More Rebecca Ferguson, please!

Photographer: Grant Lamos IV/Getty Images

Summer Films Full of Henchmen, No Henchwomen

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
Read More.
a | A

Early in “Mission: Impossible -- Rogue Nation,” the Senate Intelligence Committee is holding a hearing on whether to disband the Impossible Mission Force that gives the film franchise its name. There’s a curiosity about the scene: The seven or eight senators sitting on the dais are all men. My wife and I turned to each other in astonishment. In this day and age no one thought to seed the group with a woman or two, even among the nonspeaking extras. Who on earth would make such a mistake?

The answer seems to be, just about everybody. That’s the conclusion of this week’s report from the Media, Diversity, and Social Change Initiative at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. The study analyzed the top 100 films in domestic box office from 2007 through 2014 (excluding 2011)  and found that of 30,835 characters with speaking parts, only 30.2 percent were female.

It seems unlikely that 2015 will improve things. Take “Rogue Nation.” If you look at the cast in credits order, there is only one woman (Rebecca Ferguson) among the top seven, and only three among the top 25. In eighth place is the Chinese film star Jingchu Zhang, added to the cast last year with enormous fanfare. She has only one tiny scene -- about 40 seconds of screen time -- administering a polygraph test. Hermione Corfield, No. 15, comes to a bad end just minutes into the story.

Most of the summer tentpoles feature a woman near the top of the billing, but few give her much to do. I’ve written already about the female roles in “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” In “Ant-Man,” Evangeline Lilly’s character spends the whole movie saying, in effect, “Put me in, coach!” -- but gets no recognition until the credits are rolling. In “Jurassic World,” Bryce Dallas Howard functions mainly as designated screamer.

It’s true that the top 100 list for 2015 includes such female-heavy blockbusters as “Inside Out,” “Cinderella,” “Pitch Perfect 2,” “Insurgent,” and “Spy. ” In November, the last film in the “Hunger Games” series arrives, with its female symbol of the revolution, female president of the revolutionaries, and female general of the revolutionary army. And of course “Mad Max: Fury Road” was rich with female characters. But these films are outliers.

Moreover, even when women have major roles in action films, they often face Padmé’s Peril -- a trope in which the female co-star must put aside moral scruples and love the unlovable. In “Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones,” Anakin Skywalker confesses to Padmé Amidala that in his fury over his mother’s death, he has massacred an entire tribe of Tusken Raiders, including women and children. Rather than offer the smallest criticism of the man who will become Darth Vader, Padmé crouches beside him and murmurs reassuringly, “To be angry is to be human.”

This isn’t “The Godfather” and Michael lying to Kay about his crimes. This is the boyfriend admitting to having done terrible things -- and staying the boyfriend. (At least Kay Corleone left.) We’ve come a long way in the two decades or so since the reign of movie heroines so brilliantly unpacked by feminist cultural critic Carol J. Clover in her book “Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film.”

In short, the Annenberg data reinforces what we already know about Hollywood’s male culture.

Still, there are problems with the report. For example, it’s hard to attach significance to the 30.2 percent figure unless we also know the demographics of the pool from which actors are drawn or, for that matter, the resumes that might make some actors more attractive to profit-minded studios. Maybe the studios’ hiring practices tell us something about the market.

This leads to a second, more significant issue. Year in and year out, a substantial chunk of box office receipts go to films in the action adventure genre -- in short, violent movies. Violence is culturally gendered male. If the top films tend to be about war, or terrorists, or alien invasions, those who fight back violently will be disproportionately male.

Tentpoles tend to feature henchmen. As the name implies, henchmen are almost always men. If not sadists, henchmen are at least chilly, ruthless killers. And they are routinely wiped out, often to the cheers of the audience, in blood-curdling ways. So rarely are the resident thugs female that it’s shocking when (a) we see one, and (b) she dies as horribly as the typical henchman -- as, for example, at the end of 2007’s “Live Free or Die Hard.” Audiences, I suspect, remain uneasy with mayhem committed by women, and, often, against them. So here, too, hiring practices may reflect popular taste.

I am not defending the demographics of the summer movie. I am only suggesting that, as so often, we are identifying the smaller rather than the larger problem. Studios want to make money. If the way to do this is to shunt women into smaller roles, then those of us who pay for tickets should shoulder most of the blame.

  1. The reason for the omission of 2011 is not explained in the report. The year is a curious one to neglect, as its top-100 list included such female-heavy films as “The Help” and “Bridesmaids” as well as the final “Harry Potter” film and the next-to-last “Twilight” film.

  2. The study also measured race, ethnicity and sexual orientation. In addition to analyzing data on actors with speaking roles, the authors also looked at writers, directors and producers. Needless to say, similarly dismal numbers were found.

  3. Recent charges by the American Civil Liberties Union that Hollywood discriminates against female directors were based in part on last year’s Annenberg study.

  4. No, that’s not a defense. But consider an analogy. Suppose a study of major publishing houses showed (as I suspect it would) that the median white author receives a larger advance than the median black author. The publishers could explain, truthfully, that they were merely responding to demand. Authors whose books sell more are paid more. If the reading public prefers the books of white authors (the argument would run) that is not the publisher’s fault. Make of the defense what you will. My point is that the irrational preferences, if indeed they exist, might be among book buyers, not book publishers.

  5. Even in the “Hunger Games” films, which center on a revolution led by a woman, the Peacekeepers who guard the interests of the Capitol are evidently all men.

  6. This might help explain the difficulty Hollywood has had selling movies built around superheroines. Remember “Catwoman.”

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Stephen L Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net