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.
Great post man! I love McConaughey, and did a post myself about his comeback. I think women are getting more diverse roles nowadays, although obviously not as much as men. You pictured Jennifer Lawrence who has starred in Winters Bone, Hunger Games, American Hustle to mention a few different roles.
I think Jennifer Lawrence is a perfect example of someone who has smartly taken advantage of the opportunities presented to her. We need to see more actresses given similar chances. In recent years there have only been a handful of women who got to lead major studio franchise films: Lawrence, Angelina Jolie and Kristen Stewart. If Divergent turns out to be the box office hit most think it will be then we can add Shailene Woodley to the list. Still, that is a far cry from the number of male actors who are getting offered both blockbuster and independent films. Progress is being made but at a painfully slow pace.
I think we are in the midst of the opening throes of that renaissance, though. Bigelow good and truly started it with The Hurt Locker, and then continued it with Zero Dark Thirty. Lake Bell, Brit Marling, Jerusha Hess, Nicole Holofcener (whose Enough Said net her biggest ever box office return), and many other female filmmakers are continuing it. We still have a ton of progress to make, obviously, but I think we’re on the path.
I mean. Consider, if you will, the performances that used to get nominated for Best Supporting Actress and Best Actress: Meryl Streep in Apocalypse Now? Talia Shire for Godfather Part II? Cathy Moriarty for Raging Bull? Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying these actors were bad; I’m submitting the characters aren’t remotely complex. Especially in comparison to this year’s nominated characters.
The emergence of more female directors receiving mainstream notice is definitely helping to move things forward. However, it is strange to think that it took until 2013 for Nicole Holofcener to have her biggest box office hit. She has been doing solid work since Walking and Talking debuted back in 1996.
Agreed on Holofcener. I’ve been a fan for a long time. Before Enough Said, her biggest success was Friends With Money, which is only marginally less successful than the latest.
I agree with Dunham’s call for diversity of roles and for the willingness for casting agents to think outside the box when it comes to casting women in these parts.
There’s *one thing* that rubs me the wrong way about Dunham being the one to call for this sort of change. She is in a unique position within the system – she is a writer and a director, and a young talent who has the establishment’s ear at the moment. What has she done with that hard-fought position? Between Tiny Furniture and Girls, she’s written stories and created work that revolves around different versions of *herself*.
Lena – You want better parts for women? Write some. So far, most of what you’ve written is about malcontent 20-something white girls of privilege in New York.
To paraphrase McConaughey’s Oscar speech: be your own hero!
Debating the messenger versus the message is always a tricky thing. The question I have for you is: would the message seem more genuine if it from Jane Campion, Sophia Coppola or Julie Taymor? What if it was Soderbergh or Scorsese beating the drum?
I cannot speak fully to point about Dunham only creating works that revolve around versions of herself as my views would only be based on my experience with Tiny Furniture. I do get your point though. However, the first thing that popped into my mind when I read your comment was “doesn’t Woody Allen get accused of the same thing?” A large portion of Allen’s great canon pretty much features versions of him in rather similar scenarios. Finding success based on “writing what you know” is nothing new. Larry David did it with both Seinfeld and The Larry David Show. Louie C.K. did it with Louie and received nothing but praise. Sure Dunham has the ear of HBO because she is making them money, but I do not get the sense that she has a lot of clout within the industry as a whole.
Dunham reminds me of Diablo Cody in the sense that she is loved until her first misstep. Cody was the toast of the town after Juno, but almost immediately dismissed when Jennifer’s Body bombed. United States of Tara brought Cody back to the table for a bit, but she still struggles to get project made. Jane Campion is far more established than either of those women and she still gets stonewalled after all these years
Yes it would be great to see Dunham write roles for others, like she did with the 2012 film Nobody Walks, but we cannot discredit the large amount of work she is currently doing. Looking at the stats for the 32 episodes of Girls, Dunham has a writing credit on 31 episodes and directing credits on 11. Now how much writing she actual doing on each episode is questionable, but she is still responsible for keeping the show afloat. In that sense she is being her own hero. It just that sometimes heroism includes looking out for the welfare of others as well.
I didn’t see your response before sitting down to write last night – this turned into a post all its own:
I agree with your basic premise, but I think you picked a weak, but understandable, example with Dunham’s show Girls. I’ve never in my life heard the name Adam Driver until reading this post. Looking on IMDB I see he was in Lincoln, which I watched, but I don’t recognize his character’s name. On the other hand, despite never having watched a second of Girls I not only recognize the names Lena Dunham, Allison Williams, and Zosia Mamet, but I know what each one looks like and would immediately recognize them when I saw them. Checking IMDB once again shows me I have never seen any of the three in anything. I know them from the large amounts of publicity they have received from the show Girls. I don’t recall ever hearing any man’s name in connection with the show. I honestly didn’t even know there were male characters on it.
You pretty much had the exact opposite experience I had. I guess it all comes time to perspective really. Unlike you, I have somehow managed to be sheltered from most of the Girls coverage/publicity. I know that the show is very popular but that is about it. Hence why the cast members name’s, outside of Dunham and Driver, did not register with me prior to looking them up on IMDB.
I think it probably comes down to what we focus on when reading entertainment stories. You mentioned possible castings for Driver. I almost always skip stories about who may or may not be cast in a film that may or may not get made. I tend to focus on the movies/shows that are already out or will be coming out soon.
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