If audiences don’t want women as leads, why did Aliens succeed?

When I was working in film, I asked many people why blockbuster movies so rarely featured female leads. In response, I was always assured that mountains of hard-data proof indicated audiences won’t accept female lead characters in blockbuster movies. For some reason, perhaps given the time period, Barb Wire (Pamela Anderson) was frequently cited as proof of this – as if nothing could have possibly held that movie back other than its lead character not being Bob Wire. One of the counter-arguments I always offered was: then how come Alien (Sigourney Weaver) not only succeeded, but spawned a highly successful franchise, complete with merchandising?

It was a fluke, came the answer. This was a deflection, not a response. As the link details, any “fluke” in which a male-led movie makes more money than expected gets scrutinized so filmmakers can figure out how to replicate its success. This never happened with Alien.

I’m going to attempt it now. I don’t have any hard data or numbers or any of that stuff. How could I? There aren’t enough blockbusters with female leads to fill up a sample pool. But in the absence of ideal data, it is possible to come up with good theories that help researchers ask the right questions of the data they have (since asking the right questions is as essential for good results as the scientific process itself).

Ellen Ripley v. other female leads

Let’s compare and contrast a few female leads and see if we get a pattern. As I said above, we don’t have enough to consider this statistical, but we’re just looking for a starting point. Besides Aliens, I can think of one other female-led action movie that was successful enough to at least spawn a franchise: Underworld (Kate Beckinsale). And two female-led movies regarded as financial disappointments would be Aeon Flux (Charlize Theron) and Catwoman (Halle Berry) – neither of which even made back their budgets on the gross revenues.

Let’s start with the most obvious: appearance. All four lead actresses are beautiful by Hollywood standards, so it’s not that either set of movies had more or less beautiful leads than the others. I’m ignoring acting ability, since that has never been correlated to movie success and is a highly subjective metric, anyway.

Here are images of:

Sigourney Weaver in a t-shirt with messy short hair, holding a big gun

Sigourney Weaver in Alien.

Kate Beckinsale in fitted, but not skin-tight, black leatherish suit

Kate Beckinsale in Underworld.

Charlize Theron in black leatherish suite with exposed cleavage, sexy-messy hair, holding a gun

Charlize Theron in Aeon Flux. And finally…

Halle Berry in a black leather-ish bra and low-slung pants, and a mask

I see a pattern – how about you? Theron and Berry are way sexed up in those costumes – lots of cleavage and skin showing. Beckinsale’s tight clothing doesn’t call particular attention to her breasts, hips or legs. And Weaver, god bless her, except for that one infamous underwear scene in the first movie, looks like a woman who never wears makeup and is fighting for her life. Weaver and Theron are both using guns, but Theron’s hair is perfectly smooth and mussed in a cute way. Weaver’s looks real, and it’s not a particularly attractive look.

Other sexy flops include: Ultraviolet, Elektra, Charlie’s Angels, and Doomsday. On the other side (less sexy successes) we have Kill Bill and Resident Evil.

But we’re told sex sells. So how come the movies with less sexed-up leads succeeded and the more sexed-up ones flopped? (Don’t worry – I’ll get to Lara Croft later.)

Getting inside men’s heads

If, as conventional wisdom assures us, a young male audience is essential to a blockbuster movie’s success, and most young men are attracted to women, you’d expect the opposite. Assuming this is a real trend, what could explain it? What might be happening in the heads of men watching these movies?

Michelle Pfeiffer in a tight black leatherish suitI started by asking myself what happens in my head. Why did I see Aliens and Underworld, but ignore the other two films? Because I find hyper-sexualized women distracting. I adore Charlize Theron, but I know I’ll have trouble paying attention to the movie if her breasts are being carefully framed for me in every shot. I don’t particularly like Halle Berry, to be honest, but I’d certainly have been more open to seeing the movie if she’d been put in something like Michelle Pfeiffer’s costume – like Beckinsale’s costume, it doesn’t call particular attention to her curves, even though it’s tight.

And here’s the question that finally hit me one day: what if men find that pandering sexed-up look distracting from the action? What if, like me, they find it hard to concentrate on both the plot-advancing action and some actress’ half-exposed breasts or acres of skin? Just because you like something doesn’t mean it isn’t distracting from other things you like, right? I like singing and I like eating, but you just can’t do both at the same time. Maybe looking at people you find attractive and watching a plot unfold are similarly incompatible.

So then I asked myself about my own reaction to blockbuster movies with leads I consider gorgeous, and I got the same answer, even though they never sex up the male leads like they do the women. Sexual interest and concentration on a story are mutually exclusive. If every scene is both unfolding the plot and titillating you, your brain tries to split in two directions, gets frustrated, and doesn’t enjoy either.

Women leads, not sexpot leads

Jolie with her back to the camera, twisting so you can also see her breast in profile, not wearing a lotWhat if the answer is that audiences never rejected “women” as action or sci-fi leads, and instead rejected distractingly sexed-up leads (which just always and exclusively happen to be women)? Well, if I’m right about that, how do I explain the success of the Lara Croft movies, despite Angelina Jolie’s highly sexed-up appearance?

By all accounts – even the few positive reviews – the Lara Croft movies were pretty silly. There was little story for Jolie’s appearance to distract anyone from. This was exactly the right formula for adapting a video game that featured one of the most drooled-over animated characters of all time. Men adored Croft like they adored Jessica Rabbit. So they cast Croft with a beautiful actress, costumed her so you couldn’t miss her breasts, and put a bit of story in the background just as an excuse to keep filming her. It was, in short, for those who wanted a little story with their sex.

And while no one wants to admit this, you can do the same thing with male leads and also profit. (I knew young women who saw Point Break quite a few times in the theater and never could tell me what the plot was. Thank Kathryn Bigelow for getting it.)

So I call this an “alternate formula” for blockbuster success: the low-story, camera-drooling-over-the-lead formula. Catwoman missed it by incorporating a lead character whose development was central to the story (thereby rendering the story essential), and Aeon Flux was based on a TV series which had a strong story that fans loved (maybe you can get by with sexed-up female leads in TV sometimes, because there’s just more time for everything than there is in film).

