Films with great women”s roles aren”t always great films. Films with poor female representation aren”t necessarily bad films.
But poorly written female roles will always be a problem for cinema so long as they continue to persist.
The damsel in distress. Angel-whore. The token girl. Trophy wives. Mother, daughter, sister. The unconditional love interest. These are among the popular clichés most frequently applied to female characters as they”re written on the page. Some films are so desperate for conflict that they just keep going to the well without altering the mold.
Have women not earned the right by now to play more villains, complicated lovers, a-holes, The Best Friends, soldiers, comic reliefs or leads? Can a woman be sexy in a film and still have a great role? Yes. Give her agency. Can a woman support other characters but still have a great role? Yes. Keep her vital. We give awards for that.
The summer months are chock-full of popcorn flicks; it”s franchise season, a time to test out stars against the widest viewing public, to bring out the (literal) big guns and new toys and high action and broad laughs. It seems just as good a time as any for us to analyze the top releases for how they treat their, erm, lady parts – the women”s roles in the biggest movies of the year.
We went through the box-office winners so far of the summer, the 14 films (as of press time) that have grossed more than $80 million starting with Memorial Day weekend (which kicked off with “X-Men: Days of Future Past”). Six of the 14 were sequels. Ten total were led by a male, males, or male species (“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”). Four of the 14 were driven by female leads: “The Fault In Our Stars,” “Tammy,” “Lucy” and “Maleficent.” (And none were led by a person of color. Worth mentioning, and worth discussing again soon.)
In the following pages, we rank these 14 commercially successful films based on the strength and weakness of their female roles — regardless of how critically well-received those movies were overall.
This concentration on the gender disparity in film is not intended to put white male leads down, but to celebrate robust female characters, and to call out crappy ones that draw up to the surface the offensive dichotomies, stereotypes and failings of females as often written in film.
Filmmakers resort to tired tropes maybe because they don”t know how to write women, and maybe they think audiences won”t notice; are used to it; or, at worst, “enjoy” the subjugation and diminishment of women.
But all lovers of cinema — not just women — should demand equal thought and development to females on screen, and should take insult to lazily written constructs.
Remember, these films are fictions. We shouldn”t accept that the imagination fails. Great roles are important because they help great cinema, no matter the gender. The poorly constructed ones will only hurt the art, and constrict our escape into the world. It can even harm those who absorb it.
Our loose ranking is based on some of these criteria:
Damsel: Were the female character or characters put into a victim role (or killed) in order to help forward the plotline of a male character?
Cheesecake: Did the film make gratuitous show or tell of the woman”s appearance, as a replacement for character or to undermine the woman”s agency?
Bechdel Test: Far from a perfect criteria, the Bechdel Test has three requirements: two or more women characters… talk to each other… about something other than a man.
Leading ladies: Who were the main women in the film? Were they the lead or support?
Here are the films we examine:
Transformers: Age of Extinction
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
How to Train Your Dragon 2
22 Jump Street
Amazing Spider-Man 2
X-men: Days of Future Past
Guardians of the Galaxy
Edge of Tomorrow
The Fault In Our Stars
#14: “Transformers: Age of Extinction”
Damsel: God yes. That's all Tessa (Nicola Peltz) was there to do. Whether she was stuck in a truck, too afraid to go on on suspended cables from a spaceship, held down for CIA forces… she'd probably cry, “Dad, help me!” to find her glasses or to tie her shoe. She was a write-in to further the plotline for the dudes.
Cheesecake: Absolutely. Several sweeping shots on Tessa's bod, toe to head most frequently.
Bechdel: Pass. Two scenes, as a matter of fact. First was Tessa telling her girlfriends friends about how she couldn”t wait to get to college and get wasted. The second was Darcy and Bingbing Li in a car, as Stanley Tucci's Steve Jobs character held the seed (Freudian?) in his lap: The conversation between them basically went, “That's a bomb?”, “Yes,” “Oh sh*t.”
Leading ladies: Tessa is the most prominent lady in the mix, and there are two women who “assist” Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci) in his endeavors. Bingbing at one point magnificently fights off the CIA, saving Joyce”s life, and all his admiration adds up to is his hard-on. “I like her, I find her very attractive,” he says to the other male in the picture.
Then there's Darcy. We don't know what Darcy does, really.
Analysis: Transformers, for all its 165 minutes of bloated junk food, actually blows additional minutes on one of a very interesting entry into cheesecaking history. Wahlberg's Cade Yaeger confronts 20-year-old Shane (Jack Reynor) about boning his 17-year-old daughter, causing Shane to launch into an explanation of Texas' Romeo & Juliet clause, an exception to many states” statutory rape laws. He even procures a laminated card from his wallet with all the legalese, because that”s a perfectly normal, not-creepy thing to have in one”s wallet.
