The Fierce Female Characters Of Film In 2018

Dec 27, 2018
Originally published on December 27, 2018 6:48 pm

Consider the cast of fierce female characters on screen in 2018.

Danai Gurira's unflappable war general in Black Panther. Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone in the love and power triangle The Favourite. Margot Robbie and Saoirse Ronan as rivals in Mary Queen of Scots. Nicole Kidman's bedraggled, hellbent detective in Destroyer. Viola Davis and her partners-in-crime in the heist thriller Widows. Rosamund Pike's portrayal of gutsy journalist Marie Colvin in A Private War. Yalitza Aparicio's fortitudinous housekeeper in Roma.

These movies have both star power and Hollywood muscle behind them. Yet studies persistently report that women are not equally represented on the big screen. So do this year's badass heroines mark a change in the movie industry? And will these characters play differently in the age of #MeToo?

In 2018, movie theaters offered a range of explorations of women and power: how they wield it, fight for it, abuse it. In the occasionally absurd tragicomedy The Favourite, power is rarely pretty, whether it's Queen Anne's (Olivia Colman) childish hissy fits or the seemingly innocent servant Abigail's (Emma Stone) blatant ass-kissing.

Olivia Colman says her queen would probably prefer to be anywhere but on that throne.

"She's in a position she never chose to be in," Colman says. "She's highest on the mountain in the nation at the time. But she would probably rather not be if she could guarantee that she could have more happiness in her life. She doesn't know if anyone loves her for real."

Mia Mask, a film professor at Vassar College, says The Favourite's director, Yorgos Lanthimos, "brings to life the adage that absolute power corrupts absolutely."

"[Lanthimos is] really making us think about how one can have a moral core and center, but be knocked off-center in particular ways," Mask says. "And how women can succumb to the same desires for power that men do."

It's a different story altogether, Mask says, when women gain their power out of necessity. She points to Alphonso Cuarón's, Roma in which Yalitza Aparicio plays the quietly resilient domestic worker, Cleo. She takes care of everything: the children, the house, the pet dog's waste.

When the father abandons the family she takes care of, his wife tells Cleo, "We women are always alone in the end." Cleo seems to have known this all along.

Mia Mask says Cuarón explores a kind of power we rarely see honored in movies.

"One of the strongest themes I feel in Cuarón's film is that women, mothers, domestic caretakers have a kind of under-appreciated tenacity of spirit," she says. "They're really the backbone of these families."

It's a completely different kind of film, but the women in Widows are forced to find their inner power — more specifically, their inner criminal. With Viola Davis as the alpha, Widows also stars Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Erivo and Elizabeth Debecki as women who muster the courage to commit a heist because they need the money to pay off the debt their dead husbands left them.

Directed by Steve McQueen with a screenplay by Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl), Widows is adapted from a 1980s British TV series. Flynn says she told McQueen that some of the women need to have children so that women watching will relate to their plight. As Rodriguez's character says: "If this whole thing goes wrong, I just want my kids to know that I didn't sit there and take it."

Widows was in production well before the #MeToo movement made it into the mainstream. But Flynn can't help but think that audiences — especially women — will feel differently about these characters.

"Ultimately they are coming alive because they are finding rage and finding their empowerment and pushing back," Flynn says. "And that ... has been so much of what the #MeToo movement has been about."

Despite the number of fierce females on screen this year, overall representation of women on screen remains low. A study released in 2018 by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that while women make up half the box office, about one-third (33) of the top 100 movies in 2017 had a female lead or co-lead. (The same number was 34 in 2016 and 32 in 2015.)

Josie Rourke, who directed the movie Mary Queen of Scots, spent several years working in theater, where she says the situation has also been slow to change. As "ridiculous" as it might sound, Rourke says, "I was the first woman director to run a major London theater ... and that was only 7 1/2 years ago."

Set in the 16th century, Mary Queen of Scots explores the rivalry — and kinship — between Mary (Saoirse Ronan) and Queen Elizabeth (Margot Robbie). These queens are constantly grappling with how to use and keep their power without getting killed.

"It's specifically a movie about the cost of power," Rourke says. "So one of the things that the screenwriter Beau Willimon and myself were really keen to portray is what these women had to sacrifice in order to keep a hold of their thrones at a time in history where people thought — many people thought — that the idea of a queen was a complete aberration."

