Do Audiences Want Female Leads?

Ten years ago, I had a debate with a friend who worked in the film industry. I was complaining that we still didn’t have female leads in film, even though it looked like TV was starting to warm up slightly, with shows like Xena and Buffy that absolutely depended on female leads, and the X-Files which featured a well-received female that audiences liked. Why, I asked, were films starring women so rarely allowed to be anything but romantic comedies, or tear-jerking stories of a woman overcoming some stereotypically feminine challenge? Why did film have one Ripley to every three of TV’s Xena’s?

He spouted the traditional line that the film industry has been offering for some time now as an explanation: “Our marketing research shows that females go to the movies to see male leads, and males also go to the movies to see male leads.”

I asked why this was the case. I’ve asked it to a few other people in “the biz” over the years, and it appears no one’s interested in creating a theory. So I espoused the tongue-in-cheek theory that it’s all about sexual attraction, and this proved once and for all that all men are really inherently gay. (That’s a total joke, folks – I just like to stir up controversy where I perceive suspicious silence on an issue.)

Now, I want to debate this whole thing in a couple of different levels, and the floor is wide open to your comments (yes, I mean YOU).

“¢ Is it true that both females and males prefer to watch male leads on film? Or is it just that we’re so used to not having good female characters to choose from?
“¢ If it IS true that both genders prefer to watch male leads, why is that?

I personally think that *I* am happy to see a great character in either gender, but am inured to the fact that those roles are generally reserved for males. Looking at a list of my all-time favorite characters, it’s almost all-male… and yet, my first encounter with Xena was when she was on Hercules, and all I could think was, “Get this woman her own show.” When that actually happened, I thought the world had spun backwards on its axis. I thought originally that I liked Angel best of all the characters on Buffy, but when he got his own show, I never did enjoy how he or Cordelia changed on it, and found myself still fascinated by all the cast on Buffy for a couple more seasons.

And if you’ve read other entries, y’all know how I feel about most any character Joanna Lumley ever played.

This tells me that if the female characters are out there, I for one will watch them.

But what about the guys? The whole film industry revolves around the precious 18-25 year old white male market, and they are insisting these guys prefer to see the male action heroes to, say, a skimpily clad Lucy Lawless fighting bad guys on the big screen? Is this true? And if so, why is it so?


  1. says

    Our culture is constructed with a “male lense” of perception, meaning that even women in the West tend to view the world from a male perspective. Not just any male perspective, either, but the perspective of the culturally dominant white male heterosexual. So when we watch a film, we may like to look at a beautiful woman, but we’ve been culturally trained all our lives to -identify with- the male protagonist. So, yeah, it makes sense that most people are going to initially respond well to male leads moreso than to female leads.

    But just because that’s a standard doesn’t mean it always has to be that way, even now, or that that lense can’t change. There are the Alien movies, for example, which feature a strong female lead and which are pretty seriously popular amongst the demographic that usually adheres most strenuously to the dominant cultural lense (by which I mean, the young men who are growing up into the dominant cultural position). So obviously it’s -possible- to construct a female lead with wide appeal, and you don’t even have to over-sexualize her! Score!

    I guess I think looking at market trends as a producer of product is one thing… Refusing to analyze those trends or challenge those trends in the pursuit of innovation, however, is just laziness. Get off your asses, film-makers. It’s about goddamn time.

  2. Ankh says

    I think it has more to do with how women are written and the roles they are given rather than the gender of the lead character. Women are rarely written as the hero and are usually the love interest, victim or family member. I’m a big fan of buddy movies – it’s not that I dislike romances, While You Were Sleeping is one of my favourite movies. I thoroughly enjoyed A Knight’s Tale mainly because of the friendships and I was pleased as punch to see a woman as one of the buddies. The main female, however, annoyed the crap out of me. ‘Prove your love for me by letting yourself be bashed and battered and possibly killed’. Self-centred b*tch. I loathed her. Have her as a main character to cheer for? Forget it. Take the female farrier and armour maker, Kate, put her in the hero role of the knight, and I’d have no problem cheering her on as she bonded with her buddies, suffered, kicked-ass and triumphed. Hey, if they can play ‘We Will Rock You’ prior to jousting why not a female knight?

