With the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, we can all look back at 2015 as the year that badass women made some serious headway in cinema. And I don’t mean you-go-girl badass. I mean beating people up in action films badass. Representing women’s issues badass. Eschewing normative male gaze badass. Badass women rising, like a phoenix born from the ashes of burning reels of Terminator: Genisys. Over the course of a number of key films this year, women did not merely act their way to the front of the screen, but were conceived and written in ways that upended their traditional roles as damsels in distress and romantic prizes.
Let’s get the obvious and grittiest one out of the way. Mad Max: Fury Road wasn’t so much a Mad Max film as a deconstruction of our expectations of a Mad Max film. The franchise did this once before with Tina Turner, but the filmmakers determined we didn’t get the message back in 1985, so it jammed the reset button even harder by fading the titular character even further into the ensemble by drowning him in hardcore, ride-or-die, gun-toting women until it wasn’t a movie about Mad Max at all, but Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa. And exploding cars. And exploding cars blown up by Imperator Furiosa. A lot has been said about the feminist (or not) nature of the film so I won’t belabor the point, and you should definitely take the word of the women deconstructing that issue over mine, but I found it beyond refreshing. As a movie acolyte I found it to be a liberating and bold model. This wasn’t some Tank Girl joke. This was a risky gamble on the power of the actress and the character with a beloved franchise. And Theron doesn’t steal this film. It is her film.
The James Bond franchise is an unapologetically sexist series of machismo fantasies, so baldly chauvinist in its conception that not only does its prejudice have an expected avatar of oppression in “Bond women”, but its lead actor took multiple un-ironic shots directly at its machismo offscreen. When asked about Bond courting an older woman (Monica Belluci) in the most recent offering Spectre, Craig replied with “you mean the charms of a woman [Bond’s] own age.” His disdain for the heavy-handed sexism inherent in all Bond films was further pointed out with the statement, “Let’s not forget that he’s actually a misogynist.” I’m sure the executives at Sony cringed when they read that in the papers from their clearly burned-out actor in advance of the wildly over-budget twenty-fourth film of an aged franchise. All of that would just be a feather in Craig’s feminist ally cap (noting he cashed the checks anyway) except that Melissa McCarthy already put her foot down on the issue in the underrated action-comedy Spy, which probably had more women in leading roles outside of Suffragette: McCarthy was the lead spy, Miranda Hart was her handy sidekick, Allison Janney was her boss, and Rose Byrne was the prominent villain. What’s more, all of the men in the film were ridiculously overdrawn stereotypes of James Bond archetypes that Spy wrung dry for comedy gold every chance it got. Turns out Spy was pretty darn progressive.
And then there is the matter of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which I need to preface by stating that there will be a spoiler or two, but not enjoyment draining spoilers.
I hardly need tell you that Star Wars reinvented the film industry back in 1977, but I will anyway because it’s important to realize just how bold the construction of its newest offering is in how it deals with women. We’re talking about a series that has four films in the top twenty highest U.S. domestic grossing films of all time. Collectively the series has an adjusted grossed 4.7 billion dollars in the U.S. alone. Some of those were re-issued releases, which means millions of people paid to see them in theaters again years after they were released because George Lucas fiddled with the effects a little. Everything I just recounted (mostly from memory, it is so iconic) was before this weekend. By all accounts, SW:TFA will be the biggest hit of them all. I’m willing to go on record with the prediction that this film could unseat Avatar as the highest grossing film of all time. At worst it’s the number one movie of 2015 while simultaneously breaking Jurassic World’s opening weekend records. Not a bad haul for a forty year old franchise taken over by Disney.
That’s all numbers and has nothing to do with women, but I need you to understand the gravity of the property we’re talking about here because a woman may have just saved this franchise from itself.
The caprice in the rollout for SW:TFA is that it is a film about a man discovering himself, which does in fact happen. Finn, the Stormtropper with a heart of gold, by all accounts decides to stop being a bad guy and fight alongside the Resistance, presumably as a newly discovered Jedi knight. Yay Black Jedi knights! Except no, no Black Jedi knights! Finn is a feint, you see. SW:TFA is a space opera ensemble to its core, but make no mistake: this movie is all about Rey.
Daisy Ridley is Rey, who turns out to not to be the damsel in distress most women in action films are. Early in the film when Finn meets her, she’s already literally kicking bandits in the ass. When he tries to “rescue” her during an attack, she yells at him to quit trying to hold her hand to “save” her. Most importantly – and I mean MOST importantly – contrary to her minimal appearances in the trailers, it turns out the film is all about how badass Rey is. Without spoiling too much, she’s Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Princess Leia (the kick-ass version that choked out Jabba the Hut) all by herself. She basically truncates all of the cool stuff it took Luke to learn in three films into sixty minutes…and that’s just the first film of the new trilogy. She’s already a better Jedi than Luke Skywalker was until his third film. And Finn? Finn turns out to be the damsel in distress at almost every turn. Some of this was telegraphed: Rey’s development is point for point Luke Skywalker early on. But once the movie makes that leap it keeps leaping, and by the end of SW:TFA we’re in potentially new territory, territory that she stands to pioneer if the writing holds up. It was a heck of a risk. Star Wars does not traditionally handle women very well. Its fan base is decidedly male and skews older. And yet, here we are: in what will be the biggest film of the year – in maybe many years, in maybe all of the years – we are treated to yet another bad-ass leading woman in a year that had a number of bad-ass women already.
For the record, the ass-kicking went beyond action films. The best animated film of the year – Inside Out – was led by three female characters voiced by Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith and Kaitlyn Dias. It has the third highest domestic gross of any film in 2015 until this weekend’s numbers for Star Wars come out, which is the only film likely to shuffle the top four spots before the end of the year. Mind you, this is an animated movie about a young girl’s burgeoning social anxiety as a plot device. Come on, son.
While Hollywood still has a long way to go – I’m side-eyeing you, unbreakable stilettos in Jurassic World – there is clearly a turning in the tide. Ant-Man tried. The Mission: Impossible films stay trying. Terminator: Genisys somehow tried and failed despite its legacy establishing a woman so badass she got her own TV series, a film that failed mostly because it was written as if it did not trust its audience. I wonder how many of these films would have been done differently if Mad Max: Fury Road had come out a year earlier.
For that, we shouldn’t thank Hollywood, but ourselves, the audience. Hollywood doesn’t do much of anything that we haven’t proven we’re willing to pay for, and without a lot of evidence in the front line product to support these moves (2014 kind of sucked for badass women on this level), I think the times we’re living in have to take some credit for these developments. Pat yourselves on the back a little for spreading the light, social justice warriors. Seriously, thanks to you, we’re getting better movies. Even the best documentary of the year was What happened, Miss Simone? In another ten years articles like this might be obsolete. We’re not there yet, wherever there is. Of the top ten films this year, three of them are led by women characters (Inside Out, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay 2, and Cinderella). SW:TFA will make it a solid four. 40% of the field is certainly a better stat than the percentage of women in the industry at large, but it’s a bar at the lowest possible setting. Matt Damon famously had that one wrong, too, when he said – in 2015, mind you – that diversity happens in front of the camera, not behind it. Women have a long way to go behind the lens, the furthest of any major demographic group. We’re seeing exceptions – Suffragette, Selma – but we’re not seeing much headway. Here’s hoping that 2015 is a sign of things to come and not just the exception to the rule. Considering the staggering amount of money women have been responsible for this year, I have hope.