Taking women seriously

Or here’s a slight twist on my above theory: what if audiences never rejected female leads, but instead reject leads they can’t take seriously? When someone’s being served up on a sexual silver platter for you, it’s hard to imagine they’re in control of their destiny, or even trying to be. Action leads need to have agency. What if overly sexy costumes work against actors the way Botox does, rendering them incapable of putting across that authenticity that’s so essential in movies where outlandish things are happening?

So there you have it: two possible conclusions based on one theory which fits at least some of the available facts. What do you think?


  1. The Other Patrick says

    All I can say is Linda Hamilton. She is the prime example of an action heroine buffing up for her part like men are wont to do, not becoming extra slim (because the slimmer the woman, the stronger). And Sarah Connor is still considered to be iconic by men and women alike.

      • says

        Which is always so weird to hear, because of everything in those movies he always bothers me. Well, the only role I’ve ever been like “yeah!” for him over was his part in “The Last Action Hero.” Definitely my favorite Arnold.

        • says

          …and Last Action Hero is regarded as one of the more embarrassing flops of all time! I actually enjoyed it at the time!

          Yeah, I admit I always assumed the determination to credit A.S. with the success of that franchise was full-on bullshit of the most splattery degree. I have never heard an actual fan of the franchise go on and on about him, but I have heard them go on at great length about her. And why not? She knows the future, and she’s still willing to fight the hell out of it. What rocks more than that?

          • SunlessNick says

            Sarah Connor is the character who’s in the same knowledge-place as the audience. In the first, she has no idea what’s going on, and learns it as we do; in the second, she’s the voice in the wilderness, the one who does know what the horror is. Of course we identify with her.

            She knows the future, and she’s still willing to fight the hell out of it.

            There’s a deleted scene on the DVD, where Sarah argues Kyle into going after Cyberdyne Systems then and there (that’s originally why they were making the pipe bombs, even if they ended up using them to fight the Terminator).

          • Finbarr Ryan says

            I picked up the first two Terminator movies a few weeks ago, and looking at the DVD covers it struck me how asinine it was that Schwarzenegger was on both covers. The first one? Fine, he’s the titular character, I get that. Judgment Day though? C’mon, Linda Hamilton completely steals the show! (Hell, if they wanted to be consistent they should have put Robert Patrick on there. But I’d much rather see Hamilton. :D)

            There’s a deleted scene on the DVD, where Sarah argues Kyle into going after Cyberdyne Systems then and there (that’s originally why they were making the pipe bombs, even if they ended up using them to fight the Terminator).

            God, I loved that subplot when I saw it on the DVD. I really wish they’d found a way to fit it in to the film. It really would have made Connor a more active protagonist in the first one, and it sets up both the plot and her character development in the sequel so nicely.

      • Patrick McGraw says

        Most tellingly, when Terminator 3 came out and didn’t do as well, the studio made all sorts of excuses, even though it had just as much Arnold. The fact that Linda Hamilton wasn’t in it was obviously not a factor.

        Those men who supposedly won;t see movies with female leads? The reason I (and a number of other men) did not see Terminator 3 was because Linda Hamilton wasn’t in it.

        But there’s no way there were enough such people that it hurt the movie’s sucess, right? Must have been some other reason.

  2. Maria says

    I think the other thing about Lara Croft is that is’ very tongue-in-check. I’m thinking for example of that hot shower scene, where the male love interest… just poses… for like a minute and a half… under hot water. <3 It’s hot but also ridiculous, and not the kind of HAHA AREN’T DITZY CHICKS FUNNY way you get with “chick flicks.” It’s more a “isn’t this genre redonk? don’t you love things exploding? also: curses!!!” way.

    • Maria says

      I watched Aeon Flux and Catwoman, and I think that self-awareness/humor is key… those are both ponderously SERIOUS movies about BIG IMPORTANT ISSUES.

      I also am thinking about how, with Gothika, Berry’s body “matched” her role — she wasn’t supposed to be strong, she was supposed to be smart. She’s not super sexy in an unlikely way, either.

        • Maria says

          I’m also thinking of how issues are presented. In a way, Gothika’s about the power mental health professionals have over their patients — the Penelope Cruz character and the ghost haunting Berry’s character are both rape survivors, and were raped by two men in positions of authority, and were not believed because of those men’s power. Berry is caught in a similar bind when they say she’s having a break down or whatever, and for similar reasons — I think the bad cop wants to rape her too? IDK it’s been awhile. Anyways, they’re not LOOK AT THE STRUCTURE OF THESE ISSUES, like with Aeon Flux, but more like LOOK AT THE PEOPLE HURT BY THESE ISSUES.

          God, I hated Aeon Flux. It’s not even comforting backgorund noise when you’re folding clothes.

          • SunlessNick says

            Berry is caught in a similar bind when they say she’s having a break down or whatever, and for similar reasons — I think the bad cop wants to rape her too?

            The ghost possessed Berry to murder her (Berry’s) husband, who was the doctor-rapist rather than cop-rapist. Which of course means it looked like Berry did it.

            But the ghost wasn’t just out for revenge – there was another victim still alive, and the ghost was trying to lead Berry to save her. Paralleled by Cruz’s character not giving in to resentment of the doubts Berry’s had had of her, instead offering what little help she could. That was what elevated the film for me.

      • DM says

        That’s part of what was so disappointing about the Aeon Flux adaptation, the series was pretty sarcastic, Aeon had a sadistic, quirky sense of humor, and was very aware of absurdity. And every molecule of that was stripped from the film.

        • Maria says

          YES! Even the humor of What’s His Name being her one true love was played for laughs, as were their weird kinks!! It’s truly AMAZING how even a cursory glance at the original material would’ve greatly improved the movie.

  3. Firebird says

    I find myself wondering if the movies that flop while simultaneously amping up the sexual availability of the female star to the audience aren’t trying badly for a part of the market share dominated by a very successful industry – pornography. I have seen the websites – free, a lot of the them – that cater to these appetites. One can queue up movies with exactly the scenarios one prefers – biracial, perhaps, or particular types of sex acts. If a person is supposed to go to a movie at a theatre, spending quite a bit of money for a movie ticket, sit in public, and be sexually titillated by the actress/actor in public while also focusing on the storyline…a lot of men don’t even like their girlfriends/wives present while watching porn and certainly one can’t do in public what one can in one’s own bedroom.

    I had heard the criticism of movies like that that they look like porn (as in, they are corrupting society) but I hadn’t thought of them as presenting really poor competition with porn as a possibility for why they sometimes don’t succeed.

