This is a fair warning. I am offering this opinion as an adult man with his hormones still very much at the wheel. If I crash and burn in naivety or insensitivity just chalk it up to ‘boys will be boys.’ Historically I sit on the advantaged side of sexism and gender inequality. I can’t possibly know what female oppression and harassment feels like and being born in the 1980’s I barely know what it looks like. However I am still very aware when that elephant is in the room. Evidently not enough to know I shouldn’t use an expression involving elephants when talking about women, but I digress.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 hits theaters this month. Its main protagonist is Katniss Everdeen, the skilled hunter from District 12 who originally wins the Hunger Games after volunteering as the female tribute to protect her sister (if you don’t know this, read the books or see the movies. They’re quite good regardless of your age). The selection of both a male and female tribute is about the only distinction of gender made in the story. This is not on accident. Gender has no bearing or meaning inside the games or even in the movie itself. Katniss is as equal a threat to the other participants as they are to her. The interesting element of this is that the filmmakers never force us to notice it. It’s inherent. There is no special attention shown to it being a fair fight. And from the opening scene Katniss is shown as a rugged hunter, the provider of her family, and an overall Grade A bad ass. This has done nothing to cost the franchise the male demographic. I know just as many guys who have enjoyed the movies as I do girls (sure, more girls I know read the books, but that’s because women do this thing called “casual reading” far more than men. I’m not sure what that is. I think Oprah started it).
The idea that sex sells is still very much alive and I want nothing to do with stopping it. I have no desire to eat at Hardee’s, but if you want to show a half naked girl salaciously eating a burger on the hood of a convertible you better believe I know what Hardee’s is. And for the ladies, if they want to make a sequel to Magical Michael (I’m pretending to not know anything about that movie) they can go right ahead. The Hunger Games doesn’t mettle in any of this style of promotion and both sexes are still elevating it to #1 in the box office. Katniss has mass appeal and carries the movie without being overly sexy or overly intimidating. If you ask me the answer why is clear, yet TV and film executives under the pressure of social progress are still left sitting back wondering “why haven’t we had success franchising a female hero figure?”
The easiest answer is they haven’t tried. If we’re being honest, I think there is an unintentional and subconscious belief that a woman can’t be a hero. In my opinion this belief is not due to practicality as much as it is history – both in media and society. We’re not far removed from a time people actually believed women were inferior to men. We still see a lot of domestic violence against women in large part from men who grew up in households that likely never taught them to respect women. It’s much easier to damage something you don’t respect. This is hard for me to believe, but a generation before me would beg to differ. It’s possible the idea of inventing hero movie franchises featuring a woman just hasn’t been thought of until recently because we’re now in a time where women are stronger and more self-sufficient than ever before. They hold some of the most powerful positions in America. The other aspect is that movies have a long history of making women the ‘damsel in distress.’ I think both men and women share the fantasy of a man heroically saving a woman from danger. And we count on our movies to play out our fantasies. This narrative has been stitched into the fabric of our films since the beginning so changing it is like changing anything done one way for so long – met with reluctance.
Historical perspective aside, I think us boys are more than ready for a female figure to save the day. If it’s good, we’ll watch it. We are increasingly attracted to strong women (and a lot of them are hilarious too! – Fey, Poehler, Wiig, Lawrence, Stone, Portman). To really engage yourself with a hero franchise you basically marry it. Sure, we like the helpless, nearly naked hot girl waiting for a man to save her (dude is totally getting laid tonight), but you date the damsel in distress. You marry the damsel in distress who gets herself out of it so she can go grab a beer with you.
The most critical element to any movie is the story has to be good. That’s for certain. However we’ve seen okay stories get elevated by even better characters. Great characters are essential to the success of a movie franchise. And the trend of a well received drama right now is the rise of an antihero. They screw up, they triumph at the expense of others, they do the wrong thing, and they’re mentally unstable. Basically, they’re real. The successful and critically heralded hero franchises, largely superheroes, ironically have the elements of an antihero presented in their protagonists. They are all extremely conflicted character pieces before they become action/adventure movies. One of the many mistakes made when studios tote out a fictional female hero is her story sucks. It’s compounded by a depthless screenplay. Outside of Michael Bay films, moviegoers snuff out crap before they lay down their money. And when the crap is made as obvious as previous female helmed hero movies, it’s flushed away before it clogs our consciousness.
