What makes a hero? Hollywood might tell you that a hero has to be a man. It's no secret that the meatiest leading film roles go to men. For all the relative success of Maleficent, Gone Girl, and The Hunger Games last year, only 12 percent of the leading actors in 2014's highest grossing films were women.
Which is why it's making headlines that Steven Spielberg has cast Jennifer Lawrence in an adaptation of It's What I Do: A Photographer's Life of Love and War, the autobiography of photojournalist Lynsey Addario.
A Pulitzer-winning photographer without formal training, Addario specializes in photographing women in regions of conflict. Her portraits are bittersweet, haunting, and occasionally too tragic to bear. They show women at war, in pain, and in poverty, women who suffer with courage and who frequently don't give a fuck.
In 2011 Addario was held captive by the Libyan army, threatened with death, and sexually assaulted. Asked if she plans to stop working now that she has a child, she has defiantly answered no and noted that men are never asked that question. Addario's life was made for a Hollywood film, and that film was always going to be political.
It's great to see it being made now, but is Spielberg really the best director for the job? His work defines the modern blockbuster: Oscars won, record after record broken ( Jaws, ET, and Jurassic Park all broke box office records), a list of awards and nominations 236 lines long. He has directed 35 films, but it has taken him 30 years to get around to casting a female lead since Whoopi Goldberg in 1985's The Color Purple, made before Jennifer Lawrence was even born.
How could this happen? Women go to see films, too: In fact they buy just over 50 percent of cinema tickets. Don't they deserve female heroes?
The question might seem facile. Of course cinema is informed by gender constructs dating back to fairytales via the seven basic plots, stories that rely on princesses rescued and villains vanquished, roles traditionally filled by generic "handsome prince" types.
What's interesting now is how that formula has gone stale. Though Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull succeeded in replicating (and surpassing) the financial success of the original franchise, other recent works like The Terminal, War Horse, Munich, and The Adventures of Tintin have been met with less commercial success. What these films have in common is their male leads, and predominantly male casts.
This is not to blame the actors, but to question why Spielberg didn't think to switch up the formula sooner. How many times does the hero have to be Tom Hanks? How many of Spielberg's leads are sexless, generic "everymen" or bland, budget-eating dinosaurs like Tom Cruise? Did anyone even still like Tom Cruise when he made Minority Report?
Spielberg has directed 35 films, but it has taken him 30 years to get around to casting a female lead since Whoopi Goldberg in 1985's The Color Purple, made before Jennifer Lawrence was even born.
Not that likability is always enough. It seems cynical to detract from Lawrence's charm, her courage in the face of nude photo leaks, her fondness for McDonald's, and her habit of constantly falling down, but it was likely none of these things that endeared her to Spielberg. Lawrence was the most bankable star of 2014, perhaps all the more bankable for her ability to be human. She will make your film a lot of money, and she will pull off an impossible combination of sexy and wholesome while doing so.
For all the Katniss Everdeens of this world, to build a grown-up, blockbuster war film around a woman remains a radical step. This year's Oscar titles were steeped in machismo: everything from American Sniper to Foxcatcher to Birdman to Boyhood explored facets of the male experience. Though interesting female roles existed (Gone Girl and Interstellar stand out) it would take a particularly twisted personality to view Rosamund Pike's "Amazing Amy" as a heroine. Hollywood struggles to present women as powerful and brave: there's always some paralyzing weakness or failing (Still Alice) or sociopathic flaw (Gone Girl) which places them off-center. In order not to alienate or emasculate male viewers, they can never be wholly heroic, only—at best—worth being rescued by the hero.
But what's so strange is that the economic benefits of a female lead are obvious. Casting a female lead serves a double purpose: You lure men in with a hot actress only to turn around and impress their girlfriends. Would the abstract and wilfully strange Black Swan ever have grossed $329 million worldwide without that sex scene between Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis? Would Under the Skin, a dreamlike feminist allegory, ever have reached viewers were it not for those promo shots of Scarlett Johansson in lingerie? These films leverage the sex appeal of their leading ladies in order to explore something far more complex. It's a compromise, but it's a start.
Lawrence is a once-in-a-generation talent: She even beat Kim Kardashian as the most-googled person of last year. It was speculated that the "Fappening" photo leaks would destroy her career, but that she has run the gauntlet of critics and trolls and remained successful makes winning this role a greater triumph. It's also worth remembering that she has always excelled at playing heroines, dating back to her breakout role in 2010's Winter's Bone.
Winter's Bone was an indie made on a low budget, and by taking a risk on Lawrence as its female lead it went on to punch above its weight. Progress seems to work its way inwards from the fringes to the center: independent films, children's films, (witness the success of Frozen, which featured two female leads and became the highest-grossing animated feature of all time) and interestingly, horror films, a genre frequently dismissed as trash, afford their meatiest roles to women. Within horror the "Final Girl" has taken on a life beyond simply running from the killer in a tank top: recent titles As Above So Below, It Follows, The Babadook, Carrie, and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night all featured female leads who were far more than eye candy.
It's odd how we accept certain tropes that repeat themselves in certain genres. Action men with gorgeous, vacuous women by their sides. Oscar-baiting dramas with men of gravity, who keep women as sidekicks and accessories. Boring heroes whose influence can only go so far, and sell so many tickets. Where are the female iconoclasts, the Ripleys and Clarice Starlings of today?
Frozen's head of animation famously complained that drawing female characters is more difficult than drawing male ones, because they have to demonstrate more emotion. Perhaps the same applies to writing female characters. But don't the returns show that it's worth the effort? Hopefully where Spielberg goes others will follow, and the end of the boring action hero will bring with it the end of those same boring plots we're used to seeing him in (new "mansplaining" con artist comedy Focus comes to mind…).
It's fitting that Spielberg's new heroine is based on one found in real life, and it's more fitting still that Lawrence's role is that of a photographer. That old familiar male gaze always seems to get in the way of taking heroines seriously—how better to subvert it than by casting a female lead and putting a camera in her own hands?
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