    • says

      Very good points! I think you’re exactly right – the “sex sells” concept is putting industries in competition with porn rather than giving the average person a little thrill s/he wouldn’t otherwise encounter.

      • Charlie says

        Yeah, if I wanted porn I would go watch actual porn instead of Hollywood porn-lite. Seeing these leading actresses half naked just isn’t that titillating compared to seeing people who are actually naked.

    • Patrick McGraw says

      There’s also the fact that the mainstream porn industry features a wider variety of women’s appearances and body types than Hollywood does.

      This is not meant as a compliment of the porn industry (which still has a ridiculously narrow definition of female attractiveness outside of mainstream porn), but as further criticism of Hollywood.

      Perhaps most notably, the average weight of female performers in porn is much healthier than in Hollywood. Performers such as Gianna Michaels are major stars, where Hollywood would regulate them to the “chubby” best friend in chick flicks if they cast them at all.

  4. cycles says

    “When someone’s being served up on a sexual silver platter for you, it’s hard to imagine they’re in control of their destiny, or even trying to be.”

    This is brilliant. I wonder how much this also has to do with the hot ditz factor; if a woman is attractive, she cannot be funny, powerful, smart, strong or capable. And a woman absolutely must be attractive to appear in film; it’s, like, the law or something.

    As a corollary, I also find it distracting (I’m a woman) when a character is done up with over-the-top hair, makeup and clothes throughout the whole movie, because I catch myself envying her perfection, or even laughing at the idea that anybody has a full face of makeup intact when they wake up in the morning or survive a helicopter crash or whatever. It spurs a self-reflective moment (I wonder if I could do my hair that way next time I go to a party) that has nothing to do with the movie.

    Even on a meta level, when I’m making fun of the ridiculous stuff in my mind, it distracts from the film. So for me it’s not just about the sexed-up appearance, but about the obvious artifice in everything that has to do with making your average female character look acceptable for audiences that have come to expect an unreal level of glamour. And that gets in the way of whatever she’s trying to do or say.

    • says

      LOLME2! I so often find my mind drifting to how an actress’ makeup look was achieved or hair was styled, and can I do that, and would it look good on me? Meanwhile, the plot has moved on and I don’t know what’s happening anymore.

      • Dani says

        Ahaha! That happens to me too. My creative writing class in undergrad pounded “believability” into my skull, which only adds to the detachment I feel when a female character’s appearance is the most important thing about her. For example, when all of the male characters are dressed in acceptable clothing for whatever they may be doing, but the female is in a bikini, I can’t help but wonder something like “wait…she’s going to fight in THAT?” Whether it’s in irritation or amusement, it still takes away from the story.

  5. Mel says

    Anecdata from my circle of friends: just like many of the women like to see attractive male action stars get dirty and bloody and messy and kick ass, a lot of the men like to see attractive female action stars get dirty and bloody and messy and kick ass. There are a lot fewer movies in the latter genre. I’m not sure that it’s that most people can’t go simultaneously go “oooh, hot!” and enjoy the plot (or explosions, at any rate), but there’s a world of difference between the airbrushed perfection porn type of hot and the dirty, gritty, “realistic”* kind of hot. I think a lot of people prefer the latter in their action movies, and the latter is also more enjoyable if you don’t find the lead(s) attractive, and so makes a better date or group movie for the average person–after all, even if both halves of a couple like women (or men), there’s no guarantee they like the same ones, and a group is going to be even more split.

    Action leads need to have agency. What if overly sexy costumes work against actors the way Botox does, rendering them incapable of putting across that authenticity that’s so essential in movies where outlandish things are happening?

    I think that’s a big chunk of it.

    *I don’t think action movies are realistic, but there’s that appearance of realism that audiences like.

    • says

      That’s what I was struggling to describe with “authenticity” even in the face of ludicrous stories. :)

      And yes, I think a lot of men find women who actually look bloody and messy and kick-ass attractive. Your description reminded me of Aeryn Sun on Farscape – she never looked dolled up, IIRC, and if she was in the middle of messy action, she got messy. She was very much allowed to express the authenticity that male characters do.

      • Funder says

        Y’all are right. I always enjoy a movie WAY more if a female character gets at all dirty in the course of her adventures.

      • Patrick McGraw says

        And yes, I think a lot of men find women who actually look bloody and messy and kick-ass attractive.

        You’ve just described the bulk of Michelle Rodriguez’s male fans.

      • Robin says

        Mmm… Aeryn is an avenging goddess in the later seasons. Which is not to say that she became hypersexualized. Claudia just got better at fighting as the years went on. (And they got increasingly bigger guns.) But she was badass from the beginning.

        That’s a big part of what I like about Olivia Dunham on Fringe as well. She never really looks made up, and she’s slender in a believable “fighting fit” sort of way rather than being waifish. And, yeah, she gets beat up and dirty a lot.

        • Funder says

          I love Olivia – she’s one of the better characters on TV right now – but she’s got stupid shoes. If I were an FBI agent I would be wearing some comfy combat boots, or flats if I HAD to dress up.

          My husband won’t even watch House with me anymore because I cannot suspend my disbelief about doctors in a hospital in pointy spike heels, and I also cannot shut up about it. 😉

        • says

          Long as we’re listing, Zoe Washburne (Firefly) kicks ass, and while she looks good doing it, she is clearly a soldier not a sexpot.

          • says

            Apologies, but I thought we were just listing strong female main characters, not just leads.

            I only watched the 1st season of Farscape, but Aeryn Sun (who prompted this) isn’t the lead either…that’s Crichton, who is also a pretty typical male lead.

            Sorry…I have a special love for Zoe, because of her relationship; I love couples where the woman is the warrior and the man isn’t.

          • says

            I don’t think Maria was saying you’re off-topic (you’re not; we were indeed just naming female characters who subvert the stereotypes) – just that it’s really, really frustrating that none of these women can be leads because “a woman can’t carry an action film/show.”

            Even though loads of men in the target audience adore these characters. Nah, that just wouldn’t hold their attention. /sarcasm.

            • Maria says

              That’s what I was getting at. I don’t have enough eyes to roll for how over Malcolm Reynolds I am. It’d be mildly interesting if they made him more than a one note character, but he’s depressingly predictable… which sucks because I think Nathan Fillion could’ve handled a believable funny, snarky vet with PTSD and trust issues with great aplomb.

