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johanna schneller

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."

Right under our noses, a bunch of recent movies with women lead characters have done well with both genders: the Twilight series, Steig Larsson's Millennium trilogy, Salt, Let Me In, Hanna, True Grit, Black Swan. The most badass mutants in the current X-Men: First Class are played by Zoë Kravitz, Jennifer Lawrence and January Jones, and some of the toughest characters on TV are the women who headline The Killing, True Blood, and the upcoming U.S. version of Prime Suspect.

I know – it's not exactly groundbreaking if a woman has to pack heat, commune with the supernatural, or go crazy to be considered interesting. But even Thelma & Louise blew up a truck. "We have [director]Ridley Scott to thank for making our movie iconic," Sarandon said in Toronto. "He put us in that heroic setting. We took care of the human part."

The real battleground these days is comedy. The writer/producer Judd Apatow and his cronies have steered humour directly into the bathroom and kept it locked in there for at least a decade. And now women are following suit. A bunch of she-louts will rage through the multiplexes this summer, practising a school of comedy I can only call – and please forgive me – equal-opportunity farting.

In the upcoming comedy Horrible Bosses, Jennifer Aniston abandons her typical role – the sweet woman the guy eventually comes around to – and goes straight for the crotch as a dentist who sexually harasses her male hygienist. In Friends with Benefits, due July 22, it's Mila Kunis's character who wants sex without complications from Justin Timberlake, in much the same way that Natalie Portman held back her emotions from Ashton Kutcher in the recent No Strings Attached. In Thor and the upcoming Crazy, Stupid, Love, it's the men (Chris Hemsworth and Ryan Gosling, respectively) who take off their shirts, and the women (Natalie Portman and Emma Stone) who drool.

Bad Teacher (which opened yesterday) is the most blatant example. "There's never been a female character like Cameron's in a mainstream Hollywood comedy," Kasdan said. "She has comically terrible values, and no apparent moral compass. It's the type of character that typically only men get to play. Women aren't usually allowed to be this outrageous."

Unfortunately, that so-called outrageousness is really just piggishness in a skirt. Diaz scarfs corn dogs, drinks too much, suds herself down at a car wash like a soft-core porn star, and cracks jokes like a guy. "I love how his eyes sparkle," one of her fellow female teachers remarks about a cute male colleague (Timberlake again). "I want to sit on his face," Diaz shoots back.

There was an opportunity for some real rebelliousness here, some potentially groundbreaking humour around how people-pleasing and care-taking women are programmed to be, and what it might look like to have Diaz's character reject that. But the filmmakers went for boob jokes instead.

There is one small beacon of hope: Bridesmaids. Written by and starring women, directed and produced by men, it was made for $33-million (U.S.), has earned over $136-million, and is lauded by all. Yes, it has its share of potty humour – most infamously in a scene of intestinal distress at a bridal salon – and it relies on the hoary chestnut of women competing with each other. But it also has moments where women talk to each other the way women actually do. And this summer, that's saying something.

"It's not like when we sat down to write, we thought, 'Oh, we're going to [be crass like men]and it'll be funny,' " Kristen Wiig, its co-writer and star, told Entertainment Weekly. "Women do swear. Women go out. Women drink. Women fall down."

Women do a lot of other things, too, but you've got to start somewhere. "What you hope for is that a few movies like these succeed, and start to make a pattern," Kasdan said. "Then that opens a range of opportunities. The business people might not think, 'Let's do a woman's movie.' But they will think, 'I want to do a Kristen Wiig movie, or a Tina Fey movie.' "

"I'll be happy," Wiig told EW, "when the day comes when people don't think it's such a big deal to have a movie with a lot of women in it. How about it's just a comedy?"

If audiences vote with their dollars and make hits of movies that headline women, we'll eventually reach a tipping point where women can star in all kinds of stories – maybe even some without testicle jokes. And what a brave, new world that will be.

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