After years of playing sidekicks and stereotypes, the tides are changing for women in films and TV. From superheroes to assassins, wrestlers to psychologists, complex female roles are now at the centre of the story, says Rebecca Nicholson
Early on in this year’s Wonder Woman movie, there’s a scene in which actor Gal Gadot’s no-nonsense demigod Diana bursts into a meeting of British military and political elite – all men, naturally – as they attempt to negotiate an end to the First World War. They bluster at the sight of a woman in their presence, not so much angered as perplexed: what could she possibly have to offer?
It’s an analogy for many of the stories that have been told in mainstream films and TV programmes over the past few decades. Women are under-represented on both sides of the camera; far too often they’re written as cliches – if they’re written about at all. The lack of substantial roles for women on screen made it necessary for a scale to be invented, the Bechdel test, which discerns whether or not a film portrays its female characters in a sexist or stereotypical way. (To pass the test, the film must feature at least two named women talking to each other about something other than a man – an astonishing amount of movies still fail it.) There used to be a notion that films with female leads could never make money. Wonder Woman has lassoed that into oblivion. Even better, she’s done it with a smart, witty story that’s also directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins. But still, according to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, in 2016, just 7% of all directors working on the top 250 grossing films in the US were women.
There’s a lot of work to be done, but it feels as if we could be at the beginning of a sea change where stories about women, and for women, are no longer niche concerns. Wonder Woman will be back in Justice League later this year, alongside her old friend Batman. Luc Besson’s massive and expensive epic Valerian starred Cara Delevingne in the lead role. And it’s not just sci-fi and superhero movies: the upcoming Daphne is a low-key British indie that takes a Fleabag-style approach to the story of a misanthropic woman struggling to process a trauma. Less low-key is Battle of the Sexes, out in November, with Emma Stone playing women’s tennis pioneer Billie Jean King in the run-up to her infamous match against
Bobby Riggs, which is as much a story about feminism as it is sport.
After six decades, even Doctor Who
(BBC One) is moving with the times. The
13th Doctor will be played by Jodie
Whittaker, a first in the show’s history.
In Atomic Blonde, we saw Charlize
Theron flexing some serious martial arts as a super-spy, while Bond producers
Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson have cast Gossip Girl’s Blake Lively in their new assassin-led thriller The Rhythm
Section. ‘It feels that finally, after much focus on the lack of opportunities for woman and a lot of effort from multiple organisations, things are beginning to change,’ says Broccoli. ‘We still have a long way to go before we have diversity and representation in our industry, but there is a strong will to initiate change.’
It’s not a female 007, but it does promise to up-end cinematic cliches about ‘kick-ass’ women. It will be directed by Reed Morano, who also oversaw the first three episodes of Channel 4’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the brutal, brilliant adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel, which dared to show a horrific near-future America where women’s rights have been suppressed by politicians who do not look dissimilar to some sitting in Washington today.
It takes far less time for TV shows to go from idea to screen and, in many ways, streaming services have led the way by being quicker to grasp the obvious fact that women consume media, too. Studies have shown that women actually watch more TV than men, with female viewers averaging three hours per week watching on demand TV series – half an hour more than their male counterparts*. ‘Services like ours, serving different demographic groups, are willing to take more perceived risks on programming, including the portrayal of characters that break the norm,’ explains Cindy Holland, VP of original content at Netflix, who is responsible for shows like Jessica Jones, 13 Reasons Why and GLOW. ‘These include women, who, after all, make up half the world’s population and represent roughly half our member base – it is only natural for us to programme for them.’ And it shows. Netflix romcom The Incredible Jessica Jones starred Jessica Williams, co-host of the hugely popular podcast 2 Dope Queens, who at one point in the film delivers the line, ‘Of course you do! Everyone does. I’m freaking dope,’ in response to a guy admitting he really likes her. The standout episode of the last season of Master of None was all about Denise (Lena Waithe), the best friend of Aziz Ansari’s character, Dev. It was directed by rising star Melina Matsoukas, whose previous credits include Beyoncé’s Formation video and episodes of HBO/ Sky Atlantic’s Insecure, starring Issa Rae. Insecure is another critically acclaimed comedy showing a woman’s perspective on dating in LA.
There are also more boundary-defying shows to come this autumn. The Deuce (Sky Atlantic), a new series about the rise of the porn industry in Seventies New York, may not sound like an insta-feminist classic, but Maggie Gyllenhaal, who stars, has been keen to allay concerns. ‘I didn’t know if I could play a prostitute without some kind of guarantee that they wanted to use not just my body but also my mind,’ she said in a recent interview, deciding the best way to solve the problem was to become a producer on the show.
Nicole Kidman had two great TV roles this year, first in the femaleled Big Little Lies, and then in the return of Top of the Lake (BBC Two), directed by Jane Campion. She also starred in Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled alongside Colin Farrell (who Coppola joked was their ‘token male’). At the Cannes Film Festival in May, Kidman pledged to work with a female director at least every 18 months. ‘Hopefully it will change over time, but everybody keeps saying, “Oh, it’s so different now,” and it isn’t,’ she told a press conference, a reminder that change is slow. It’s also a reminder that recognising a problem, speaking up, and taking action is the only way to speed change up. After all, what would Wonder Woman do?