          • SunlessNick says

            I’d also disagree that Crichton was entirely typical either. Just as Aeryn was allowed to get messy and sweaty,* John was allowed to get emotional and victimised.

            * As opposed to “glowing.”

            Olivia Dunham is one of my favourite TV characters right now; together with Helen Magnus of Sanctuary. Both are both intelligent and strong. Different kinds of intelligence too, with Helen Magnus in particular shown to deliberately recruit in order to supplement the weak points in how she thinks – ie, she’s not the “I can handle everything” type who’s destined to be proved wrong, but the “I have this and this so I need that and that” who’s proved right).

  6. Funder says

    I’m with Cycles – I get seriously distracted by overly perfect action stars. Usually the shoes. I can’t even walk in high heels and I’m supposed to believe these women are running and kickboxing and firing grenade launchers in platform spike boots??

    I wanted to add the Fast and Furious franchise to the “sexpot male leads” category. I secretly adore them, but I have no idea what the plot is. It’s just a lot of fast cars and Vin Diesel and that blonde fellow.

      • Funder says

        Don’t try, you’ll just hurt your head. I’ve tried to follow the “plot” and it’s always totally absurd. Just turn your brain off and watch the action. 😉

        • Maria says

          Romeo Must Die and Ninja Assassin are my hot male lead movies of choice.

          When Rain does yoga shirtless it’s CHARACTER BUILDING goddamn. <3 <3 <3 Plus, the snark. <3 <3 <3

          • says

            I have way too many eye candy boys that make me drool. Can’t even begin to name them all! My sister and I made a Sexy Beast list when we were younger…like when I was in middle school. You can tell we were silly silly people because a good half of the list were characters from anime…^^;;;;;

            We’ve added live action characters/people since. But I’ll always think of Fulcan Fanel of Fanelia as sexy beast # 1. Blue hair, wings, and a mechanical prosthesis. Oh, and did I mention that blue hair was a mullet? XD

          • Maria says

            ANYONE from Spartacus: Blood and Sand. Everyone is pretty, everyone is dirty… it’s a shipper’s delight.

    • Patrick McGraw says

      I know a number of women who will see anything Jason Statham is in. When asked “what is tha plot about?” there appears to be an inverse relationship between how detailed the response is and how many shirtless scenes Statham has.

      Snatch: “A bunch of British low-lifes involved in diamond theft and illegal boxing get mixed up together.”
      The Transporter: “Statham is hot. I think there were cars.”

    • Robin says

      Just to play devil’s advocate — I own a pair of boots that have 5-inch stiletto heels (bought for Rocky Horror purposes), and have not only run but swing danced in them. (Disclaimer: I also have the advantage of having studied ballet for many many years.) My lack of access to heavy weaponry means that I can’t speak to their usefulness in grenade launching, but I think even that could be achieved. It’s just a matter of keeping one’s weight on the balls of the feet.

      Granted, they wouldn’t be my first choice of footwear for fighting bad guys, but they’d do in a pinch.

      • says

        Granted, they wouldn’t be my first choice of footwear for fighting bad guys, but they’d do in a pinch.

        That’s exactly it. If I see a character dash unexpectedly out of a wedding reception to chase bad guys in high heels, I get why she had those shoes on and am impressed she can handle herself in them. But if the character has a very active/combative job/life and high heels are her footwear of choice at all times, that just makes me think she’s not very bright.

      • Patrick McGraw says

        Just tonight someone at my gaming group brought up a video of a Dutch celebrity (I can’t remember her name and can’t find the video) playing around with a soccer ball on the set of a commercial. Not being a soccer fan, I thought it was skillful but didn’t get what was so impressive – until my friend pointed out that she was wearing five-inch stiletto heels.

        That someone can do that is amazing, but it hardly justifies making such heels standard athletic gear the way Hollywood (and superhero comics to a far greater degree) does.

      • Chai Latte says

        That’s why I loved Selene from Underworld to pieces! She had combat boots—okay, trendy platform combat boots, but still–it’s MUCH easier to move in platforms vs. heels.

    • M.C. says

      Was I the only one who loved that scene in Enchanted when Giselle slipped out of her high heels and grabbed the sword to go after the dragon/witch?

      I would lose those shoes too, if I had to fight evil and save my lover. *gg*

      • Maria says

        You most certainly are not. Plus, what’s hot about this scene is that it emphasizes that Giselle consciously bought into all that rigmarole about being a princess, but knew on some level that wasn’t true/wasn’t really HER. She just liked the idealism of believing in true love.

        Plus, she ends up a small business owner at the end. <3

  7. Anemone says

    I like this post.

    Electra got her look from the comics. Aeon Flux’s outfit was toned down from the comic. With X-men, at least, they had those leather outfits. (Thank you, whoever made that decision.) I do agree it’s easier to take a character seriously when ze is dressed to move. Which makes me wonder about Wonder Woman. Does she have any hope at all in that iconic outfit?

    • says

      I remember being five years old and thinking Wonder Woman was dressed all wrong for being active. I mean, c’mon, when a five year old thinks “This is ridiculous”, there’s a problem! 😀

    • Patrick McGraw says

      God, yes. What’s really sad is that for years and years artists have put her in armor, and she has always looked awesome that way, but DC just keeps going back to the “iconic” outfit.

  8. says

    Other sexy flops include: Ultraviolet, Elektra, Charlie’s Angels, and Doomsday. On the other side (less sexy successes) we have Kill Bill and Resident Evil.

    I don’t know Doomsday really fits here – the most revealing thing Rhona Mitra wears is a tank-top, and that with long trousers and flat-heeled boots. She’s not wearing obvious make-up. Sure she’s hot, but she’s not dolled up, and she’s allowed to get dirty. The movie is hard to take seriously, but for other reasons 😀

    But I do agree with your theory. I know I often get distrated in Castle by Stana Katic’s gorgeousness, and that’s without finding her implausible. (I was thinking that the only male character I’ve really seen hotted up was Jack in Doctor Who, and it’s interesting that didn’t get carried over into Torchwood. I mean, obviously different stuff going on, but. Shallow me was disappointed.)

