A couple of weeks ago, the actresses Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon blew into Toronto to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their film Thelma & Louise, the female outlaw story that became iconic almost immediately after its release on May 24, 1991.
The crowd who paid to watch its stars reminisce at Roy Thomson Hall – about 90 per cent women, most of them middle-aged – streamed in two by two, for every Thelma a Louise, and the air practically fizzed with their excitement. They could parrot every line, they laughed uproariously at every behind-the-scenes tale, and when the time came for audience questions, they lined up at the microphones 10 deep. With rabid enthusiasm, they proclaimed it: This movie changed their lives. There is no other movie like it.
And that’s precisely the problem.
“The reaction was so extraordinary, women on the street grabbing my lapels to tell me what it meant to them,” Davis said that night. “It made me realize how few opportunities we give women to feel that way about a character in a movie.”
Back then, it looked like Thelma & Louise heralded a change. It was a box-office hit, earned six Oscar nominations (winning for Callie Khouri’s original screenplay), and landed its stars on the cover of Time and at the centre of a pop-culture gender debate. The press declared that it was now a proven fact: A movie starring two women could be successful, both critically and commercially.
But what happened next was – nothing. “Nothing happened,” Davis said. “My next movie was A League of Their Own, and the press said all that again. And then there were no more. We really haven’t built any momentum. Why is that?”
Excellent question. It’s now 20 years later, and Tina Fey, in her bestselling memoir, Bossypants, is still lamenting a culture in which her bosses at Saturday Night Live would declare, “Nobody wants to see two women in a sketch.” New York Times critic Manohla Dargis is still noting that the summer of 2011 includes almost no studio features headlined by women. And every recent movie with a woman in the lead that did manage to be successful is still treated as an exception: Sex and the City? Its fans are crazy. Mamma Mia!? Saved by old broads who liked the stage show. The Kids Are All Right? Yeah, it won a bunch of Oscar nominations, but only because it was funnier than other art-house movies.
“It’s certainly a real thing,” said Jake Kasdan, the director of the new comedy Bad Teacher – one of the few studio movies this summer starring a woman, Cameron Diaz – in a phone interview this week. “There is a vast inequality between the genders in big mainstream movies.” Kasdan says that inequality stems from a perception, held by those on the business side in Hollywood, that it’s almost impossible to get men to show up for movies that put women front and centre.
Perceptions can be changed, though, and Kasdan’s film could be part of a groundswell that I’ve been noticing lately. The women I’ve been interviewing no longer want to talk about how hard it is to get a female-driven mainstream film made or seen. They don’t want to complain about the lack of roles for women, or the paucity of female directors. They want to get on with it.
“I don’t think it lifts women up to fold our arms and go, ‘Why aren’t there the same number of women as men?’ ” the writer and actress Sarah Silverman told me recently. “I think if you’re good enough, you can’t be denied. That’s what will slowly change things, if they’re to be changed. Not [baby voice] ‘That’s not fair!’ Because that’s not cool, and it doesn’t behoove a woman’s cause. Complaining doesn’t get anybody anywhere. How about just be great?”
Current and upcoming films are taking on that challenge with all the gusto of a beer commercial – and many of the tropes. The few mainstream movies that do star women right now have in common a frisson of rawness, an in-your-face-ness, that is usually associated with male-driven fare. It’s almost as if people have given up waiting for a post-feminist era in filmmaking, and have skipped right to a post-post-feminist era of stealth equality – “Maybe we can get audiences to go to films starring women, as long as they don’t notice they’re doing so.”