Guys, guys, why aren’t you going to the film Little Women? The update of the Louisa May Alcott classic, one of the most beloved books in literature, scores 91 on Metacritic, 95 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes, 8.3/10 on IMDb and A- on CinemaScore – strong ratings all. Written and directed by Greta Gerwig, it stars Saoirse Ronan, Laura Dern, Florence Pugh from Midsommar and Meryl flipping Streep. It’s about ambition, money and art – things men care about. It surpassed its – admittedly low, which I’ll come back to – opening box office estimate of US$17-million, and instead pulled in nearly US$44- million in its first week (Dec. 25 to 31). But only 30 per cent of its audience is male.
Why is that? Why don’t men turn up when women are the stars of the story? In a Dec. 30 tweet, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, the New York Times Magazine staff writer and author of the hit novel Fleishman is in Trouble, expressed the frustration that many female film lovers feel: “You know what?” she wrote to her 64,000 followers, “Screw Field of Dreams. I watched it with my kids last night and cannot tell you how much unfettered father/son romance [crap] I was subjected to as a girl. The wife as accessory for his middle-aged ambivalence. Meanwhile, no one wants to watch Little Women.”
Two-point-seven thousand likes later, she added, “I feel like I’ve not been made important in [my sons’] eyes through the world of film or TV.”
Let’s unpack this. She’s not picking on Field of Dreams per se, she’s angered by the same thing that angers me: Women happily, eagerly go to movies written, directed by and/or about men. We are curious about you. We agree that your stories, your feelings, are important. You are half of humankind, and we want to understand you.
In 2019, we ran to see you in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. We felt your pain in Joker, cheered you on in Ford v Ferrari, wept at your father/son struggles in Ad Astra and The Lion King and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.
Aren’t you equally curious about us? How we think, what we feel, how we came to be? Maybe you never read Little Women, fine. But if every woman you know read it 14 times and passionately proclaims that she’s Jo, don’t you want a glimpse into what that’s about?
Women chortled along with the foul-mouthed nerdy dudes in Good Boys, to the tune of US$83-million in North American earnings. But it is an understatement to say that men did not turn up for Booksmart, an equally funny, equally raunchy coming of age story for girls. It was one of the best-reviewed films of the year, but only 39 per cent of its audience was male, and it earned only US$24.8-million – worldwide.
Boys and men did go to some films with female protagonists this year. They’re okay with the ice princesses in Frozen II, the spandex- and space-heroines in Captain Marvel and Star Wars Part IX, the evil sorceress in Maleficent and the malevolent Ma.
But when a story is about a real woman, a real life, men are not socialized to care. Not about women’s creative awakenings, à la Little Women or Booksmart, and not about women’s lives in general. Harriett Tubman’s exploits were as daring as any superhero’s, but Harriet was only the 64th most popular film of 2019. Judy Garland was one of the greatest entertainers ever to have lived, but Judy was No. 92. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a crucial figure in the United States, both historically and right this minute, but her biopic, On the Basis of Sex, came in at No. 95. The only real women’s story that men turned out to see in 2019 was Hustlers, about strippers turned con artists.
Here we are in #MeToo, paternity leave, gender fluid 2020, when family attendance drives the box office, yet many men don’t think that a so-called women’s picture could possibly be for them. I don’t believe that playground rules (no girls allowed) apply in men’s imaginations. I don’t believe that birth and families, romance and loss don’t matter to them. But I’m wondering why they only matter when they’re happening to male leads? Has the world become so divided, so territorial, that men are supportive of our little stories in our little corner, of course they are – they just don’t want any part of them? Or does a film about women’s money, women’s power, women’s art, women’s ambition and independence, somehow feel … threatening?
Whatever it is that keeps men away, this not-caring about women’s stories becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy, with economic as well as cultural ramifications. On Jan. 2, the University of Southern California Annenberg Inclusion Initiative released the results of its 13-year study on women directors. There was good news: 10.6 per cent – 12 out of 2019’s top 100 movies – were directed by women, the highest percentage in the years studied.
There, however, the good news ends. Over all across the 13 years, 1,448 male directors made films, but only 70 female directors. That’s nuts. For women of colour, the numbers were far worse.
Moreover, while women directed 34.5 per cent of independent films in the last two years, and 31 per cent of episodic TV shows, and 20 per cent of Netflix offerings, over the past 13 years, they directed only 4.8 per cent of top-grossing theatrical films.
The study also looked at directors who were nominated for Golden Globe, Oscar, Directors Guild and Critics’ Choice awards. Only four – four! – were women: Gerwig, Kathryn Bigelow, Ava DuVernay and Angelina Jolie. Only Bigelow has ever won. Anything.
Given that women directors tend to make films with women protagonists – although certainly not exclusively – what does this mean? It means that we as a society are comfortable with women heroes in little indie films, or on discrete TV episodes, but not in our blockbusters. It’s why Little Women was given that paltry US$17-million opening weekend estimate.
It means that to the bestowers of awards, most of whom are still white men, stories about women aren’t as worthy. Which is why neither Booksmart nor Little Women are appearing much in this year’s best-of and awards lists.
And awards matter. They tell us what the people in the entertainment business care about in any given year. Which influences what gets made in subsequent years. Which is why, although 2019 was the “best year ever” for women directors, there were still 8.4 men for every woman working.
Last time I looked, there were not eight times more men than women on Earth. And their stories weren’t eight times more important. But you can see how we’ve been conditioned to think they are.
So please, men, go to Little Women. Don’t be put off because the girls’ progressive mother, played by Dern, says this line: “I’m angry nearly every day of my life.” That might sound like something Gerwig came up with, but no – Alcott wrote it herself, in the novel. As she wrote this line, said by Amy: “The world is hard on ambitious girls.” Go buy a ticket and see why.
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