Insight from Inside

I asked my old friend, the screenwriter Brian Nelson if he, as a veteran of the Entertainment Industry and a fellow father of daughters, had any insight into the issues raised by my commentary: why doesn’t Hollywood make more kid’s movies, or movies in general, with powerful female heroes? His typically thoughtful response follows.

It is a sad commonplace of Hollywood box office that boys do tend to avoid movies that star girls. Occasionally there are near-exceptions — enough people showed up for the first Lara Croft film to trigger a sequel, but then the franchise ended.

I do think [your wife]‘s right that women are used to having to identify with the male protagonist, while in general the majority of men can’t return the favor. Some of this has to do with socialization, cf. Deborah Tannen‘s YOU JUST DON’T UNDERSTAND: WOMEN AND MEN IN CONVERSATION — women are generally brought up to empathize while men are brought up to solve problems and establish hierarchy. Some of it has to do with how our culture encourages men to remain in a state of arrested development, which gives them trouble empathizing with any problem that doesn’t affect them directly (such as the many Republicans who only vote for medical research when they have a relative affected). Some of it may come from the dominant role that pro sports plays in our culture — everybody knows how to root for the Redskins, but not so many for women’s basketball/soccer/golf/tennis.

In some ways, things are markedly better than when we were younger — a show like KIM POSSIBLE was literally IM-possible when we were kids. ALIAS, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, LOST, BUFFY, and many more shows do let their heroines kick a lot of ass.

But the bigger a film budget becomes, the more it’s thought necessary to attract EVERYONE to see it in order to pay off that budget (making it a “four-quadrant” film, in current parlance). So the more expensive the film, the more it will be driven by male characters. Smaller films and tv shows, which need only a smaller chunk of the public to survive, can be female-driven, but not the huge blockbusters.

Last year I tried to move forward an adaptation of UGLIES, a great young-adult fantasy novel that your girls may soon be ready for. It’s set in a future where everybody gets plastic surgery when they turn 16, to make them look uber-perfect. But the surgery also makes them docile and compliant with the government. The novel follows two girls who try to take down the system — but the producers made it clear that for the special effects this movie would require, one of the girls would need to become a guy. Considering the vast number of boy-buddy movies over the years, you wouldn’t think it’s still nearly impossible to do another THELMA AND LOUISE, but there you are.

As I said, often I think things are getting better. But then I worry that in movies and shows that we don’t see, it’s the same old same old. You only saw HORTON because you’re a dad (I asked [my wife], who saw it out of similar parental obligation, and who responded, “Yeah, it was appalling, I just blocked it all out.” On a related theme, last night I was at a Dodgers game with a producer who told me that he was shocked to watch WILD HOGS — which he only did for work — and to see the rampant homophobia throughout this film that grossed something like $230M domestic. So maybe things are getting better in some sectors, but the battles are far from done.

5 Responses to Insight from Inside

  1. Sioux April 3, 2008 at 6:18 pm #

    I think the same thing is true with gay people being used to identifying with or at least consuming straight themes in books, movies, etc. but with some exceptions straight people do not return the favor.  I realize the percentage of the population of men and women is much closer to equal than gay and straight, I still imagine the movie and book selections must seem very limited to gay consumers.

  2. Jenny April 3, 2008 at 8:57 pm #

    Hi Peter,

    I found out about this debate through Jezebel, and it has inspired me enough that I wrote a long piece in my own blog about it. It brings a smile to my face when anyone raises this debate, to be honest, because I believe that it is scarier to let the idea of gender inequality fall by the wayside than to have it out in the open, where both sides of the issue can be heard until (with any luck) a positive change is impacted. Yes, Horton is just a children’s movie, and from all accounts it’s not a bad one. So why, then, couldn’t one of the myriad of female children be the sullen, emo kid who earns the love of her father and becomes the savior of the town? I suppose the answer comes in Brian’s reply, but it’s a shame that this movie, which was pretty much guaranteed to be a box office hit regardless of gender, couldn’t be a little bit different. I haven’t seen Horton yet, though I’ve no doubt that if I had, I wouldn’t have thought very hard about the issue you’ve brought up, which is another reason that I’m incredibly glad you did. You are obviously teaching your girls to be critical thinkers, and I think as an adult I need to be reminded to be one as well – both for myself and for the kids I might have one day. Complacency is the scariest thing of all, and I wanted to say thank you for bringing up an issue that would have been just as easy to let slide.

    (And, on a personal note, thanks to you and everyone at Wait Wait for making my Monday commute just that much more bearable with the podcast!)

  3. Paul April 4, 2008 at 7:23 am #

    Does anyone just watch a movie anymore? Why is it that people are always looking to tear down or grab onto something in the mainstream just to bring attention to themselves. Horton(and many other shows and movies) are made simply for the entertainment factor. Yes, Horton does have a great moral backline and comes from a fantastic line of books, but it was not made to be the poster head for anyone other then kids having a good time and learning to treat all people equally(no matter how small). I am a dad of 6 kids, 5 girls and one boy, and they are all treated fairly. We teach them all to strive to be their best and never let anyone hold them back. If you as a parent are worried about what the movies or TV shows are teaching your kids about life then maybe you need to worry more about what YOU AS A PARENT are NOT teaching them. I watch alot of shows with my kids to make sure they are watching appropriate themes, and I can tell you that kids shows today are full of more strong female leads or characters then I can ever remember.( I can name more female leads then male on Family) My daughters are strong and independant and have been exposed to the media their whole lives with 2 strong parents giving our thoughts and input along the way.

    I say leave the entertainment media alone and focus in on your own families. If you have raised your kids in a fashion that you feel is right then they won’t watch those shows will they? If people don’t watch the shows, they don’t get made. It’s that simple. The industry(like many others) is creating product to fill the demand of the public. Surprise surprise!!! Cars pollute and kill us everyday, but I bet everyone reading this owns 1 or 2. Why do they make them, because you buy them.

    So Backoff!! take your family to the park and spend some real quality time with them.
    (and yes I do support full equality and am Prolife)

  4. matt April 4, 2008 at 12:33 pm #

    I love the expression, “four quadrant.” It just reeks of Hollywood-speak.

  5. T.B. April 4, 2008 at 2:30 pm #

    First of, bravo on the original essay that started it all.

    As for the question of WHY boys won’t watch movies about girls, part of the problem is self-perpetuating. Since Hollywood rarely makes a movie with a female protagonist, males assume that any movie that DOES have a woman as the hero is specifically targeted FOR women. Sadly, they are usually right. I say sadly because when a mainstream movie is targeted for girls, it’s usually insulting to the intelligence of the target audience. And any boy unlucky enough to see a movie all about a normal suburban girl fulfulling her dream of becoming either a princess or a rock star (or in some cases, both at the same time) isn’t very likely to want to repeat the experience. So all movies with young women get lumped into the category of “chick flick” whether they fit the bill or not.

    T.B.