When I was eight I got a second-hand copy of 'Calamity Jane' on VHS. I instantly fell in love with it and proceeded to watch it every day for about a week. Now, over a decade after my heart was carried off by the deadwood stage and 54 years after the film was originally released, I find that 'Wonder Woman' has given me that same feeling of unbridled joy.
As someone who constantly complains about the lack of female-led films I initially feared that I enjoyed 'Wonder Woman' on principle. But, as I compared it to 'Calamity Jane,' I realised that these films are connected by a female lead who is complicated and compassionate, with motivations that extend beyond her own interests and a desire to make the world a better place. When I look at mainstream films, female characters are all too often cast as a wife, a sister, a mother, a daughter. Her only concerns lie within the home and her real job is to support and propel the story along for the male character. It is rare that a female character is central to the plot or has strong motivations.
Women make up roughly half the population on earth. We have views and passions of our own, we have debates and arguments, we can take a stand and effect change. Women are not passive in life so why are we passive on screen? I'm not denying that there aren't examples to be found in which strong women lead fantastic films. Occasionally you'll get an Erin Brockovitch, a Katniss Everdeen or a Clarice Starling. But the sad truth is that lead roles for women are rare, and even when they do occur, the role is mostly in a domestic-based drama.
Women are rarely cast as leaders or lawmakers, as business owners, revolutionaries or criminal masterminds. Looking at the 2017 Oscar nominations for actress in a leading role, the female nominees played a rape victim, a woman whose marriage is marred by racism, a woman whose life is shattered by the assassination of her husband, a woman who must choose between her career and her man, and a woman who is played by Meryl Streep so her character is beside the point. Do these films depict female experiences? Yes. Are these the only female experiences? No.
The catalyst for these women's stories is a disruption to their home lives. None is motivated by a desire to bring about change in the wider world. Only one of the characters plays a high-powered career woman and her job is directly related to the storyline. In the film 'Elle', the title character is the head of a video game company, where her male employees are either resentful of or infatuated with her. The film is excellent but 'Elle's' professional success is a plot point. It is rare that a female is depicted in a powerful position incidentally.
A much less subtle and more appalling example of this can be found in 'Jurassic World,' one of the highest grossing film in 2015. Bryce Dallas Howard plays Claire, the park's operations manager whose estranged nephews are visiting. As a successful business woman, she is ruthless and cold, with no desire to have children, nor an ability to connect with them. As the film progresses, Claire saves her nephews, but she also learns the importance of having children and even manages to get a boyfriend. As the pterodactyl flies into the sunset, one can't help but think that this is the real triumph of the film. If only so many people didn’t have to die for it to happen.
I know it's easy to sound as if I'm picking on a seemingly innocuous film but, to me, the danger of female representation in mainstream films is that, among the explosions, love affairs and mile-a-minute special effects, gender stereotyping is going unnoticed and presenting millions of people with a backward, dishonest and harmful portrayal of women.
In 2016 women comprised 11% of writers and 4% of directors working on the top 100 grossing films in the US. In an industry where these statistics are the norm, it's unsurprising that female roles are so narrow. But the danger extends beyond limiting the portrayal of women. Film is a powerful medium, one that reaches millions of people each year. If film-makers are predominantly from one group, regardless of whether that group consists of men, white people, Americans or the rich, we risk limiting the narrative.
I adore cinema. It has allowed me to have adventures in Middle Earth, to fly a spitfire in the second world war and to see the Titanic lying on the ocean floor. I want this thing I adore to be limitless, especially when it comes to women. I'm a woman and I've never just been just a mother, a lover, a virgin or a whore. Among other things I've been a victim, an aggressor, a daughter, a dickhead. I've often been passionate and compassionate, a bad friend but a good person, I've cried tears of anger, pain and joy. I want to sit in a dark cinema eating popcorn and see a woman I can relate to on screen. One I can empathise with, laugh at or loath.
I truly believe that the best chance for having real women on screen starts with having real women behind the scenes. 'Wonder Woman' is proof that a female-led, female-made film can achieve huge commercial and critical success. I want this success to be repeated again and again until it becomes the norm. This can happen but, as with all change, it begins with an acknowledgement of, and conversation about, the issue. So, let's have a conversation.