HOLLYWOOD -- Maybe because I have seven nieces whose dreams matter to me, maybe because I have so many female friends whose talents dazzle me, or maybe just because I think it’s madness not to encourage and recognize the full potential of half of the human race, I keep looking to the movies for something better. For something more equitable. For women saving the world or saving the president or at the very least saving themselves.
Every so often I get my wish. This year it actually happened several times. The astronaut fighting to survive in Gravity, the kind of effects-laden extravaganza that typically drowns in testosterone, was played by Sandra Bullock. And in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire Jennifer Lawrence returned as Katniss Everdeen, the stoic, steely archer on whom nothing less than the hope for a livable tomorrow rests. Both movies made buckets of money, proving that audiences had no trouble, none at all, with a woman leading the way.
But around the same time that I savored this happy turn, I read some less happy news: Wonder Woman was finally en route to the silver screen — but not, alas, in a vehicle of her own. She’s slated to be an appendix to Superman and Batman in a sequel to Man of Steel. For all I know she’ll be zipping out to Starbucks for their lattes or the dry cleaner’s to fetch their capes. Meanwhile, producers scrape the bottom of the superhero barrel for male demigods to put in the foreground and the title. Just last week Variety disclosed that Paul Rudd was in talks to play “Ant-Man.” Yes, “Ant-Man.” The Green Hornet, Spider-Man — maybe Wonder Woman isn’t insect enough for the major leagues. Maybe she needs to make like a mantis.
For decades now a Wonder Woman movie has been chattered about, longed for, plotted, scuttled. The director and writer Joss Whedon took a failed stab at one after he did Buffy the Vampire Slayer on TV and before he included Scarlett Johansson in The Avengers. At this point it’s not so much an unrealized project as an ongoing taunt: a metaphor for the stubborn gender gap in the sorts of action-oriented blockbusters that rule the box office; proof that the more things change, the more they remain the same, at least in Hollywood, whose superficially progressive politics mask overwhelmingly conservative business instincts.
It doesn’t lead. It trails. Mary Barra reaches the apex of General Motors. Hillary Clinton dominates discussion of the 2016 presidential race. Diana Nyad crosses the shark-infested channel between Cuba and Key West. Wonder Woman’s golden lasso gathers dust as she waits for a movie to call her own.
“It’s been in development since the Pleistocene Era,” the producer Lynda Obst said over a late breakfast last week. You can’t write about women on-screen and not talk with Obst. Several of her movies, including Contact and The Siege, threw a spotlight on forceful female protagonists. Her recently published book, Sleepless in Hollywood: Tales from the New Abnormal in the Movie Business, has some incisive observations about the industry’s sexism. Also, she’s salty as a pretzel. No, saltier.
She quickly noted that yet another huge hit this year, The Heat, with Bullock as a prim FBI agent and Melissa McCarthy as a profane cop, used actresses in roles and a genre more often reserved for actors. Still, the industry refuses to believe that it’s not courting enormous risk to do this, and it routinely downplays the feminine factor.
With The Heat, Obst said, “The marketing directive was clearly that it was a coincidence that there were vaginas in the movie. Oh, are there vaginas? I didn’t notice!” This, remember, was late breakfast. Happy hour with Obst would be an unimaginable joy.
You also can’t write about women on-screen and not talk with the actress Geena Davis. A little more than five years ago, after noticing a paucity of female characters in the movies that her young daughter was watching, she founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and began sponsoring research into the images that Hollywood was and wasn’t putting out.
One of the most startling findings was that in group and crowd scenes in the G, PG and PG-13 movies that children watch, only 17 percent of the people are female. “In ratios, we haven’t gotten very far from Snow White and the seven dwarves,” Davis said on the phone. “We’re teaching kids from the very beginning that women take up less space.”
She said that women had only about 28 percent of speaking parts in mainstream movies of all kinds and that the number had inched up less than 1 percent over the last two decades. At this rate, Davis said with a laugh, “We’ll achieve parity in 700 years. I want to be very clear. We are dedicated at my institute to cutting that number in half.”
Lead roles in action movies are even more rare, and lead roles as superheroes rarest of all: Supergirl in 1984, Catwoman in 2004, Elektra the following year. All underperformed at the box office, and Hollywood got spooked, even though the reason was quality, not gender.
On television, which puts movies to shame, female spies, lawyers, detectives, profilers and forensic scientists abound. And a black female superhero runs Washington. The show is called Scandal.
Back in 1997 there was Buffy, which ran for seven seasons, and in 2001 there was Alias, with Jennifer Garner, which ran for five. Its creator, J.J. Abrams, told me: “I kept getting asked, ‘Why did you put a female at the center?’ I thought: It’s a 50-50 proposition. Why not a woman? Would I ever be asked this question if the lead was a man? No.”
The Bionic Woman and, yes, Wonder Woman were on television even earlier than that, in the 1970s. But their oddity was underscored by how tough it was to find female stunt doubles. Lynda Carter, who played Wonder Woman, recently told me that in the show’s pilot, “They used a hairy guy — I’m not kidding you — with a wig and a suit on. I said, ‘Wait a second. This doesn’t work.’ You could see hairy legs and all.” So they pulled the camera way back, she recalled, “and made him a little dot.”
There are more stuntwomen today, along with other signs of progress. A string of prominent animated movies over the last few years — Brave, Tangled, Frozen — have showcased strong female characters, though their marketing, including their titles, sought to obscure how woman-centric they were. Hollywood definitely knows how to hedge.
With The Hunger Games, has a corner irrevocably been turned? The franchise is a veritable juggernaut whose star, Lawrence, 23, refuses to play to girlie stereotype, cracking jokes during promotional interviews about her uneven breasts, uncontrollable bladder and episodes of gastrointestinal distress. Like Katniss, she could be transformative — both princess and tomboy, glamorous and earthy, gorgeous and wickedly talented. And she leads with her wit, not her body. I know many wonderful women like her. I just don’t usually get to see them on the covers of fashion magazines or on multiplex marquees. She’s a next-generation Angelina Jolie: all of the wiles, none of the weirdness.
But she’s in an industry where the overwhelming majority of decision makers and directors are men; where the reliance on pre-existing source material — comic books, video games — means that a gender disparity simply perpetuates itself; and where the robust ticket sales for Aliens, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and even Zero Dark Thirty don’t seem to spawn all the take-charge female characters that they should. Studio executives treat such hits as if they’re one-offs. “There’s this collective amnesia,” said Susan Cartsonis, a veteran producer. “Whenever a movie with a female icon at the center is successful, it’s a glorious fluke.”
Neither she nor Obst cares all that much about Wonder Woman per se. But they care hugely, as we all should, about glass ceilings and the inadequate breadth of what Hollywood, which shapes our culture every bit as much as it mirrors it, shows and tells girls (and boys).
“I want them to see women in the lead, women having adventures, women solving crises, women running toward, not away,” Obst said. Amen. Now, about those cocktails …
© 2013 New York Times News Service