Women in the Movies

I recently read an article about how the roles for women in movies in 2012 was at a 5 year low.

This struck me as quite odd since I had the perception that the roles of women in popular culture, and specifically in fiction, had been on a steady rise. I realized I had this perception from the movies and books I was choosing to read, and perhaps a bit from the American right wing's attacks on women's basic rights (figuring that they were instigated by insecure males threatened by the rising power of women—and let me be clear here, we're talking about women's rise to EQUALITY not a rise to a position above that of men). I felt a bit lost by the article I read, so I read another, and another, and decided that my perception of things might need some adjustment. I consider myself very pro-women in general and I really wanted to be right about the rising power of women in fiction.

After reading 3, virtually identical articles (here's one) about the decrease in women's roles in blockbuster films citing the same study by Professor Stacy L Smith of USC, I decided to look at the data myself. Unlike the study, I only looked at the top 10 box office blockbusters just because I don't have the time to go through 500 movies for each year. I am also holding out hope that the popularity of these movies in some way represents the most popular public portrayals of women in American culture.

So what were the top blockbusters of the last five years? (taken from boxofficemojo.com)

Year/Movie                                                 Female Heroine(s)?      Important Overall Female Role?

Spider-Man 3                                                         No                  Not really
Shrek the Third                                                       No                      No
Transformers                                                          No                       No
Pirates of the Carribean: At World's End                Yes                       No
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix              Yes                     Yes
I am Legend                                                           No                      No
The Bourne Ultimatum                                            No                      No
National Treasure: Book of Secrets                        No                       No
Alvin and the Chipmunks                                        No                       No
300                                                                        No                   No (debatable)

The Dark Knight                                                      No                      No
Iron Man                                                                 No                      No
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull   No                     No
Hancock                                                                  No               Didn't See It
WALL-E                                                                Yes                     Yes
Kung Fu Panda                                                        Yes                   Yes
Twilight                                                                    Yes                    Yes
Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa                                    Yes                  Yes
Quantum of Solace                                                    No                    No
Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who!                               No                Didn't See It

Avatar                                                                     Yes                Yes
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen                          No          Didn't See It
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince                    Yes                Yes
The Twilight Saga: New Moon                                  Yes               Yes
Up                                                                            No            No (Debatable)
The Hangover                                                           No                  No
Star Trek                                                                  Yes                  Yes
The Blind Side                                                           Yes                 Yes
Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel                  No              Didn't See It
Sherlock Holmes                                                        No                   No

Toy Story 3                                                                 No              Didn't See It
Alice in Wonderland                                                   Yes                  Yes
Iron Man 2                                                                  No                     No
The Twilight Saga: Eclipse                                           Yes                     Yes
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1                Yes                    Yes
Inception                                                                    Yes                     Yes
Despicable Me                                                            Yes                 Didn't See It
Shrek Forever After                                                    Yes? (Fiona?)  Didn't See It
How to Train Your Dragon                                         Yes                      Yes
Tangled                                                                       Yes           Yes? Didn't See It

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2                   Yes                    Yes
Transformers: Dark of the Moon                                      No             Didn't See It
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1                        Yes                   Yes
The Hangover Part 2                                                         No                  No
Pirates of the Carribean: On Stranger Tides                      Yes             Didn't See It
Fast Five                                                                            ?               Didn't See It
Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol                                 Yes?           Didn't See It
Cars 2                                                                               ?                Didn't See It
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows                             No                  No
Thor                                                                                Yes                   No

Marvel's the Avengers                                                Yes        No (see note below)
The Dark Knight Rises                                                Yes        No (see note below)
The Hunger Games                                                      Yes               Yes
Skyfall                                                                          No                No
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey                             No                No
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2                      Yes              Yes
The Amazing Spider-Man                                             No              Not Really
Brave                                                                           Yes              Yes
Ted                                                                              No          Didn't See It
Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted                          Yes        Didn't See It

My assessment of the movies above may be somewhat flawed as I didn't see the majority of them and I'm going off of a degree of guesswork from trailers and what I know of them.


* Note about Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises-
Yes Scarlet Johansson and Ann Hathaway played female leads, but I don't think they were very strong characters. I was honestly annoyed at the portrayal of the Black Widow in both Iron Man 2 and Avengers (if she's going to appear again, I really, really hope they make her train hard(er) to fight and run. It hurts me every time she tries to in the movie. Compare her to someone who can actually fight like Michelle Yoh to see what I mean). Cat Woman was almost irrelevant in the Dark Knight Rises as well. You'd have the exact same movie without her involved. She felt like she was squeezed in there just to have her.

So judging solely by the top 10 box office results for each year, I have to say I somewhat disagree with the article's assessment (again, I didn't look at nearly the number of movies the researcher did), but there is still a disturbing trend here.

Although recent movies like The Hunger Games, Brave, and Twilight were positive portrayals of strong women (I would argue that Twilight isn't, actually but I'm playing along with what the article said on that one) they don't even come close to making up for the vast deficiency in our culture's fictional media in general—in movies in this case—when it comes to the roles of women. This year's Star Trek Into Darkness is being praised as being one of the most positive female portrayal movies in recent memory. I think that's fantastic, but at the same time it stands out as such because everything around it doesn't measure up.

Amazon Preparing for the Battle
Pierre Eugene Emile Herbert 1860
Source: Wikimedia Commons
I still want to believe that overall the portrayal and status of women in America is on the rise, but I am forced to abandon my former view as the data doesn't support that conclusion. I think the article is right to point out the lack of good heroines in our contemporary cultural mythology (yes, I think of fiction that way), and there really needs to be more movies, books, and TV shows made like the Hunger Games and Brave that show women playing an essential role in society and in the role of adventure—because they really do. I'd also like to see the whole damsel in distress thing go away. If a story calls for the capture of a heroine, fine, but I want to see her take out 20 guys on the way down or curse they kidnappers out defiantly (or something like that; just no whimpering "help me help me" or whatnot). Some of the bravest, strongest, and most forgiving people I know are women and it's time that image became the norm.


  1. Your "important overall" is really, really subjective. I would say the women in Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows had important parts to play (keep in mind it's Watson and Noomi Rapace's character working together at the ball at the end, while Holmes is having his chess game out on the balcony). And Rachel was important in The Dark Knight, though admittedly only as the love interest. Meanwhile, I would hope you're not counting Uhura as important in the first Star Trek movie because she really wasn't plot important - her job was to be a sticking point between Kirk and Spock... to be the woman stuck in the middle (even if it's only from Kirk's perspective) Her role in Into Darkness was way more important.

    And in Despicable Me, Ted, and Hancock, the women were important, fyi.

    (See Ted... it's actually funny.)

  2. Interesting list. I disagree with your assessment of the female's importance in Skyfall. Judi Dench's character M had a profound impact on Bond as well as the movie--and the motivation behind the villain. Your posts are always interesting.

    1. I was really torn about Skyfall, and actually I think you're right--I did goof there. M is absolutely critical to the plot. My apologies for the mistake (and thank you for catching it!)

      Also, thank you for the compliment! I'll try to keep them that way.


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