  3. says

    “The main female, however, annoyed the crap out of me. ‘Prove your love for me by letting yourself be bashed and battered and possibly killed’. Self-centred b*tch. I loathed her.”

    You are -so- right. I haaaate that character. But the lady blacksmith rocks my socks. So are roles for women written the way they are because of demographic concerns, or overwhelming cultural influence, or what? How do we go about getting more Kates?

  4. ankh says

    “How do we go about getting more Kates?”

    I suppose grabbing all the film and TV writers who write annoying female characters and locking them in a cellar would be a tad extreme… Theatre writers don’t seem to have the same problem. I wonder why? Perhaps because it’s for ‘art, dahling, art’ – therefore the writer isn’t aiming to grab as large an audience as possible and thus don’t feel they must package their females in neat little to-go boxes labelled Wife, Mother, Girlfriend etc. As for more Kates, I think we’d get ’em if writers would accept that women can be Friends Too. It’s a shocking concept for some guys – and, alas, for some women. Look at how many people assumed Scully and Mulder would end up having a romance, despite the fact they had an interesting friendship and partnership and Chris Carter said he wasn’t going to go there. Then Chris Carter went there. Head. Desk. Ow.

    Perhaps in order to get more Kates in buddy relationships you have to change this idea many viewers have that Boy + Girl = Romance. In some ways it’s a self-perpetuating problem. The audience expects B + G = Romance. The writers write B + G = Romance. The more times B + G = Romance the more the audience expects B + … etc. So did the writers start this now hackneyed formula or did the audience already have it in their mind that, if you have a man and a woman working together or interacting to some degree, the urge to snog while some invisible orchestra saws away at violins will inevitably arise? Perhaps the only way we can have our Kates is to shove another woman in as some sort of sacrificial goat to suffer the mind-numbing bleedin’ boredom of being Love Interest Version 3 while Kate gets to do the cool stuff.

  5. MaggieCat says

    The main female, however, annoyed the crap out of me. ‘Prove your love for me by letting yourself be bashed and battered and possibly killed’. Self-centred b*tch.

    But that wasn’t the point. Now I love this movie, and I didn’t particularly love Jocelyn mostly because I don’t care for the actress who played her, but I loved when she told him that if he really wanted to prove that he loved her he should lose.

    Because it finally addressed a huge issue I’ve always had with this sort of story– the whole supposedly romantic “and I’ll win this for you”. That’s a load of crap, and it was fabulous to finally see a character who recognized it for the bullshit it is. That sort of thing has nothing to do with her, it’s all about Will’s ego. He would have tried to win whether she was there or not. Telling him that if he’s going to be stupid enough to think that some sort of grand gesture is going to prove that he loves her attaching it to what he’d normally do anyway is meaningless actually shows an awareness that just ending up with the guy who wins the most isn’t the main goal of every woman’s life.

    She didn’t say he needed to repeatedly get the crap beaten out of him, he could have just as easily lost once and then forfeited which would have achieved the same end– not expecting her to take the fact that he’ll “share” the glory of winning with her as some huge declaration of love when it’s a hollow gesture for his own prestige– but he assumed that’s what it meant because he didn’t get it. Mark Addy’s character says as much, but Will insists on sitting there like a big dumb target because he doesn’t have a clue what the point actually is. In fact I’m not quite sure he ever does, but he is willing to listen to what she’s telling him even if he chooses the stupidest path to get there, which is at least a step forward.

  6. diane says

    When we hear the word “hero” we think of a male, never a female. The problem is that our culture despises everything that does not fall into the category of the Perfect Male (meaning, women, children, the elderly, and men who do not fall into the stereotype).
    Good female leads are difficult to find, because most stories are written in the same macho perspective. But here are heroines out here. I love Buffy as an example of a strong, intelligent and amazing woman who is a true heroine. Xena disappointed me greatly. The moral of the story is: you can’t be true friends if you are women, beacause secretly you want to be involved romantically. Again, this speaks about men’s point of view: the old “women can’t be friends” crap.
    There are plenty of stories where women are heroines in all the sense of the word. Let’s hope we see more of them in TV and films.

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