If you’ve been following the film festival circuit, you no doubt have heard the fascinating observation from Cannes Film Festival jury member, Jessica Chastain about the current role of women in films. If you are unfamiliar with Chastain’s comments, the basic gist is that it is uncommon to find a female character whose main motivation is not simply reacting to what the male characters do. This complaint is not unfamiliar territory for Hollywood; however, Cannes is a renowned international film festival. In fact, most of the films that screen there are not from American filmmakers. Additionally, many of these films do not even get distribution in the United States, including the winning films. My point being, the inferiority of women’s roles in film is often attributed to the American film industry, but Chastain’s comments open the conversation to a global stage.
What makes Chastain’s words ring even more true than most is the genuine way she presented herself. She introduced herself as someone who loves movies, and then discussed the unique experience of viewing 20 movies in 10 days, which is the process for the Cannes jury members. Having that broad and expansive experience allowed Chastain to make a relevant and sustained observation that with few exceptions, women in film are “mostly passive and empty shells of characters,” rather than resembling any woman she’d encountered in real life.
And, to put an even finer point on things, all of this occurred on the eve of the release of the American film Baywatch, a film supposedly all about the women starring two men, Zac Efron and Dwayne Johnson, and some women presumably – I don’t believe the trailer or promotional posters gave any names of the female stars.
Speaking of Johnson, just to prove I am not simply a bandwagon feminist, please take my review of another of his films, San Andreas, a film I enjoyed actually, but contained plenty of blatant and institutional misogyny…and also raked in $474 million globally.
Here’s the interesting thing though. Money is not necessarily where the sexism is. As I mentioned, the Cannes Film Festival is not the destination for films that generally rake in the box office dollars. Cannes is more of a home for the prestige pictures that hope to play in awards circuits. In many cases, these films represent a more accurate picture of how artists see the real world. Blockbuster films present, in many cases, a fantasy that can and often does include well-developed female characters.
Top grossing film of each of the past three years:
2015: Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (female protagonist, Disney)
2016: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (female protagonist, Disney)
2017: Likely to be a battle between Beauty and the Beast (female protagonist), Wonder Woman (female protagonist), Star Wars Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (female protagonist) – Disney, Warner Brothers, Disney.
Best Picture for each of the past three years:
2014: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (male protagonist fighting with another male who wants to be the true protagonist)
2015: Spotlight (a bunch of male protagonists uncovering criminal conspiracy of men molesting boys)
2016: Moonlight (three separate actors portraying one male protagonist)
So what does all of this mean? It means that as an art form, the studios, auteurs, actors, writers, and directors who are responsible for the underlying reputation of the business are compelled to depict the stories that matter most to our culture from an overwhelmingly male perspective. It’s not that these artists or the system is sexist, but rather the society of which they wish to reflect is.
Fortunately, the art that imitates life has an impact and the response from Jessica Chastain is evident of this. As our Cineplex’s continue bombard us with the traditional summer fare, take notice of the entertainment the film industry thinks we want to see and how the stories are portrayed. More importantly, after the blockbuster season, be aware of the films that are selected as the year’s best and think about if they represent the society and culture you want to live in!