When female characters are given depth and internal conflict people pay attention. Before Katniss inspires a revolution, she’s struggling with supporting her mother and sister and suffering from a form of post traumatic stress disorder from the original Hunger Games. Her motivation is real and her demeanor is raw. It’s not some lame vengeance story where the word “justice” is used ad nauseam that many failed hero driven plots exhibit. People like flaws. People like struggle. Because it’s real. This is true regardless of gender. A stale James Bond franchise was refreshed by Daniel Craig’s imperfect and mentally damaged 007 who didn’t always walk away from a fight with his dinner jacket unbuttoned. Batman Begins dove deeper into why Bruce Wayne became Batman rather than opting for the uncomplicated “because his parents were shot” rendition we’ve seen before. What’s uncomplicated about a billionaire who dawns a bat suit and operates out of a cave? And this deeper character angle sprung the most successful comic book trilogy every made. Even when you’re a superhero, if you don’t have complicated realism you don’t have our interest. And that’s a big reason why gender didn’t matter for who the hero was in The Hunger Games. Either way, even in a fictional dystopian society, Katniss was real and that was appreciated by women and men.
And finally, we make our way back to the indisputable argument that sex sells. As I mentioned earlier, I will not and don’t want to argue this. I’ve lived by this truth since Kelly Kapowski’s Malibu Sands lifeguard swimsuit blinded me from the fact that she’s a terrible actress. But we’re talking about making us loyal customers and marrying a movie franchise here. Using this analogy again, you date who’s physically sexy, you marry for reasons far beyond that. I think Kim Kardashian is attractive. Marry her? Yeezus Christ, no way. Loyalty is essential to a successful franchise. Dumpster fire summer blockbusters (a la Michael Bay) can be tantalizing, but if they aren’t any good we’re not going back for the sequel. The rise of the indie culture has taken a stand against expensive crap. We seek quality more than we absorb popular convenience. Studios used to be able to whore out bikini clad hookers and shallowly persuade us to watch. That works for a one night stand. It doesn’t work for marriage.
Jennifer Lawrence is a very attractive woman, but she by no means is the hottest actress in Hollywood. So why are so many guys hung up on her? (She’s admittedly my #1 crush) It’s because we want to hang out and have a beer with her as much as we want to sleep with her. Even my girlfriend freely admits she has a crush on Lawrence, which gets a resounding two thumbs up from this guy. Lawrence exudes sexiness in both looks and personality. This is why she was the perfect fit for Katniss Everdeen. Sure, she was coming off an Oscar nod and her star was rising, but you have to believe the film’s decision makers knew Katniss was not supposed to be admired for her looks. Her struggle needed to be at the forefront. Blinding us from this by overly sexualizing female heroes is the 2nd biggest mistake made by moviemakers hoping to create franchises. It sits slightly behind the first mistake of poor storytelling.
This is made perfectly clear with 2004’s epically disastrous Catwoman. The studio lined up an A-list Oscar winning actress and undeniable babe in Halle Berry. She’s gorgeous and talented and Catwoman has just enough appeal to turn in at least a sequel. But, they rushed an inexcusably laughable script and over-sexualized Berry by putting her in what was basically a dominatrix outfit with cat ears. From the moment she appears on screen purring it is impossible to take her seriously as a hero. She’s basically a slutty Halloween costume defeating her male foes one boner at a time. Coincidentally this movie is like a boner in a movie theater. It’s uncomfortable and you just hope it goes away before you stand up.
It’s nice on the eyes, but excessively sexualized female heroes don’t work for a franchise. Heroes have to be taken seriously not just by their enemies, but by the audience too. It’s hard to notice and appreciate complexity of a character when all you’re thinking is “boobs.” Boobs are great, but if my life was in serious danger I’m not worried about my savior’s cleavage. It’s not real and it’s not taken seriously. Katniss Everdeen’s wardrobe is for survival. Her image showcases her skill. Because I’m not prompted to finish undressing her with my eyes, I’m able to notice the depth of her conflict. And successful hero figures are successful character pieces first.
So are we ready for a true female hero franchise? I know a lot of you from both sexes are still not convinced, but we’re getting one with The Hunger Games. And they’re really good at hiding it. Not because they should have to, but because it’s important to the story being told. What does gender have to do with survival? What does it have to do with fighting for loved ones? For being a hero to someone? For leading a revolution? It’s a non-factor. And that’s why anyone motivated by the right elements, male or female, can helm a great hero story. Am I sure this will always translate to box office success? Absolutely not. Speaking for the masses to the tune of more than a hundred million dollars is impossible for me to do. If I could I’d be rolling in it as an Executive Producer. But I’m watching Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen become one of the most successful female protagonists to ever grace the silver screen. It’s putting the odds of more women carrying well done hero franchises heavily in their favor.