In her keynote speech at SXSW, Lena Dunham touched on the double standard that still exists within the current Hollywood studio system. According to Indiewire, when looking at the career trajectory of her Girls co-stars, Dunham noted that “The world is ready to see Adam as a million different men — playing good guys and bad guys and sweet guys and scary guys. The world is ready to see Adam do all that. It’s not ready to see Allison Williams, Zosia Mamet or Jemima Kirke stretch their legs in the same variety of diverse roles…women are typecast and men can play villains, Lotharios and nerds in one calendar year and something has to change…” Although others have uttered similar cries for reform over the years, Dunham’s words in particularly struck me.
I have never watched a single episode of Girls, as I do not have HBO, but the name Adam Driver is scorched into my conscious like cattle who have been branded. His face is everywhere lately…or at least it feels that way. When I am not seeing him on the big screen in films like Frances Ha, The F Word, and Inside Llewyn Davis, his name frequently appears in numerous online publications regarding his upcoming role in Star Wars: Episode VII. However, ask me to name another cast member on Girls outside of Dunham, who I knew from Tiny Furniture and her cameo in The Inkeepers, and I draw a blank. It was only when I looked them up on IMDB that I had the “oh, I have seen her before” moments.
Yes Ms. Dunham, the studio system is indeed in need of a change. A female “McConaissance” if you will.
Reflecting on Dunham’s words, and with the Academy Awards still in faint sight of our review mirror, one only needs to look at the industry’s biggest night to see the disparity. Only a few weeks ago, Hollywood was celebrating the end of the first act of the Matthew McConaughey renaissance, or “McConaissance” as it is now known. Like a castaway lost in a seemingly endless sea of underperforming romantic comedies, McConaughey found his footing on a rough patch of land and worked his way back up to the beach that houses Hollywood’s elite. Gone was the once pretty boy charmer, replaced by McConaughey…the character actor.
Triumphantly hoisting his Academy Award for Best Actor, and uttering his trademark “alright, alright, alright,” the smile on Matthew McConaughey’s face said it all. He found his life raft in the form of one word: diversity. Ditching the romantic comedy genre, his last being the 2009’s surprisingly charming Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, McConaughey has spent his time between supporting roles in edgier films (Killer Joe, Magic Mike, Bernie, The Paperboy and The Wolf of Wall Street) and playing complicated lead characters in films that were not typical mainstream fodder (Mud and Dallas Buyers Club). He even channeled his energy into the small screen with his searing performance in the HBO series True Detective.
Looking at the films during this McConaissance period, how many of McConaughey’s roles could you picture a female playing? Furthermore, how many of them, in their current form, had rich and memorable leading female roles?
I would argue that the answers to both are six and two respectively. I am sure everyone will come up with their own numbers. Regardless, we will never know the true answer as studios are too afraid to find out. This is why male actors will always have a buffet of meaty choices to pick from while their female counterparts fight for the few left over scraps. In some cases, actresses over forty are not even invited into restaurant in the first place.
If things are rough now for Dunham’s stable of young and talented actresses, it is only going to get tougher as they age. Just look at the career paths of McConaughey’s former romantic comedy leading ladies. How many of them have had even a fraction of the diverse roles that McConaughey has had in the 5 to 10 years since they first shared an onscreen kiss with him? Out of Jennifer Garner, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jennifer Lopez, and Kate Hudson, it could be argued that only Garner has been able to play anything remotely close to a truly enriching character.
For all of its technical advancements displayed on screen, the studio system is still very patriarchal behind the scenes. The industry is still dominated by older white men who feel that only young white men go to the cinema. Despite the fact that strong box office performances of films like The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Frozen, Blue Jasmine, Blue is the Warmest Color and pick your Tyler Perry flick have proved otherwise. Women are still “the other” and, as we know from countless films and television shows, “the other” is to be feared.
This fear is what has been stifling Hollywood, both creatively and organizationally, for years. If we are ever going to see a true female renaissance, one that is desperately needed, it is going to come through a lot of individuals saying “F**k it, I am going to do it on my own”. It will take many voices in front of and behind the camera continually fighting to tell interesting stories through the lens of diverse female characters. People like Lena Dunham, Catherine Breillat, Tilda Swinton, Kathryn Bigelow, Dee Rees, Miranda July, Cate Blanchett and countless others.
We, as audiences, need to take some responsibility as well. The only voice that studios care about is the sound of our wallets opening. So let us use that to make as much noise as possible. Change will not come if we continue sit by and accept the fact that unknown commodities such as Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant Man and Doctor Strange —I still shake my head at this one —are in production, while beloved characters like Wonder Woman sit on the sidelines wearing a “too risky” dunce cap. Instead of clamoring to dissect the latest repackaging of the Die Hard, Godzilla or Transformers franchises, we need to be more active in seeking out and championing good works that feature both kick ass and complex female characters.
Like any cause worth fighting for, it is time to step out of the comfort zone and learn to accept the rich and diverse world that is cinema. After all, it worked wonders for McConaughey.