In a year where the box office has yielded four films with debuts over $100 million—the best since 2012—it seems inevitable that alongside the successes come some failures. As Terminator: Genisys joins the ranks of Tomorrowland and Jupiter Ascending, what’s been a welcome surprise is that the conversation around these films’ struggles to reach the public have focused on their merits and not their contents. If it seemed in years past that if any film starring a woman failed it might be seen as a commentary on the viability of women at the box office, there is something encouraging about seeing three prominent gambles stumble—and nobody say a damn thing.
Blockbuster films with women have slowly but surely permeated the market, and this year has seen some of the most exciting examples. If Terminator 2: Judgment Day’s Sarah Connor, like Ellen Ripley before her, was an anomaly in 1991, when Linda Hamilton set the new (pull-up) bar for what onscreen badassery could look like—in the Furiosa-soaked landscape of 2015, Sarah Connor needs more than a monster truck to make an impression. Of the year’s current Top 10 earners, women occupy lead or co-lead roles in eight of them, and nearly half of those films star women and only women—an achievement that might have seemed impossible even just one year ago.
Maybe it’s just a passing fancy, but in conversation with fellow Times critic A. O. Scott, Manohla Dargis made one of the most encouraging acknowledgments of this new trend: “We still have a long way to go, baby! That said, we are seeing a rising activism or maybe newfound gutsiness in the industry that echoes the resurgent feminism we’ve seen on college campuses and elsewhere.”
Scott and Dargis didn’t discuss genre in their talk about women in film this summer, but it doesn’t seem like an accident that the films over the last few years (if not decades) to gain attention for their treatment of women characters—from this summer’s genius Mad Max: Fury Road to the indie box office hit Ex-Machina to the upcoming final installment of the multibillion-grossing Hunger Games series—are often, if not mostly, members of the science fiction genre.
It was maybe Ursula Le Guin, the legendary science fiction writer, who described the utility of writing sci-fi most clearly, offering, “The future is a safe, sterile laboratory for trying out ideas in, a means of thinking about reality, a method.”
Le Guin, alongside her many literary peers like Octavia Butler or Margaret Atwood, uses the safe space that science fiction offers as a means to expand our understanding of humanity and society—creating worlds that both recall and expand our own sense of the world we live in. Safety isn’t a crutch for great sci-fi—it’s an open door to reimagine the world at hand. What could be potentially dangerous ground for a writer when applied to the practice of everyday life is made safe and productive by the theoretical ground of fiction.
But for Hollywood, the allure of safety holds a different promise—the promise of inoffensiveness. As studios bank on films returning international paydays, they have become more and more driven by corporate interests, and less and less by artistry—just take a look at how many world-class directors have walked from the opportunity to lead Marvel films (see: Ava DuVernay). It is much easier to market a product to a wide audience when it has been stripped of idiosyncrasies, and so studios increasingly drain the personality out of their films, demanding rewrites and connected universes and product integration. Science fiction and fantasy are useful genres for this kind of production because they promise marketable action set pieces and they rid an audience of their expectations that the film should reflect the real world.
It’s no accident that the part of The Hunger Games that got lost in translation from the book to the screen was the reality television element. While the book kept Katniss’s mercenary stream of consciousness at the forefront through her romantic and heroic actions, the film buries them, removing the element of self-consciousness from the narrative, making the characters more simply heroic and removing the element of the narrative that most related to our oversaturated and very 21st century media culture. For Katniss Everdeen to perform her heroism rather than simply embody it would be a step too far into political commentary for a studio to take comfortably. Better to maintain Katniss as a recognizable movie hero-type endowed with unerring and exceptional strength than to encourage an audience to consider that movie-type heroism itself might be a farce.
But when everything being produced by studios is the same garden-variety dystopia, blandness isn’t unique to female characters. The reason Furiosa stands out, even among superhero peers, is because she’s had the good fortune to be a part of an eccentric filmmaker’s personal cinematic vision. Nothing feels obligatory about George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road—not the themes, not the camera, not the design, not the action, and that’s makes its way into the characters, too. But Mad Max: Fury Road is by no means the norm. In a way, the flatness of many of sci-fi’s leading ladies (see: the Divergent franchise) is its own kind of parity, even a necessary and overdue one. You too can be dully appealing like Superman. When corporate shill superheroes reign over mainstream culture’s ideas of strength and weakness, why should boys have all the not-fun?
This weekend another potential blockbuster opens—this one less Avengers, more Spy, as comedian Amy Schumer takes on the romantic comedy and the modern woman for her new film Trainwreck. She’s got no superpowers, besides maybe her ability to wrangle a hangover, and her problems aren’t intergalactic, but interpersonal. Schumer is a comedian who uses the present to imagine the future, and even as “strong women characters” make their mark on the box office, Schumer’s film is one of the increasingly rare opportunities to see a woman act like women of the present do. In Schumer’s world, the future for women isn’t brave—it’s brazen.