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 Alien.
Kate Beckinsale in Underworld.
Charlize Theron in Aeon Flux. And finally…
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?
I 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
What 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?