Rourke, Flynn and Colman all say there is no shortage of powerful female characters out there. But they also believe we're still not seeing enough of them on screen.

Colman optimistically points to the TV phenomenon Dr. Who. For the first time ever, a woman is in the starring role. Colman recalls a YouTube video of a little girl watching the announcement.

"When it's revealed who the doctor is, she just sort of bursts into tears and says, 'It's a girl!'" Colman says. "And it's one of the most beautiful things. Girls are so thrilled that there's a female role model and boys are accepting of it. And so the next generation, it feels so promising — that if we show that it's fifty-fifty, they're going to just take it as the norm."

For years, conventional wisdom in Hollywood held that heroines didn't have the same commercial appeal as heroes. But another study, by the research firm Shift7 and Creative Artists Agency, found just the opposite.

From 2014 to 2017, movies lead by female characters outperformed movies lead by male characters. The report was the brainchild of women in Hollywood involved in Time's Up.

Nina Gregory edited this story for broadcast.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Strong female characters seem to have had a pretty good year in Hollywood.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLACK PANTHER")

DANAI GURIRA: (As Okoye) Drop your weapon.

SHAPIRO: "Black Panther" had several, Danai Gurira's war general for one.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLACK PANTHER")

GURIRA: (As Okoye) I'm not a spy who can come and go as they so choose. I am loyal to the throne no matter who sits upon it.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Then there were the queen movies, "The Favourite" and "Mary Queen of Scots."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS")

SAOIRSE RONAN: (As Mary Stuart) Tis your voice raised, sir. And you would lower it in my presence.

SHAPIRO: Despite these and other fierce heroines, studies continue to show that women are not equally represented on the big screen. NPR's Elizabeth Blair spoke with some of the creators of this year's female-led movies about whether this is really beginning to change.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Power isn't always pretty. In "The Favourite," there is a scene where the 18th-century queen of Great Britain and Ireland gets a scolding for wearing too much eyeshadow.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE FAVOURITE")

RACHEL WEISZ: (As Lady Sarah) Who did your makeup?

OLIVIA COLMAN: (As Queen Anne) We went with something dramatic. Do you like it?

WEISZ: (As Lady Sarah) You look like a badger.

BLAIR: That's Rachel Weisz's Lady Sarah telling Olivia Colman's Queen Anne she looks like a badger. "The Favourite" is a kind of absurd tragicomedy in which women talk about makeup and the military. Along with Emma Stone, the three main characters in this love and power triangle are female. Queen Anne is childish and moody and a reluctant monarch, says Colman.

COLMAN: She's in a position she never chose to be in. She's highest on the mountain in the nation at the time, and - but she would - probably would rather not be if she could guarantee that she could have more happiness in her life. She doesn't know if anyone loves her for real.

BLAIR: It is lonely at the top. And flattery will get you everywhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE FAVOURITE")

EMMA STONE: (As Abigail) Your hair is so lustrous. It's something people in court comment on.

COLMAN: (As Queen Anne) Really?

STONE: (As Abigail) Mmm hmm.

BLAIR: "The Favourite" is directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. Mia Mask, a film professor at Vassar College, says he brings to life the adage that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

MIA MASK: He's really making us think about how one can have a moral core and center but be knocked off center in particular ways and how women can also succumb to the same desires for power that men do.

BLAIR: It's a different story, says Mask, when women gain their power out of necessity. She points to the movie "Roma."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ROMA")

DANIELA DEMESA: (As Sofi) Buenas noches, Cleo.

YALITZA APARICIO: (As Cleo) Buenas noches, Sofi.

BLAIR: Set in 1970s Mexico City, Cleo, played by Yalitza Aparicio, is a domestic worker who takes care of everything - the children, the house, the pet dog's waste. When the father abandons the family she takes care of, his wife tells Cleo, we women are always alone in the end.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ROMA")

MARINA DE TAVIRA: (As Sofia, speaking Spanish).

BLAIR: Cleo seems to have known this all along. Mia Mask says she has a kind of power we rarely see honored in movies.

