye the warrior and Letitia Wright as the tech-savvy Shuri — steal the film from the male protagonists.
This weekend marks the release of “Annihilation,” a female-driven sci-fi thriller starring Natalie Portman, Gina Rodriguez and Tessa Thompson. And the coming months will bring us “Red Sparrow” (Jennifer Lawrence as a Russian spy); “A Wrinkle in Time” (Oprah! Reese Witherspoon! Mindy Kaling!); and “Oceans 8,” the “Oceans Eleven” all-female reboot starring Sandra Bullock and Rihanna.
Our moviegoing future has a big female presence and loads of promise. Maybe 2018 will be the year women can stop wondering why the movie numbers don’t add up to something resembling equality.
That would be an achievement of epic proportions, but it is no less than we deserve.
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