    • Jaynie says

      I wonder if that’s because Jack moved from male-sidekick to male-lead? Like maybe the writers thought it wouldn’t do to have the sexed-up outrageous guy as the hero on a “serious” show, so they changed him into an oversexed (but not in a funny way) angstbucket. ‘Cause he sort-of goes back to the former when he returns to Who, even though we’d had 1-2 seasons of tragic!manpain Jack by then. I know the angst doesn’t translate well to a kids show, but I do wonder if he was in some way “freed” from having to fulfill the stereotypical male role by the presence of a male he couldn’t realistically “compete” with in terms of storyline importance (okay, and in terms of angst-ridden-woobieness, which Tennant cornered the market in). The sexiness of TorchwoodJack is also more dominant and agressive (w. regards to Ianto especially) whereas in Who it is more plucky and opportunistic.

        • Jaynie says

          Me too! I can actually take John Barrowman seriously when he is being a large ham. (Incidently I also preferred plucky Ten, but Tennant himself does manpain in a more believable way, so I let it slide.)

    • says

      I haven’t seen Doomsday – I was going off promo pics, in which Viper figures heavily (that was what convinced me it tipped the balance). But I’m happy to accept your assessment since you saw it.

    • Patrick McGraw says

      There were ads for the DVD release of the fourth Resident Evil movie through the Christmas shopping season. Milla Jovovich is fully clothed, in an action pose shooting guns, and has an “action hero shooting guns” look on her face. But clearly that has nothing to do with why the franchise is successful.

      … I think my sarcasm is getting worn out by posting on this thread so much.

      • Casey says

        Honestly, I’m surprised the franchise is a successful as it is, considering how much it spits on the game cannon/serves as a long-ass love letter to Paul W.S. Anderson’s wife (*cough-cough*)…I guess this is just concrete proof that people WANT TO WATCH WOMEN, IN LEAD ROLES, KICK ASS! (even if Alice is kinda Mary Sue-ish about it)

          • Casey says

            😉 😛

            I could go on a massive diatribe about how no other woman character in the movie series is allowed to be competent when Alice is around/MILLIONS OF NAKED ALICE CLONES HERP DERP but I think Phelous has already covered that on ThatGuyWithTheGlasses.

    • Robin says

      Well, aside from the obvious adult-drama-vs-family-adventure-show dynamics, it’s very much about Jack’s responsibilities in both shows. I’ve seen several interviews with John Barrowman in which he explicitly says that Jack is lighter and more fun on Doctor Who precisely because he’s just the muscle rather than the leader. His mission is much clearer — stop the bad guys; protect the good guys — and because he’s not the one making the big decisions, there’s a weight being lifted that makes the character a little… I guess “giddy” is the best way I can describe it. He reverts to form in The Doctor’s presence in a way he doesn’t feel he can when he’s in charge.

      Also, they have to spread the “hotting up” around a bit more in Torchwood. Otherwise, we’d never have gotten anybody else in that cast naked, which would be a damn shame. Well, okay, we’d probably still get Ianto. Woohoo! But no naked Naoko Mori would be a thing of sadness. [/shallow]

  9. Jaynie says

    A thing I’ve noticed about heterosexual men is that most of them sort of prefer women to blow-up dolls. I mean, weird, right? The blow up doll is always there, ready and willing and possibly even frighteningly realistic these days. She’s not going to break up with you or challenge you intellectually or tell you she isn’t in the mood for sex. Is it possible (and I know this is a radical suggestion, Hollywood, but please bear with me) that men like interesting women, possibly even more than photoshop-perfect ones?

    Not that I think that movies should target young men to the exclusion of all others. It just seems kind of obvious to me that all but the most shallow would prefer a female lead that acts like an actual woman would, possibly at risk of looking less picture-perfect, to a doll with a story superimposed on her. Not only is it distracting, but also, it’s unbelievable, and fails to appeal to the very things that people find most attractive in others.

  10. sehkmet says

    Love this topic. Aliens has been my all time favorite movie. I got tired of going to movies some time ago because of the way women are portrayed. I like crash-bang movies especially ones that have believable women characters (Linda Hamilton in the 2nd Terminator). These are hard to find. Since coming to this site I’m reading about movies that sound appealing that I will be checking out. Good site.

    Funder – I know what you mean about those shoes. The only time I’ve seen the spike heel carried off was Tina Turner in Beyond Thunder Dome. The reason that was believable is because I’ve seen her dance in those shoes so many times. She must have super human feet or an extremely high pain threshold.

    Also, on the spike heels, did you ever notice on the Wonder Woman show that the stunt woman didn’t wear heels? When Wonder Woman jumped over walls she would land in flat boots, then the second, there’s Linda Carter in those ridiculous heels. Wonder Woman was such silly good fun (for the first season) that it seemed to fit the general character of the show. The show was moved from a fantasy past to present day in the second season. This move destroyed the suspend reality, silly quality of the show for me and I lost interest. There must be a very fine line between success or failure in asking an audience to suspend belief in reality.

  11. Patrick McGraw says

    As the link details, any “fluke” in which a male-led movie makes more money than expected gets scrutinized so filmmakers can figure out how to replicate its success.

    My current “favorite” example of this is Warner Brothers and superhero movie titles: Prior to the launch of The Dark Knight, the studio was really worried that the film would do poorly because it didn’t have Batman’s name in the title (because viewers would not know that it is a Batman movie). After it was a much bigger hit than expected, and Superman Returns did poorly, WB decided that the key to a successful superhero movie is to not put the hero’s name in the title. Thus, the upcoming Superman reboot will be titled The Man of Steel.

    Superhero movies that don’t have the hero’s name in the title: Obviously contributes to success, and should be replicated.
    Female Lead that Audiences Love: Just a fluke. Nothing to see here, move along.

    • Robin says

      Oy. Seriously? Superman Returns flopped because it was a bad movie populated by unlikeable versions of beloved characters. The internet hath no fury like a fanbase whose superhero has been f*%*ed with.

      Dark Knight did well because, dark and dystopian though it was, it had a compelling plot, interesting visuals, and amazing actors at the top of their game. And you can’t discount the morbid curiosity factor. I know a lot of people who aren’t really into superhero movies but went to see “the movie that killed Heath Ledger”.