MASK: One of the strongest themes is that women, mothers, domestic caretakers have a kind of underappreciated tenacity of spirit. They're really the backbone of these families.

BLAIR: That's true of another female-led movie from 2018, a very different movie, the action heist thriller "Widows" in which four women become partners in crime out of necessity. The alpha is played by Viola Davis.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WIDOWS")

VIOLA DAVIS: (As Veronica) We have three days to look and move like a team of men. The best thing we have going for us is being who we are.

ELIZABETH DEBICKI: (As Alice) Why?

DAVIS: (As Veronica) Because no one thinks we have the [expletive] to pull this off.

BLAIR: They need the money to pay off the debt their dead husbands left them. "Widows" is directed by Steve McQueen with a screenplay by Gillian Flynn.

GILLIAN FLYNN: The first time I talked to Steve, I said, you know, some of them have to have kids.

BLAIR: Flynn wanted the women to feel identifiable.

FLYNN: So that anyone could look on-screen, any woman could look on-screen, be like, yeah, I feel like that might be what it would feel like if I was trying to figure out how to do this.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WIDOWS")

MICHELLE RODRIGUEZ: (As Linda) If this whole thing goes wrong, I just want my kids to know that I didn't sit there and take it.

BLAIR: I just want my kids to know that I didn't sit there and take it. "Widows" was adapted from a 1980s British TV series. The movie was in production well before the #MeToo movement made it into the mainstream. But Flynn can't help but think audiences, especially women, will cheer them on.

FLYNN: Ultimately they are coming alive because they are finding rage and finding their empowerment and pushing back. And that was so much - has been so much of what the #MeToo movement has been about.

BLAIR: Women and power - how they wield it, fight for it, abuse it. Movies in 2018 offered a range of stories. "Mary Queen Of Scots" explores the rivalry and kinship between Mary, played by Saoirse Ronan, and Queen Elizabeth, played by Margot Robbie. In this scene, Elizabeth serves her advisers a cool dressing down. It plays like a boardroom scene, a female CEO admonishing her all-male board of directors.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS")

MARGOT ROBBIE: (As Queen Elizabeth I) What have you produced in all your troubles between our kingdoms, discord, war, death? And now you have the boldness to doubt my judgment. You had better question yours.

BLAIR: She might sound strong, but these queens are constantly grappling with how to use and keep their power without getting beheaded by the men who surround them. Only one succeeds. "Mary Queen Of Scots" is directed by Josie Rourke.

JOSIE ROURKE: It's specifically a movie about the cost of power. So one of the things that the screenwriter, Beau Willimon, and myself were really keen to portray is what these women had to sacrifice in order to keep ahold of their thrones at a time in history where people thought - many people thought that the idea of a queen was a complete aberration.

BLAIR: We've come a long way since then. Or have we?

ROURKE: I was the first woman - this is actually ridiculous when I say this out loud. I was the first woman director to run a major London theater. So until I took on that job, that job had never been done by a female director before. And that was only 7 1/2 years ago.

BLAIR: Josie Rourke, Gillian Flynn and Olivia Colman all say there's no shortage of powerful female characters out there. We're just not seeing enough of them on-screen. A study of movies released in 2017 by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that just a third of the top 100 movies had a female lead or co-lead. But Olivia Colman is optimistic. She points to the TV phenomenon "Doctor Who." For the first time ever, a woman is in the starring role. Colman recalls a YouTube video of a little girl watching the announcement.

COLMAN: When it's revealed who the doctor is, she just sort of bursts into tears and says, it's a girl.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: The new doctor is a girl.

COLMAN: And it's one of the most beautiful things. Girls are so thrilled that there's a female role model, and boys are sort of accepting of it. And so the next generation - it feels so promising that if we show that it's 50-50, they're going to just take it as the norm.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DOCTOR WHO")

JODIE WHITTAKER: (As The Doctor) We're going to rescue hostages. Anything that compromises them is dangerous. And if you kill him, you become the same as him.

BLAIR: For years, conventional wisdom in Hollywood held that heroines didn't have the same commercial appeal as heroes. But another study by the research firm shift7 and Creative Artists Agency found just the opposite. From 2014 to 2017, movies led by female characters outperformed movies led by male characters. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.