Given this is a fiction (and how!) the story could have made Tessa 18-years-old like many a” normal high school senior. They could have left their ages out entirely. However, Bay and company give allowance to their own usage of “jailbait” (Peltz was 20 when the movie began shooting) in their films, thusly giving male audience members an “out,” their own permissions by proxy to ogle a sexualized young female. Meanwhile, it makes the point that, yes, girls are sexually active in their teen years, even if you hold the utmost guardianship over their virginity. It's a complex discussion they shoehorned into a very dumb movie.
Shane and Cade fight over her like she has no agency to actually “choose” one. “I'm not here to help rescue your daughter. You're here to help rescue my girlfriend,” I think is what Shane says in one particularly helpful nugget.
On top of that, women in the film are “Junebugs,” “princess,” “lotus flower,” “little girl,” “baby” and more. We never really see that Tessa is a great rally car navigator, only told “she has the best hands in the business.”
– Katie Hasty
– Donna Dickens
#11: “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”
Damsel: Yes. Caesar”s partner-wife Cornelia is sick and becomes a vital sideline for the humans and apes to temporarily ally. Doctor Ellie to the rescue… but to the victimization of the only other prominent female role in the film, and to further what is ultimately and Alpha Male fight.
Cheesecake: Nope. But you can tell Cornelia's a girl 'cuz she's wearing a garland, aw!
Bechdel test: Fail. We'll assume some words transpired between Ellie and ape Cornelia, but we didn't see it, and I doubt it would have passed as decipherable conversation.
Leading ladies: There”s Ellie – caretaker, stand-in wife and stand-in mother – and ape Cornelia – victim, love interest/”wife” and mother. There are no other females with speaking roles: Karin Konoval plays a male ape, Maurice, a teacher.
As I wrote in our Best And Worst coverage of the film, we run into the problem yet again of not just a derth of female characters, but the few that exist fall into the same tired female roles. Ellie is told repeatedly to stay behind or away from the action, frequently “hidden” in secret or private rooms.
Screenwriters gave the “less evolved” species an overt out, by Koba telling the tribe to send the women and children into the forest as his army waged war. For “alpha males” in a time of crisis, women still didn”t earn the opportunity to play even auxiliary roles, like pigheaded armory guards, soldiers, engineers, wild cards, henchmen, teachers or even an ape-daughter.
– Katie Hasty
#10: “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”
– Donna Dickens
Damsel: Valka gets nicked twice nearing the end of the film, a diversion for the male characters as they kick ass. (Ruffnut, on the other hand, WANTS to become captured by dragon thief/dreamboat Eret, with a “Me likey… take me.”)
Cheesecake: This is solid PG animated territory, where Mom gets to where legitimately scary warrior wear. Ruffnut and Astrid are pretty well covered (it”s cold!) and their armor could double as a snow sleds.
Bechdel test: Fail.
Leading ladies: Valka is a warrior when we meet her, and a damsel by the end. Princess Astrid is Hiccup”s girlfriend, Ruffnut is Tuffnut”s sister after whom two tribesmen lust.
Analysis: Valka is such an exquisite and awe-inspiring character, a wonderful voice role for Cate Blanchett. But as Tasha Robinson”s Dissolve piece rightly points out, Valka begins as a “strong female character” written off by film”s end as just another means to Hiccup”s end. Despite her teachings and decades of training, she fails against the enemy over and over, handing the (literal) reins over to her husband and son. It”s not that she”s awesome — it”s that she”s awesome until dudes show up. Then she loses Stoick — whom she obviously loves very much – but busily tends to Hiccup”s loss as if she doesn”t have her own. She set the dragon vapor trail for all the dragon riders, but she's nothing but a cloud by the end.
Astrid and Ruffnut are amazing fighters, too, still just not as awesome as the boys.
– Katie Hasty
#8: “22 Jump Street”
Damsel: No. In a fun gender flip, a male (Capt. Dickson, played by Ice Cube) is actually taken hostage by a woman (Mercedes, played by Jillian Bell).
Cheesecake: The spring break scenes, per usual are gratuitous boobage and bikini. We really only see shoulder shots of Maya after Schmidt's bedded her in her dormroom.
Bechdel test: Fail. Barbs exchanged between Maya and Mercedes were pretty squarely about a man.
Leading ladies: Maya (Amber Stevens) plays a love interest, and the daughter to Capt. Dickson. Mercedes is Maya”s roommate, and a secret villain – Ghost”s daughter. Neither are particularly leads, but they each get some shining moments.
Analysis: Fun fact: pretending to enjoy beat poetry so that a girl might sleep with you is some pretty shady stuff. However, in Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Maya”s case, post-schtup, she”s not all that into him; he”s the one sent on The Walk Of Shame in the morning. It”s not a feminist moment, but a playful reversal.
This sequel, by its nature, isn”t a female”s story. Its female roles just help move the males” along. However, it toys a little with female stereotypes, like the “feminine” and infantile look of Mercedes, who knows her way around a foul-mouthed zinger. Maya helps to save Schmidt”s life by knocking out Mercedes. The kiss-you-or-kill you scene with Schmidt and Mercedes took a good dig at that very Hollywood trope. Ladies here are mostly “minority feisty” – but at least one is extremely funny.
