Peter Bart: Why Has Female Empowerment Led To So Many Downer Roles For Women?

Melissa McCarthy Amy Schumer Charlize Theron
REX/Shutterstock/Focus Features

The #MeToo movement notwithstanding, I’ve been worried about women lately, perhaps because I’ve been seeing too many movies. At a time when women are achieving more muscle in managing their lives and careers, the female characters they portray in movies lack both muscle and self-esteem. Women need a movement – any sort of movement. They also need help at the box office.

Let’s start with Melissa McCarthy, Charlize Theron and Amy Schumer. In Spy, McCarthy three years ago displayed hilariously lethal skills, but in her new Life of the Party she’s a mopey mom whose daughter is embarrassed by her and whose husband dumps her. Meanwhile, Theron, the delectably homicidal heroine of Atomic Blonde, becomes a downbeat, defeated housewife in Tully. Schumer, who devours men in Trainwreck, is dopey and delusional in I Feel Pretty, cast as a woman whose self-esteem is tied to her (imagined) svelte figure.

And this list doesn’t include the four veteran stalwarts in Book Club, who babble mindlessly about geriatric sex because they’ve read Fifty Shades of Grey and actually seemed to take it seriously.

I’m not arguing that women must limit their roles to Wonder Woman sequels. But if stars truly want to encourage filmgoers to embrace the aspirations of the #MeToo universe, they occasionally should emulate Maureen O’Hara who, now and then, told Duke (John Wayne) to bugger off. In the 1990s, Demi Moore seemed to relish playing ferocious women — Striptease and Indecent Proposal. One critic observed that her character seemed to be the one committing sexual harassment, not suffering it. Sherry Lansing’s string of femme-centric films at Paramount in the ’90s often depicted strong women who were active in determining their fate.

Mind you, the industry is keenly aware of the gender balance issue. Apps like Highland 2 are being deployed to measure whether scripts are written equitably for the sexes, but the software deals with female presence, not female attitude.

Schumer has especially taken heat on the social media front over her tacit message that women are judged mainly on their figures, not their minds. Hadley Freeman blogged: “Schumer has spent much of her past few months insisting this film is all about helping women’s self esteem, which suggests she hasn’t seen it.” Issues linking appearance to empowerment also surfaced at the Cannes Film Festival last week, where bloggers challenged the rigid rules requiring newly empowered women to pose in gowns and high heels. Responding to these comments, Cate Blanchett, who heads the festival jury, snapped, “Being attractive doesn’t preclude being intelligent.”

Playing a middle-aged woman suffering postpartum depression in Tully, Theron has also been critiqued as well as praised. “Ms. Theron is such a strong presence that it’s hard to believe Marlo (her character) would put up with this nonsense,” writes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times. When a woman moves from her 20a into her 30s, “it’s like a garbage truck coming down the street,” Charlize’s character complains in the movie. A clinical, downbeat film, Tully, written by Diablo Cody and directed by Jason Reitman, opened to slim business last week.

Book Club
“Book Club” Paramount Pictures

The demo in Book Club shifts from middle age to assisted living time as four senior women ponder their relationships, sexual and otherwise, as a result of studying their assigned reading. Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Mary Steenburgen and Diane Keaton, playing accomplished women, seem to take Fifty Shades of Grey quite seriously, as though reading Edith Wharton. They even start dating again, which seems to perplex their male counterparts as well as filmgoers. Written by Bill Holderman and Erin Simms, the dialogue in the movie is as lurid but lifeless as it is in the novel.

So what can women do to command more challenging roles? “I want to be in charge of the stuff that’s being made,” says Mackenzie Davis, the actress who plays a night nurse in Tully and has most of the good lines — to be sure, her character in the movie may or may not be a real person. Apparently, Davis negotiated deftly with her director to achieve her feisty lines. That was the case some years ago when I, too, produced a movie starring Fonda. In meetings on Fun With Dick and Jane, Fonda was unstinting and persuasive but always collaborative, fighting for her character to be stronger and more effective. She usually won the day. I wish she’d waged more arguments about the wimpy characters in Book Club.

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