It’s Time Leading Ladies Led at the Box Office: Could These Films Do the Trick?

Viola Davis in Widows

Just under 51 percent of the American population are female. According to a 2016 industry study, so are 52 percent of the people who go to the movies.

So why are nearly three-quarters of all movie heroes male?

The Women in Hollywood organization published some numbers recently, and if you like seeing movies about women, the stats are pretty disappointing. If you’re an actress yourself, they’re horrifying.

Of the 100 top-grossing films, 71 percent of them reserved their lead roles for men. Of the female protagonists who did make it to the screen, most were a decade or two younger than their male co-stars, and were far less likely to be described as having a career, or even shown in the workplace.

Welcome back to 1955.

Of course, although ignoring the largest part of your audience seems idiotic, it’s not inexplicable. People tend to tell stories about themselves, and most of Hollywood’s storytellers are men. Of those 100 top-grossing films, 96 were directed by males. (When women direct or even co-write a film, representation increases.)

Yet while the disparity is disturbing, it’s too early to despair.

For one thing, there are a number of good pictures with great roles for women out right now, some in local theaters. Like the true-life adventure “Adrift,” with Shailene Woodley piloting a damaged sailboat across the Pacific. Or the light-hearted “Ocean’s Eight,” with Sandra Bullock leading a team of stylish jewel thieves. Or even the lively “Incredibles 2,” which gives Holly Hunter’s Elastigirl a real chance to shine.

Shailene Woodley in Adrift

More of a taste for terror? Look out for the horrifying “Hereditary,” with Toni Collette as the matriarch facing a fearsome family curse. Or “Hotel Artemis,” with Jodie Foster ministering to a variety of deadly lodgers. And, scheduled for release later this month, the drama “Woman Walks Ahead,” with Jessica Chastain as a 19th-century portrait painter who goes West.

And those are just the June movies.

Look just a little harder, and you may still be able to find a multiplex playing “Tully,” too, which opened in May and starred Charlize Theron in the intense story of an overburdened suburban mom. Or an arthouse showing the same month’s “The Seagull,” a new version of the Chekhov classic with Saoirse Ronan and Annette Bening.

Charlize Theron in Tully

And while I can’t personally recommend most of them, there have been a slew of female-oriented comedies lately, including “I Feel Pretty,” “Life of the Party,” “Overboard” and the star-laden “Book Club,” which turned into a surprisingly solid hit – its AARP actresses selling tickets even as the boy’s adventure “Solo: A Star Wars Story” sputtered out.

Yet only a few of these women-led films have gotten the kind of publicity and rave reviews they’ll need to push their way into this year’s Top 100. And, frankly, that’s the other problem.

Just as the majority of moviemakers are men, so are the majority of movie journalists. I belong to the New York Film Critics Circle, the oldest critics group in the country, and of our 43 members, only 11 are women. And that actually puts us slightly ahead of the national numbers – according to one recent study, women comprise only 22 percent of working critics.

And that hurts women-oriented films.

It’s not that I believe, as stars like Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett have suggested, that women-led movies would necessarily get better reviews if there were more women reviewing them. My own tastes in genres are not gender-specific; personally I’d much rather see a new rom-com than another “Fast and the Furious” sequel. (And for the record, I liked “Ocean’s 8” more than some of my female colleagues.)

But even if female critics don’t provide female stories with reliably favorable reviews – and they shouldn’t – they do take them more seriously. They’re not reflexively dismissive. They don’t go into something like “Book Club” expecting it to be awful – or, at least, any worse than a bro movie like “Tag.” They enter the theater open to the experience. 

Toni Collette in Hereditary

In a male-dominated field, though – particularly in the fanboy world of the internet — those perspectives get lost. Movies with female casts or storylines get immediately dissed and dismissed as “chick flicks.” Sexist double standards prevail. 

Cynical male reviewers regularly mock movies like “Fifty Shades Freed” for their catalog-ready conspicuous consumption, and perhaps they should. But what is a James Bond or “Mission: Impossible” movie but a male wish-fulfillment fantasy of gadgets and guns and sports cars? Sure, romantic comedies can be predictable. But you’re telling me a Marvel movie isn’t? 

So what’s the answer?

First, we have to address representation across the board. Schools should encourage students not just to pick up a paintbrush or instrument, but a camera, too. Festivals should broaden their programing. Studios should support new talents. Media outlets have to encourage other voices. 

Second, we need to treat artists and their audiences equally. It’s OK if you find Melissa McCarthy’s physical humor demeaning, but not if you give Seth Rogen’s fat jokes a pass. It’s fine if you’re already looking forward to the next “Transformers”; not so much if you look down on other people for eagerly awaiting “Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again.”

And finally, even if it’s likely most of the movies being made will still be made for teenage boys, we have to support the ones that aren’t. I’ve already mentioned half-a-dozen pretty good, women-oriented films you could see in theaters this weekend; there are easily a dozen more scheduled for before the year is out.

Amanda Seyfried in Mamma Mia 2

Among the intriguing possibilities? August brings the Glenn Close drama “The Wife,” and the best-seller romance “Crazy Rich Asians”; in September, we’ll see Chloe Sevigny as that Borden girl in “Lizzie,” Anna Kendrick investigating a mystery in “A Simple Favor,” and Keira Knightley writing and loving up a storm as “Colette.”

October brings Lady Gaga and yet another re-do of “A Star Is Born” and Cate Blanchett in the comedy-drama “Where’d You Go, Bernadette.”

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in A Star is Born

November is crammed with action – Tilda Swinton in the gory horror film “Suspiria,” Claire Foy as a crime solver in “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” and Viola Davis leading a gang of armed robbers in “Widows.”

And wrapping up the year come a couple of Marys – “Mary, Queen of Scots,” with Margot Robbie and the busy Saoirse Ronan as feuding royals, and “Mary Poppins Returns,” with Emily Blunt dropping in again to see how the Banks family have been doing. I wonder — what’s she got in that magic carpetbag this time?

More movies like these, I hope. Because we need them.