– Katie Hasty
#7: “X-Men: Days of Future Past”
– Donna Dickens
– Donna Dickens
Damsel: Not really. Lucy is distressed at the very first parts of the film, and then when she disintegrates on the airplane. Those early moments are the last times she needs saving, and her needing of saving doesn't fulfill any plot needs of a male.
Cheesecake: Yes. Scarlett Johansson rocks some sick Louboutins and a lace-up little black dress, where director Luc Besson is illustrating transformation and power. The femme fatale trappings are a red herring, the “look” betraying her purist capabilities, so Besson could have his cake and eat it too.
Bechdel test: Pass, and plus another sort-of. Lucy talks to her roommate about her health (and her iffy auditions). Lucy and her mom aren't in the same room, but Lucy has one of the more meaningful and emotional conversations in the film.
Leading ladies: Yes, Lucy is the only consistent speaking role for women in the film, but is the titular and driving character.
Analysis: Besson”s statement of intent for “Lucy” was structured around “The Professional” for Part 1, “Inception” for Part 2″ and “2001: Space Odyssey,” none of which are notably female-driven films. Even if it was chance that rendered a woman the smartest and most capable human on the planet, it was still an intentional play on gender reversal, if even only in wild colors, and in candy-coated paradoxes. There are lots of male roles and so few women”s roles – one way to fulfill oppositions, conflicts and farcical gender differences in genre film. Lucy wants to show the world the whole universe, which is heroic in one way, and she does it in a manner that is ultimately a genderless, a different sort of star-child.
– Katie Hasty
#4: “Edge of Tomorrow”
Damsel: Nope. The closest it comes is Tom Cruise's realization that there's no way to further his video game journey without losing her along the way. She doesn't know this, and conceptually this is even phased out. When he explains she'll keep dying, she still wants to go on.
Cheesecake: A downward dog in training fatigues. (That's yoga, y'all.)
Bechdel test: Fail. Blunt”s Rita issues orders to a group of troops, which includes some women soldiers, but no two females address each other and have a conversation.
Leading ladies: There are very few speaking roles in this movie overall. Most of the dialogue transpires between Cruise”s Cage and Rita.
Analysis: This is the story about how a spineless man (Cage) is taught to be a hero by a Full Metal Bitch. The nickname was given to Blunt”s incredible Rita, a super-soldier who had formerly fallen into the same “live, die, repeat” loop as Cage. She”s tactical, tough, complex, practical, has experienced loss and wears it; Cage has no aim until she shows up, has no chance of success without her. She refuses to be victimized, earning her stripes as much as any man written on page has this summer. She co-leads, steals a kiss without looking back.
But, no, she”s not The One, like in The Matrix franchise; as The Week wrote, she has lots of feminist appeal but still “feed[s] male wish fulfillment.” It very well could have been Rita to win the game at the end, but we”re so used to Tom Cruise capturing the flag…
– Katie Hasty
– Donna Dickens
Damsel: Shailene Woodley”s Hazel certainly doesn”t suffer from cancer for the sake of furthering anyone else”s narrative, nope. Her lungs betray her, and during the extremes, she needs to be carried into the hospital or helped — but it's not vicitimize her or pump up Gus.
Cheescake: The closest we get is to Laura Dern in a towel, rushing from a shower to illustrate Frannie”s constant state of emergency. Hazel puts on a formal dress for a date, but she's presented modestly, no singing birds or inappropriate plunging necklines.
Bechdel test: Pass, with flying colors, between mom and daughter.
Leading ladies: “Fault” is one of the four box-office toppers on this list to have a female driving the film. Hazel”s mom Frannie and Lidewij (assistant to dirtbag novelist Van Houton) play important speaking roles too. Don”t forget that historical female Anne Frank actually serves as a major metaphor.
Analysis: “The Fault In Our Stars” is a woman”s romantic coming-of-ager as an axe hangs overhead. Hazel is obstinate to a — you guessed it — fault. While audiences learn more about Augustus in quick time due to his cocky and large-gesture personality, we learn about Hazel more slowly and delicately. She is tough without being stereotypically tomboy, avoiding that cinematic shorthand. She”s a complete character, with flaws and her own drive, humor, damage, desire and complex thoughts. She looks the part of a terminally ill teenager, too, with no sex-potting for the sake of screaming “female.”
While there was some unbelievable elements to her and Gus” painful love story (*cough* Anne Frank house, and the “dying a virgin” chat *cough*) Woodley”s performance and the script made this a lively romance and built a good female role.
There”s also a very strong female-centric scene in the film, when Hazel”s mom reveals that she”s taking classes in social work, in order to help other people faced with the same mortal ordeals. She also affirms that she”ll still be a “mother,” even after Hazel dies — an exploration of female identity outside of mere lip service.
– Katie Hasty
Ranked best, #1: “Tammy”
– Donna Dickens