gender issues

What Even Our Best Blockbusters Are Still Getting Wrong About Women

Photo: David James/Twentieth Century Fox

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a rousing, well-directed, soulful blockbuster with a lot on its mind, which makes it quite unlike most of the big and brain-dead movies we’ve gotten this summer. Still, there is one depressing characteristic that it unfortunately shares with some of those other recent sci-fi spectaculars: This Dawn is virtually devoid of female characters.

The movie takes place in the future after a simian superflu has wiped out most of mankind, and of the hundreds of human survivors we see left in San Francisco — plenty of whom have speaking roles — only one is a woman: Ellie, played by Keri Russell. She’s the one who tags along a few steps behind our male lead in all her scenes, and she’s off-screen for most of the movie, including the all-important final act. Ellie’s counterparts at the colony of apes don’t fare much better when it comes to representation: There, too, we meet countless male apes but only one female, Caesar’s love interest, Cornelia. This motion-capture character is played by the talented actress Judy Greer, who has a dancer’s background, studied simian movement for months, and yet has about 90 seconds of screentime in the final film. No one even calls Cornelia by name in the movie — if you wanted to know, you’d have to look it up later.

Do I think that the Dawn of the Planet of the Apes filmmakers made a conscious decision to minimize and exclude female characters? Quite the contrary: I think they didn’t even realize they were doing it. The whole thing reminded me of Pacific Rim, another inventive sci-fi film that came out last summer. Only three of its 56 characters are women (two of whom have no more than a handful of lines), no women are seen at all in the movie’s first 20 minutes, and the first hour passes with only one female character (barely) speaking. That movie was directed by Guillermo del Toro, who gave us memorable female characters in Pan’s Labyrinth and Mimic but sometimes overlooks them; in del Toro’s new FX show, The Strain, only two of the 12 main characters are female, and they’re the hero’s ex-wife and new love interest.

I was also reminded of the furor that broke out this spring when the filmmakers released a photo of the first table read for Star Wars: Episode VII, which doubled as an announcement of the movie’s cast. Six new actors in that photo were revealed to be joining the franchise, and all but one of them had a Y chromosome. “Hey Star Wars — Where the Hell Are the Women?” asked the popular sci-fi website; several weeks later, director J.J. Abrams cast two more, Lupita Nyong’o and Gwendoline Christie. That’s a good thing, to be sure; the bad thing was that Abrams didn’t realize the terrible optics of that first table-read photo and assumed we wouldn’t either, perhaps because we’re all too used to movies with so few female characters.

Part of the appeal of post-apocalyptic and sci-fi plots is that they take place in a different, reset world where all bets are off. So why do so many of them still play by the same antiquated rules when it comes to portraying women? Sure, you’ve got two successful dystopian franchises in The Hunger Games and Divergent that can actually boast female protagonists, but both of those series have made a pointed effort to stay out of the summer movie season entirely. More often than not, women are an afterthought in our wannabe blockbusters, an endemic problem that Hollywood still doesn’t know how to handle.

Look, for example, at Sony, which is headed by the very savvy Amy Pascal. Last May, Pascal gave a revealing interview to Forbes about how poorly Hollywood treats its top actresses. Stars like Angelina Jolie and Sandra Bullock “probably get paid the same as their male counterparts,” Pascal acknowledged, but “the problem is the averages, because there are not enough parts for women to star in and get paid. So when you look at the total amount women make as compared to men, it’s paltry … it’s sort of a wholesale change that needs to happen.” Pascal vowed to lead that change, and promised to hire more female directors, too. “I think it is my responsibility, because I love movies about women,” she said.

How has she done since? Well, just look at Sony’s upcoming slate: Of the 21 movies that Sony has dated over the next two years, not one has a female director, and only one of them gives an actress top billing. (That would be this weekend’s Cameron Diaz comedy Sex Tape; even Annie, out this Christmas, bills Jamie Foxx before the Oscar-nominated young actress who plays the film’s title character, Quvenzhané Wallis.) If that’s what it looks like when a female studio head leads a charge for diversity, it says a whole lot about how entrenched Hollywood’s attitudes toward women really are.

I do believe that a lot of these creative people would like for things to be different and genuinely do care. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes director Matt Reeves spent several seasons as an executive producer on Felicity, and when I spoke to him last week, he told me, “The idea of exploring the emotional lives of female characters is one of the great pleasures and interests of my career.” Still, when I asked the brainy, talkative Reeves why there was so little for women to do in Dawn, he fell uncharacteristically silent. “It wasn’t a conscious decision. I don’t know,” he finally admitted. Reeves mentioned the motion-capture actress Karin Konoval, who plays the male ape Maurice in the film: “This is a ridiculous answer to the question, but I always thought of Maurice as a [female] character because a woman plays Maurice. Gosh, I don’t know … it’s sort of a shame that, as you say, that’s sort of true.”

Ultimately, Reeves arrived at an explanation: The movie is in part about fathers and sons, which is why lead ape Caesar, who has two sons, is mirrored by our lead human (Jason Clarke), who has a son as well. “I think Keri does a beautiful job and I love her in the movie,” Reeves said, “but it obviously is not her film.” And yet, couldn’t it have been? Keri Russell is still a lot more famous than Zero Dark Thirty breakout Jason Clarke, and it’s not as though the parallels between ape and human would have been lost on the audience if Caesar recognized his parental equal in Russell’s character instead of a man. Countless other characters could have been gender-flipped, too: The film would have lost nothing if Clarke’s son had been a daughter, or if a few of the many subordinates to Gary Oldman’s beleaguered human leader had been female. Hell, even Oldman’s character could have been a woman: We’ve got an entire population of terrific character actresses who’ve got nothing to do because these big summer spectaculars rarely offer more than one female role, and even that part usually goes to a hottie under 40.

Hollywood needs to be better about this. If even a slim majority of the actors in Apes, or in Pacific Rim, or in that Episode VII photo had been women, it would have been near-revolutionary, and yet we live in a country where women make up 51 percent of the population. Why can’t movies come even close to reflecting that? Why won’t people speak up when they look at a call sheet where only one actress is listed — and why do so many talented people look at a sheet like that and think nothing of it? One of the most remarkable things about Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is how hundreds of talented craftsmen have imbued the movie’s motion-capture apes with real personality and soul. Let’s just hope they can do the same for female characters in the sequel.

What Blockbusters Still Get Wrong About Women