      • says

        And for me, I realized later that I only initially liked the movie because Heath Ledger was amazing. Then I realized I can still dislike the movie (I HATED Batman Begins–here comes the disbelief of the guy I’m most familiar with as a dancing, singing Newsie as the Dark Knight…not happening. I’ll stick to the 90’s cartoon, thanks! XD) while thinking Heath Ledger was amazing. And be saddened that he died. There wasn’t a morbidity factor with me, though :). I had to get over that when I started to adore movies made before 1960. Pretty much all of the people in them are dead. The weirdest ones to see are the film shorts made right when film was first invented, like this baby eating a meal. It was over a hundred years ago, so it’s safe to say that baby is dead–hopefully after growing up and being embarrassed by that film and leading a full life, but you don’t get to know that from the three minutes of watching the child eat.


        • Patrick McGraw says

          I HATED Batman Begins–here comes the disbelief of the guy I’m most familiar with as a dancing, singing Newsie as the Dark Knight…not happening.

          I don’t think Christian Bale will ever outlive Newsies. From my angle, I first saw Bale in Equilibrium, and one of my basic responses to that film was “he needs to play Batman.”

          I’ll stick to the 90′s cartoon, thanks! XD

          In my head, Batman will always sound like Kevin Conroy.

    • says

      After it was a much bigger hit than expected, and Superman Returns did poorly, WB decided that the key to a successful superhero movie is to not put the hero’s name in the title.

      *reads again, stares, reads again*

      They’re getting stupider every year. I’ve noticed an anecdotal correlation to WB flops over the past 15 years: bad marketing. They refuse to spend money on marketing (I’ve heard this from people who work in their marketing department) or even hire enough staff to handle it, or anything. They have an extremely poor grasp of how marketing helps even bad films do well at the box office. Who hasn’t seen quite a few films that didn’t live up to a good trailer/commercial? WB apparently doesn’t know this.

      • The Other Patrick says

        Also, who doesn’t know a film he almost didn’t see because it was marketed as something else, so a film doesn’t find the audience that would love it. I still remember sitting in »Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind« surrounded by people who thought they were going to see the next Jim Carrey Dumb-and-Dumber comedy. And who left after fifteen minutes.

        • Sarah says

          I don’t know about movies, but I remember that I didn’t watch Firefly when it was on TV because I hated the commercials. They made it looke like a corny show that took itself too seriously (I didn’t pay attention to any of the names associated with it and was very sheltered at the time). When I finally did see it I was so sad that it had been cancelled so quickly.

      • jennygadget says

        Speaking of bad marketing by WB – aren’t they the ones that did the Blood and Chocolate adaptation? And decided that the best movie to put the trailer in front of was the latest Stallone action movie?

        I mean, it wasn’t a fantastic movie to begin with, but Twilight fever was already beginning to rise; halfway decent marketing would have helped A LOT.

  12. Sabrina says

    Yet another fantastic article! <3

    The more you think about it the more obvious it is that Hollywood's reasoning makes no sense AT ALL. I mean, you have these 2 opposing "truths" about making money with movies that together make a quite interesting paradox:
    #1) Sex sells.
    #2) Women don't sell.
    The fascinating thing here is that they do equate sex with women* which renders whatever effect they wanted to achieve to absolutely ZERO – according to THEIR OWN LOGIC! So how the fuck does that even work? /facepalm

    Truth is of course, bigotry/discrimination/etc. are not based on any logical grounds at all. And they are especially not based on reliable "they just want to make more money" business models. You do not make _more_ money when you scare away the majority of your potential audience with stupid shit that no one wants to see.

    What I find to be true is that more often than not sexed up female leads go hand in hand with bad writing. I'm not sure if one causes the other (though my guess would be yes) but there is a definite correlation between the two. First, lots of men (and especially those who are in charge of making stories into movies) still think we womenz are these weird creatures that no one could ever understand – so the majority of stories already feature badly written female characters. If they have a poor story and they know it the only way they think they can compensate this is with a sexy doll lead because "Sex sells!"

    But a good story doesn't need such cheap tricks. This is why I'll always have a soft spot for Tarantino (even though I'm not much into all this graphic violence in his movies). He writes his female characters as characters first and female second. And while he does cast those roles with beautiful women they are not conventionally beautiful by Hollywood standards and more often than not they get dirty and kick some ass! And – oh surprise! – it works.

    On a finale positive note: The rejection of sexy female leads in dumb movies seems to be a sign that after all people are more interested in a good story and well written characters than fapping material. Maybe there's hope.

    *I can't even come up with any exception to this rule. Sure, there are sexy male leads – but there are usually not "sexed up" like the ladies. Hell, I wouldn't even know how that would look like since at least in our western society everything is so much catering to the male gaze that there are barely any criteria for "sexy men" beyond CK underwear ads.

    • says

      I honestly don’t think the audience is, as a whole, quite as “stupid” and knuckle-dragging as Hollywood thinks. I cannot count how many times some film pro told me “the audience just isn’t as smart as we are.” As if people in Hollywood are smarter on average than people elsewhere. They’re so not. In fact, I’ve never known an industry more dedicated to letting truly stupid fools rise to the top, so long as they know somebody.

      #1) Sex sells.
      #2) Women don’t sell.
      The fascinating thing here is that they do equate sex with women* which renders whatever effect they wanted to achieve to absolutely ZERO – according to THEIR OWN LOGIC! So how the fuck does that even work? /facepalm

      Excellent point! Because they DO make that correlation, it’s a total logic fail. There really is just so much bullshit here, you need a shovel.

      • Sabrina says

        I also don’t think the audience is as stupid as Hollywood thinks (- or wants them to be?). But when you see the box office results for some movies… oh my… it’s kinda depressing sometimes. What happened to good critical analysis? – oh wait, it got replaced by the phrase “It’s just a movie!” D:

        Haha, stupid fools in charge always reminds me of that infamous Kevin Smith anecdote about Jon Peters and the giant spider. lol

    • says

      “#1) Sex sells.
      #2) Women don’t sell.”

      This only doesn’t make sense if you don’t add in this little-known #3: male humans who are cis gendered, hetero, and white (teh target demographic) are actually all bisexual or gay! Hollywood knows this because that target demographic all loves football (amirite?), which involves many large, muscley men in tights rubbing against each other. So if they like that, they must just want more male leads all the time because they want to have sex with them because, really, who watches movies and identifies with the characters? Really all anyone ever thinks about ever is sex. OH WAIT. They only think WOMEN want to have sex with the people on screen. Obviously we can’t identify with male characters. Because men and women are from different planets, right?

