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Missing heroines: Why Hollywood believes only men can save the world

Published: Sunday, March 16 2014 10:35 a.m. MDT

Chris Evans arrives at the World Premiere of "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," at the El Capitan Theatre on Thursday, March 13, 2014, in Los Angeles.

Jordan Strauss, Associated Press

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This summer, audiences will watch Captain America battle the mysterious Winter Soldier, Spider-Man balance graduating high school with fighting Electro, and Star-Lord join a motley group of aliens to guard the galaxy.

Though these films include several women — the skilled assassin Black Widow helps Captain America, for example — there are no big-budget comic book movies featuring women in the lead role this summer.

That's a problem because young girls are not getting positive messages from classic, male-dominated superhero movies, said Mike Madrid, author of "The Supergirls." And those movies are often the biggest family films of the summer.

"The message that young viewers get from these traditional superhero movies is women aren't necessarily leaders or solving problems (and) that it’s more of a man’s world," Madrid said.

Risk and reward

Madrid believes filmmakers are reluctant to make movies of any kind based around women because they fear such films won't make money, something Cate Blanchett took issue with during her Best Actress Oscar acceptance speech earlier this month.

But Madrid, like Blanchett, said this myth isn't really true. Movies like "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" and "Gravity," which both feature women as the main protagonists, were two of the biggest films of 2013, bringing in approximately $424 million and $271 million, respectively. In fact, six of the top-grossing movies of 2012-2013 featured female protagonists — including the final installment of "Twilight," "Brave" and "Frozen." But Madrid said many filmmakers still believe making a female-led movie is risky.

"There’s this idea that you can’t take a really well-known character like Wonder Woman and put her as a headliner in a movie because no one will go to see it," said Madrid.

But there are other factors that have stopped filmmakers from creating a female-led superhero movie. The most obvious is that men dominate the film and comic book industry.

Dr. Edward Avery-Natale, a sociologist and comic book expert, said in an email that comic book producers (particularly producers from large comic outlets like DC Comics and Marvel) don't care about attracting female viewers because that audience is small for their products. He believes something similar is possibly happening with superhero films.

"If the viewers and makers of the films are as male-dominated as is the case for comic books, then there is little reason to expect that they would operate much differently," Avery-Natale said. "Perhaps the one advantage films have is that they at least have to concern themselves with female actors and some female viewers, but again, without a female-led superheroine film, it is hard to say what that will prove to look like." He added that since the film industry has often objectified women despite the presence of female actresses, filmmakers are probably as unconcerned with the "female gaze" as comic book producers.

Breaking out of the box

Madrid suggests the male-dominated film industry is also not producing more female-led superhero movies because they are afraid to try anything original. Therefore, they cast female characters in more traditional roles, such as the hero’s love interest.

"They (the filmmakers) are probably looking at something like Iron Man that did well and they say we’ll just use the same formula over and over rather than looking at something that might seem revolutionary like the 'Hunger Games' movies," said Madrid.

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