'Females are strong as hell'

How a greater conversation about gender played out in movies and TV in 2015

Tuesday December 22, 2015 04:00 am EST

Jurassic World set box office records with its debut in June, but half a year later, the arguments surrounding its gender roles have had more staying power than its actual story. More passion was expressed in critiques of Bryce Dallas Howard's stereotypically uptight, high heel-wearing executive than could be found in the film's spectacle of prehistoric beasts running amok.

Throughout 2015, deeply felt discussions on female representation would reoccur on blogs and social media with every pop culture event, whether a major movie, a significant TV episode, or even the debuts of trailers or press releases.

Specific topics would differ — why hasn't Marvel Studios cast a female lead in one of its films? Do the companions of "Doctor Who" have enough agency to be well-rounded characters? — but the overall conversation was essentially the same. It boils down to how well Hollywood represents half the world's population and the challenges they face, i.e., topics of feminism and sexism. These discussions can get extremely heated on social media, but the greater conversation has more real-world consequence than any individual work's jokes or action scenes or planet-threatening plots. (Note: This story contains some spoilers from film and television of 2015.)

Marvel's Ant-Man, for instance, features a subplot about why inventor Hank Pym doesn't want to bequeath his size-changing super-suit to his daughter (Evangeline Lilly). In a closing credits stinger, he finally presents her with one, and she declares, "About damn time." It's as if Marvel itself apologized for being behind the curve.

Marvel proved more proactive with its television series. "Agent Carter," a spin-off of Captain America: The First Avenger, has Hayley Atwell's highly capable operative butting heads with chauvinists at a post World War II intelligence agency. Likable and well-meaning, "Agent Carter" also felt a little too glossy and conventional, tut-tutting over the sexism of past generations more than present-day problems.

Marvel's Netflix show "Jessica Jones," by contrast, engaged feminist issues head-on. Krysten Ritter's former superhero-turned-private investigator demonstrated self-destructive behavior, including heavy drinking, but not out of film noir clichés. Instead, Jones' story lines involved her recovery from trauma at the hands of the antagonist Kilgrave (David Tennant), who possessed irresistible mind control powers. "Jessica Jones" compellingly explored the comic book/horror story implications of such an adversary, without shirking from its implications about rape.

That conflict found similar but much less brutal echo in Star Wars: The Force Awakens when the villainous Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) attempted to impose his will, Kilgrave-like, on young heroine Rey (Daisy Ridley). Through their conflict, Rey finds inner resources to challenge her male antagonists. Rey, as arguably the film's hero, gave Star Wars a chance to redress its mixed treatment of its female characters.

In a striking coincidence, three major works of the past year — the movies Room and Mad Max: Fury Road and the Netflix comedy series "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" — all involve women finding freedom after being held in confinement for years by male oppressors. Where Room offered a grim but redemptive drama and Fury Road a breathtaking action film, "Kimmy" unfolded as a screwball comedy, and understandably avoided the premise's sexual implications. (We can only assume that the religious nut, Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne, never had sexual relations with the women he kept in the underground bunker, as the show emphasizes the Rip Van Winkle side of the premise.)

Fury Road's overt feminism incurred hostility from the men's rights crowd. Not only were Tom Hardy's Max and Charlize Theron's Furiosa clearly co-leads in the film, Max proved the subordinate partner in nearly every circumstance, choosing to help rescue the male villains' captive wives while Furiosa literally stays in the driver's seat.

The intense drug war thriller Sicario employs institutional sexism to a thematic end, as Emily Blunt's strong, capable FBI agent finds herself manipulated and at times physically restrained by male colleagues. Her loss of control reinforces the film's scathing attack on extralegal tactics in the drug war.

Other powerful works scrutinized the male gaze. In Ex Machina, a computer programmer subjected a female android to personality tests, in so doing challenging flawed male attitudes about women. But the best treatment of the topic — and arguably 2015's comedic highlight — came in "Inside Amy Schumer's" episode-length sketch "12 Angry Men." A note-perfect parody of the 1957 jury deliberation film depicted a cast of character actors debating the question of whether Schumer "is hot enough to be on television," mercilessly and hilariously exploring every male double standard involving women's physical appearances.

Hollywood's poor record finding roles for older actresses continues (Joy is the latest film that casts Jennifer Lawrence as a character who seems much older than the actress herself). But two of 2015's most insightful films depict the psychology of teenage girls. The Diary of a Teenage Girl presented a raw account of a young woman coming of age both sexually as an artist, while Inside/Out offered an ingenious vision of adolescent psychology, memory, and inner emotional life.

Some of the richest, subtlest metaphors for gender issues appeared on the Cartoon Network's "Steven Universe," depicting the half-human title character's life with "The Crystal Gems," three super-powered alien protectors of Earth. The Gems' ability to create fusions — that is, to combine two individuals as one — proved a fascinating means to explore topics of relationships, loneliness, consent, and identity. "Steven Universe" was one of 2015's most interesting shows about women, even despite having a male as a central character. You can't win 'em all, I guess.

More By This Writer

Short Subjectives April 15 2009 Article

Wednesday April 15, 2009 04:00 am EDT

Hollywood Product March 22 2006 Article

Thursday October 14, 2004 12:04 am EDT

Movie Review - Horror throwback The House of the Devil thrills and chills Article

Is Jocelin Donahue this generation's Jamie Lee Curtis?
Monday February 15, 2010 04:00 am EST

Movie Review - Thick as thieves - The Score Article

Film legends fritter away talent on The Score
Wednesday July 18, 2001 12:04 am EDT

Movie Review - Twist of fate Article

Monster's Ball takes a wrenching look at race relations
Wednesday February 6, 2002 12:04 am EST
Search for more by Curt Holman