Today is the one-year anniversary of FGH2013. Hadn’t you heard? On December 1, 2013, exactly a year ago today, Ray Subers of boxofficemojo.com surveyed the Thanksgiving weekend carnage, and marveled at the ladies who had just shattered domestic records.
In its first five days, Frozen earned $94 million, making it the highest Thanksgiving opening ever, beating by $14 million the 14-year-old record set by Toy Story 2, and performing about $25 million higher than Tangled and, separately, Subers’ own predictions. In fact, eight months earlier, Subers had predicted 2013-released films that might earn $1 billion worldwide, and out of 12 films named, Frozen was nowhere to be seen. (It would become the world’s favorite film released in 2013, earning $1.2 billion and re-proving William Goldman’s wisdom: nobody knows anything.)
Frozen would have established a new domestic five-day Thanksgiving weekend record for any film – ahead of the first Harry Potter film, which opened the weekend before Thanksgiving but, over the next long weekend, held on to earn a little more than Toy Story 2 – had it not opened during The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’s 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th days at the box office, during which Katniss Everdeen’s sophomore adventure amassed a stupendous $110 million to bring its 10-day total to a staggering $296 million. Catching Fire would go on to be the #1 domestic earner released in 2013 – ahead of Frozen and Iron Man 3.
Meanwhile, a year ago this weekend, during its ninth week of release, Gravity finally (ahem) fell out of the Top 10, all the way to #11, even as it cleared the domestic $250 million mark as well as the worldwide $600 million mark. It would eventually win 7 Oscars, more than any other film this year. Frozen Gravity Hunger Games: a triptych of astonishingly successful films starring successful females who didn’t define themselves in relation to men.
You couldn’t expect Ray Subers to have said so, but FGH2013 was a moment feminist filmgoers had awaited for decades. Yes, feminists have more important things to worry about, like equal pay for equal work and access to health care and education, but ever since the blockbuster era began in earnest four decades ago with Jaws and Star Wars, there’s been something a little rankling about Hollywood’s consistent dismissal of the very idea of big-budget films starring women (give or take two or three James Cameron productions). Representation matters, despite greater pluralism on television, despite any notions that blockbusters can’t qualify as cinematic art; everyone understands that if Hollywood is high school with money (as stars keep saying), that the big-budget films are the clique headed by the prom king quarterback and his prom queen cheerleader. Furthermore, in the almost 30 years since the pioneering Aliens back in 1986, Hollywood had barely tried to promote any other universally appealing Ripleys. You might say it was a bit of an egg-and-hen problem. Did males really refuse to attend blockbusters with female leads, or did Hollywood just refuse to make them?
All the usual caveats and codicils apply…technically, you might say, characters like Leia and Marion and Hermione were fully formed, fully clothed, and fully able to kick butt. Yet their films – Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter – were basically men’s stories, privileging what everyone now calls the “male gaze.” Technically, women have led action films like the Lara Croft films, the Underworld films, the Resident Evil films, Catwoman, Sucker Punch, and a few others…but there was a perception of under-baked performances and under-performing box office…as well as Carolyn Heldman’s point that audiences don’t truly enjoy such women leads, who she called “fighting fucktoys.” Technically, the Bella Swan character led the mighty Twilight franchise, but was her passive should-I-or-shouldn’t-I-ness really something you wanted your daughters to emulate?
As everyone knows, Gravity is told through the perspective of a lone doctor-astronaut who needs to come to terms with a debilitating parental loss even as she must find a way to survive an outer space collision. The Hunger Games is about a teenage archer-warrior-girl who competes in a dystopian competition and manages to beat the boys and even challenge the totalitarian order. Frozen is about two sister-princesses of a vague Northern European city-state, one of whom has hard-to-control superpowers, the other of whom, without superpowers, must manage both her older sister and threats to the kingdom. None of these leads – Ryan, Katniss, Elsa, or Anna – need men as their active agents, though they are impressively willing to sacrifice to help them. None of them are given to skin-tight outfits complementing their martial-arts moves – they’re not Heldman’s “fighting fucktoys.” Caveat: sure, these films aren’t exactly Silkwood or Thelma and Louise or Erin Brockovich. Codicil: they could be a little less Caucasian. But in the world of blockbuster Hollywood, where “well-rounded female” normally means voluptuous and half-naked, the concurrent success of these three relatively smart, dynamic films – starring their relatively smart, dynamic four females – counted for something. If Pixar’s Brave (2012) seemed like a token gesture, too easily pre-integrated into Disney’s princess merchandise, if the first Hunger Games (also 2012) might have been written off as a fluke, well, FGH2013 was a thing, a potential sea change in the way Hollywood did business.
In the 12 months since, 2014 has brought the unexpected, over-performing success of Divergent, Maleficent and Lucy (and the under-performing of most of the other summer would-be blockbusters). Meanwhile, outside the multiplex, Marvel/Disney and Warner Bros. have suggested that they’re receiving the message; they announced long-awaited Ms. Marvel and Wonder Woman films. Everyone knows what the Bechdel Test is now; everyone’s been stunned by the NYFA report. So…today we can all celebrate the one-year anniversary of the day big-budget Hollywood turned the corner on feminism, right?
Not so fast. Does this year have a Frozen, Gravity, or a Hunger Games? Well…yes and no. This season’s offering from Disney Animation Studios (“the studio that brought you Frozen!”) is Big Hero 6, about an ersatz super-team led by…guys. Of course there are women on board, but as in vast swaths of the Star Wars and Star Trek universes, we rarely get the sense that the women are much more than sidekicks; they do things, but it’s not their story being told. This year’s arguable Gravity, Interstellar, gives a similar if more post-modern impression; Christopher Nolan’s post-Memento films appear more feminist than they are, because he carefully maintains the sense that the next major plot twist could come from any of about 6 or 7 characters, 2 of whom tend to be women. But Interstellar, which might have been titled Daddies, Daughters, and Dimensions, is, like many a doting dad, a bit more interested in female potential than female actuality. It’s Coop’s story.
What about this year’s Hunger Games, namely The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1? Well…sure. It’s still Katniss, and Katniss still counts as a good role and a better role model. But the reviews have been uniformly meh, particularly regarding the problem of dividing the least liked of the books into two films. (For example, Wesley Morris wrote that it had “absolutely no nonmonetary reason to be Part 1 of anything.”) And while Katniss isn’t exactly a damsel in distress waiting to be saved, she spends most of the current film watching TV, watching other people do things. If this is meant to increase audience identification, that’s a heckuva way to tell women what their place is. Putting Katniss aside, this season’s big female-led film (sort of) is Gone Girl, which certainly shows, again, that men and women are ready to pay tickets to see women take charge. Certainly it doesn’t celebrate its lead female as unambiguously as Froz-Grav-Hung…is that a good thing?
Oscar season officially begins tomorrow with the announcement of the National Board of Review Awards. Assuming Gone Girl doesn’t break through, we’re poised for the first year since 2005 when none of the Best Actress nominees will be from Best Picture nominees – instead they’ll be from “small” art films. Well, I guess they have to fill those five slots from somewhere.
Bottom line: FGH2013 was a lightshow that can’t happen every year. The constellations are too long-established to simply shift overnight; there are still far more male stars than female stars (ageism is a factor there), and their names get projects moving. So if FGH2013 wasn’t the sea change some feminists hoped for, let it stand as a collective clarion call. America is ready. Bring on IJKLMN2015.