      I think I have to go take a shower to get rid of all the bad logic and stupid things I just wrote in the name of sarcasm. D:

      I other news, I hope your idea that there may be hope is correct. i’d love to see this all change within my lifetime. And I’d love to be involved in the change in Hollywood. Note to self: finish resume and demo reel…

    • says

      The more you think about it the more obvious it is that Hollywood’s reasoning makes no sense AT ALL. I mean, you have these 2 opposing “truths” about making money with movies that together make a quite interesting paradox:
      #1) Sex sells.
      #2) Women don’t sell.
      The fascinating thing here is that they do equate sex with women* which renders whatever effect they wanted to achieve to absolutely ZERO – according to THEIR OWN LOGIC! So how the fuck does that even work? /facepalm

      I think their logic (which is wrong, but internally, if not externally sound) is that sex (sexed up women) sell, but can’t carry the show as leads. Therefore, you have to have a big badass male lead (or even a bespectacled geeky wuss male lead, funny how in Hollywood they all kinda go together) and lots of bland, barely there but always visible sexy (airbrushed, artificial looking) female eye-candy, ala Megan Fox in Transformers

      • cycles says

        I was thinking about this, and maybe in some cases it’s literally about who appears on the billboards and commercials. A sexualized female character needs just enough screen-time to justify appearing on the promotional materials, but not too much depth for all the reasons people mention upthread.

        I bet those meticulously focus-grouped, boobified movie posters account for quite a few casual moviegoers deciding while waiting in line whether to see Schindler’s List or that fun action movie with the hot chick.

      • Sabrina says

        That explains the dominance of male leads but not necessarily the lack of female characters.
        If women=sexy and sex=$$$ why aren’t there more women in movies period? They should stuff women everywhere – more sex, more sells, right? RIGHT?!?
        Or is it that the negative effects of women not selling outweigh the benefits of sex? But that would negate the assumption that sex sells entirely because just women are equated with sex and then sex actually would never sell at all! Adding a sexy woman would always hurt your income because women don’t sell – which would lead us back to the initial question If audiences don’t want women as leads, why did Aliens succeed?

        No matter what – Hollywood logic is incredibly stupid if you just think about it for one moment.

        • says

          Hollywood thinks people don’t want to listen to what women say. So a sexy woman lead couldn’t sell a movie anymore than people would want to watch a movie that was just two hours of explosions with no characters, dialogue, etc. (I mean literally just a reel of explosives) even though explosives and bombs going off help sell action films. So their logic is that these films need a male lead, but lots of explosions and sexy bland women there to show just what a cool life the male lead has.

          The Aliens “anomaly” (not to mention Kill Bill, and Terminator, and…) is why I said internally, but not externally sound. The theory is wrong on its face and doesn’t fit the evidence, but they can still justify it to themselves because it has the veneer of internal logic.

  13. M.C. says

    You forgot to mention Nikita. Yes, I know that it’s a French film, but it must have been successful in the USA too, or it wouldn’t have had 2 spin-off tv shows and one tv rip-off in the form of Alias.
    Anne Parillaud is attractive, but not Hollywood conventional beautiful and she was never sexed up in the film. And the picture was very plot/action focused.

  14. Scarlett says

    And Weaver, god bless her, except for that one infamous underwear scene in the first movie

    See, for me part of what worked about the underwear scene for me was that it was UNDERWEAR, not LINGERIE. It may have been a little gratuitous but I could totally buy that it was something she would strip down to when alone/getting ready for bed/hypersleep because it was comfortable, as opposed to something with a lot of lace and wire.

    I assume if this alledged prequel of Ridley Scott’s goes ahead they won’t have Ripley/Weaver. Because while I can’t see it working WITH her (she somehow forgets at the begining of the original movie that she’s seen this before, while being thirty years younger?), I can’t see it working WITHOUT Weaver, either.

    • says

      Very good point about her practical underwear. Also, she seems totally unselfconscious, unaware there’s a camera. She seems like a real person getting undressed, which is incidentally sexy. Or a better way to put it might be: if you find her attractive, you’ll enjoy watching her in that scene. If you don’t, however, it’s just a woman getting ready for bed like anyone might.

      I haven’t read the details on the prequel, but I think a character of equal gravitas to Ripley could be written. The trick will be finding an actress who can put it across. They’re out there, but they’re getting increasingly rare in mainstream Hollywood.

  15. RD says

    I didn’t see anyone mention this, but the answer is actually very simple: Ripley was written as a male character. That’s why it was a great role and why it was a popular movie among men “despite” a female lead – instead of men trying to write a female lead (and getting all wound up in Catwoman’s purring), some guy(s) wrote a male character and then decided to cast a woman.

    Men tend to write sad, two-dimensional, floppy, over-sexed women. We would see more successful action flicks with female leads if the scripts were written with the history of Alien in mind.

    • Maria says

      I think that’s one of the reasons Salt was so awesome — down to the character being implicitly child-free. <3 <3 <3

      • Sarah says

        Of course to keep Salt child free they had to cut the child role. I saw an interview with Jolie where she mentioned that as one of the biggest changes after she was cast. The male Salt could have a child at home with his/her mother but they couldn’t see a female Salt having gone through pregnancy and bearing a child with the life that was being shown.

        • Casey says

          Too bad she couldn’t be as awesome as The Boss in MGS4 and just have given birth during a big epic mission. 😀

        • Robin says

          Y’know, I can accept the logic of “she wouldn’t have been pregnant while doing dangerous field work”. It would have bothered me if they only objected to the father being the stay-at-home parent, or the mother “abandoning” her kid for her jetsetting job, but practicality wins me over most of the time.

          • Casey says

            What bugs me is that they probably only objected to Salt having a kid due to the latter, as opposed to the far more practical former.

        • Maria says

          I actually didn’t know that — I was thinking of the scene where she comes home, realizes the baddies have taken her husband, rescues the dog, drops the dog off at the neighbor’s, and instead of having a lingering close up of a kid representing home, domesticity, and safety, they zoom in on the sad eyed puppy! <3 <3 <3

  16. 12Sided says

    another character I love that started out as a male character was Fang from Final Fantasy 13. The game isn’t very well loved but had Lightning, another strong woman, as the main lead of a group, who was designed as a woman from the start. As the story goes on Lightning has a scene where she explains that her parents died, so she had to look after her sister and become tough. Fang however never has such a scene, she never explains why she’s a BAMF, she just IS

    • Ikkin says

      I’m not sure that Lightning needed to be explained because she was a woman, so much as because she’s the closest thing the game has to a main character. (Her backstory is almost identical to the one given to the Kingdom Hearts version of Squall, right down to the name-change)

      Though I’ll agree that Fang’s pretty awesome, and I don’t think they would made her quite as close to Vanille as she was if she didn’t start out as a guy.

