By Spencer Blohm
The trend for this summer’s blockbuster films seems to be that of having female characters take on roles traditionally performed by males. You don’t have to look further than Charlize Theron taking on the roles of woman warrior in Mad Max: Fury Road and amateur crime solver in Dark Places to see the type of strong female leads that are currently dominating the big screen – but if you do, you’ll find other equally empowering leads being played by the likes of Emily Blunt, Lily Tomlin and Anna Gunn in Sicario, Grandma and Equity, respectively.
Strong and independent female characters are not unheard of in the movie industry, but they have traditionally been the exception rather than the norm. That seems to be changing, however, with the help of those determined to bring the world of modern feminism to the mainly male-dominated world of the film industry. Just as with any major shift in societal views, the change in the way women are viewed in film and on television isn’t happening overnight, but it certainly does seem to be gaining speed.
One of the most prominent examples in this continuous wave is the film Gone Girl, adapted from the Gillian Flynn novel of the same name. Playing off of the subservient housewife and damsel in distress expectation for the female lead, Flynn turns the tables to show that the wife Amy is as far from needing rescuing and protection as any character, male or female, could be. In fact, just the opposite appears to be true in that both her husband and revisited ex-boyfriend both seem to need protection from her, rather than for her.
Theron, more than any other actress this summer, has helped keep the momentum going for female characters in roles traditionally reserved for their male counterparts. The more subtle of her two summer films is Dark Places, another adaptation of a Flynn novel, in which Theron plays a different type of warrior, one that fights more with inner demons than outer foes, although she manages to find a bit of the latter in her investigation into her family’s murder.
Dark Places shows the story of Libby Day, survivor of the massacre that killed her mother and two sisters when she was a child. She subsequently identifies her older brother as the killer, putting him in jail for the rest of his life. As a character, Libby is not exactly likeable, drifting around the same area of Kansas where the murders occurred, living off of donations and royalties from a ghost-written, so-called autobiography, and reluctant to even consider anything as distasteful as having to work for a living. In some ways, however, it’s the flaws that make her seem stronger and inevitably lead her to revisit the “dark places” of her past and ultimately uncover the real culprits.
Thanks to a collaboration between A24 and DirecTV, Dark Places was available on VOD before its premiere date (you can find listing info here). Although not particularly successful at the box office, this is thought to be more because of the lack of viewers in theaters following the VOD release, and the numerous challenges of adapting the novel into the film rather than any issue with the lead character.
Other such films out or coming out soon include Sicario, starring Blunt as an ambitious FBI agent on the front lines of the drug war at the U.S. and Mexican borders, Equity, with Gunn portraying an investment banker in the cutthroat and very male-dominated world of Wall Street, and Grandma, starring Tomlin in the title role and heading a cast of several strong and independent women that defy a variety of stereotypes. What’s next in this trend? It’s hard to say for sure, but now that the gates are opened, it seems there is hope that strong female leads will become more common and hopefully one day get us to the point where the gender description is simply superfluous.