      • Laura says

        Actually, I believe that Fang’s gender was changed pretty early into production. So all that subtext with Vanille was probably intentional, haha.

        But yeah, Fang is a total BAMF. She has a double-headed spear/nunchaku thing! And her summon is frellin Bahamut! Plus she has the highest strength stat in the party! Yeah, I <3 Fang.

        • Ikkin says

          Well, even if she was changed early on, that doesn’t necessarily mean they changed the character concept all that much. Fang had a very masculine-coded role, being Vanille’s protector, and almost all of the subtext between them was emotional rather than physical (which I’m not sure they would have done if it was just meant to be fanservice, lol).

          Square-Enix gender-flips are kind of interesting in general, though, because they’ll take a character who’s explicitly coded for one gender, and then make the switch without toning that down. The other one I’ve seen is Kingdom Hearts’ Marluxia, who has long pink hair and fights using flowers because he was initially designed as a woman, and they didn’t bother to change it when they decided to make him a man.

  17. Chai Latte says

    Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! Maybe guys want a female lead character that can be taken seriously—JUST LIKE WOMEN DO? OMG WE’RE NOT SO DIFFERENT AFTER ALL?!!!

    *Cue: Collapse of the entire Hollywood marketing system*

    I’ll disagree with you on ‘Elektra’–yes, the costume was questionable and certainly impractical (what part of a ninja code demands HEELS, for God’s sake?) but she didn’t always fight in that outfit–mostly she wore jeans and clothes that were streamlined–more so like the Bride in Kill Bill.

    One thing I loved about Elektra is that it’s an action movie featuring more than one lone woman–and more than that, having the two main female characters establish a likeness and friendship–I was floored by that, because you so rarely see it, even if you happen to be watching a movie with a strong female lead. (Chances are, she’s the only woman there!) The nice thing about this friendship was that Elektra didn’t automatically assume a maternal role–her role was more of a friend/sister/mentor.

    I HAAAAAAAAATE Aeon Flux! I’ve never seen the Charlize Theron film, but the old cartoons? SUCK. I’m sorry, I know they’re classic, but they’re awful! There’s no plot and Aeon seems to wear a combination of belts and strategically placed socks in lieu of actual clothing. She SHOULD be wearing something with a crapton of padding, because she is the biggest klutz in the history of ever. Seriously, she makes Bella Swan look like a prima ballerina by comparison.

    • Casey says

      I remember hearing something about how Aeon is “SUPPOSED” to be clumsy ‘cuz it’s “funny” or that Peter Chung kinda got off on killing her over and over and over again in the shorts…that’s problematic and disturbing as HELL but LOL I STILL LIKE THE SHOW.[/OTL]

    • Maria says

      There’s a plot, but it’s so meta — basically Aeon and Trevor are so epically in love that whenever one or the other dies it resets the entire universe. Plus, it’s really anti-war, so the conflict between the Monicans (Aeon’s peeps) and the Bergma? I think? Can never actually be resolved. All it does is cost people their lives and then automatically reset. It’s meant to PARODY the genre, but I think a lot of people see it as defining a genre… so they don’t see it as being funny.

      It’s not really my cup of tea (I prefer things to be more hopeful) but yeah, classic.

  18. jennygadget says

    “Or here’s a slight twist on my above theory: what if audiences never rejected female leads, but instead reject leads they can’t take seriously?”

    Yeah, I think this is a big part of it. And possibly the reason why the execs never get it is because they have trouble taking women seriously, period, so it never occurs to them that the audience would – if only we were given the chance to.

    I also think that a decent part of it is the 1/3-2/3 rule when it comes to minorities/women vs. white, cis, hetero men: because we are so used to one single type of person dominating, any equality that approaches even 1(minority):2(majority) feels to many like it’s unequal in favor of the minority. So, on top of everything else, those making the decisions will overestimate the number of minority and female roles/leads they have produced. This was the weirdest part about trying to watch Heroes, actually. It stubbornly insisted on staying just right under that 1:2 ratio, and there’s no way they did that by measuring it all out.

    Confirmation bias likely plays a part too – causing many in charge to conveniently forget all those hits that feature realistic, heroic women – like Alien – or all those hits they thought would be flops bc they didn’t have enough testosterone in them – like Titanic.*

    *funniest thing ever – and more than a little head-bangingly depressing – was listening to…um, a well-known comic book creator whose name I forget but has been involved in several comic to movie adaptations – talk about the studio scrambling to move release dates and the like around bc Titanic was coming out and they were sure they would need to shore up their losses.

  19. K says

    I can only think of one film that had hot men, hot kick-ass woomen and skimpy clothes on both genders, and that would be the fifth element. Something about that film just managed to blow a few stereotypes out of the water in my opinion.

    Multipass :]

  20. Diego says

    Jennifer, I absolutely admire your point of view and I totally agree, cause that’s what I find so attractive about one of my favourite heros (heroin) of all time, Ellen Ripley, the fact that she is a simple woman with strong sense of morals trying to survive and of course, no sexed up at all. Just plain woman, since I am a man, just plain human being. Aliens happens to the best sci-fi action drama I’ve ever seen and not because the lead is a woman (which I am glad that is so), but because in spite of being a woman, anyone can feel identified by the reactions of the character. In contrast, only men can feel identified with Rambo but everybody can feel identified with Ellen, and simply because beyond being a woman, she is an ordinary human being under extraordinary circumstances and that’s what I love the character. It makes me feel proud of being human and what extraordinary tough and kick ass the maternal instict can be (the paternal also kicks ass ;)). I’m really glad I found this article even if took a few years but it’s really a joy to hear what i believe is the truth about heroins in movies or the media ,and you brought the solution, no need, absolutely no need of sexed up females, for the sake of their dignity and equally important for the fact of creating interesting true to life characters. Big salute to ya. By the way, Kathryn Bigelow directed two of my fav films, the aforementioned Point Break and Near Dark, a vampire thriller


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