by: Nico Lang
Note: This piece was also published in the Huffington Post. You can check it out here.
Unless you are living under a rock, you are probably somewhat aware that The Hunger Games surpassed even the wildest industry expectations about how well it would do over the weekend. On top of besting the first-weekend grosses of all four of the Twilight films thus far released, it was just a Dark Knight and a Harry Potter film away from being the biggest opener ever. Consider: just $14 million separated The Hunger Games from that feat, which is less than The Hunger Games made from just its midnight showings.
This is an impressive feat for any film, but especially so for the first film of a potential franchise. The previous best opening weekend for a non-sequel was for 2010’sAlice in Wonderland, and many recent supposed franchise-launchers have been non-starters, including the recent disaster that was John Carter—slated to put Disney $200 million in the red during the first quarter—and high-profile 2011 underpeformers like The Green Lantern, The Green Hornet and X-Men: First Class. Although none of these were an outright bomb like many claimed them to be, their box-office disappointments represented moviegoer malaise at the superhero-recycling factory, and even those that did well in the U.S.—Thor and Captain America—grossed only slightly more than two modestly-budgeted women’s films with huge audience support: Bridesmaids and The Help.
In the past year, a market oversaturated with dude-fests—only 3 of last year’s top 20 grossers courted female audiences—gave women the opportunity to rally around the small amount of well-made, smart entertainments made for them. (On the flip side, although Bad Teacher and No Strings Attached did fine with lukewarm reviews, rom-coms Friends With Benefits, Something Borrowed, Jumping the Broom,What’s Your Number? and New Years’ Eve all underperformed due to mediocre to bad press.)
Although the media would have you believe that the reason that entertainments like Bridesmaids, The Helpand The Hunger Games did well is that Hollywood finally got around to making movies for women, that’s not exactly the case. It’s just occasionally making better films for women, making films outside the traditional rom-com box that women are so often placed into.
In fact, the overwhelming success of The Hunger Games really seems to come at the expense of those films, most especially Twilight. Many of the reviews of The Hunger Games have highlighted how different its representation of women is from the Bella Swan character, and the women at Feminist Frequency will be happy to hear that the film passes the Bechdel test with flying colors. The film receives high marks not only because of its strong female lead, but also because of the number of women featured throughout the film, almost all of which have names and don’t have the time to talk about men. They are too busy trying to stay alive.
Although the movie plays up the central love triangle far more than the book does, the audience reactions to the film show that its success is not about teen romance and sparkly kisses. In fact, the theatre I saw the movie with booed and guffawed at the trailer for the new Twilight film that screened before The Hunger Games. When Edward tells the newly vampiric Bella, “We’re the same temperature now,” I thought our theatre might never stop laughing. That shot of a red-eyed Bella preying on a deer really didn’t help matters much.
As someone who joined in razzing Twilight, I’m thrilled to see The Hunger Games do well for similar reasons. Katniss is a great role model for young women in a way that Bella is not, a strong woman driven not only by her will to survive but her altruistic desire to provide for her sister and mother. Jennifer Lawrence’s performance as Katniss is close to flawless, replicating the no-nonsense gravity she brought to the 2010 Best Picture-nominated Winter’s Bone, and will be the start of even more great things for her. For an industry that usually doesn’t prioritize female stories, perspectives or thespians, it’s incredible to see a woman at the forefront of what very well may be the most successful movie of the year.
However, what gives me some pause about all of this is that The Hunger Games only showcases women in front of the camera, while reflecting so many of the same Hollywood biases against women behind it. The film was directed by Gary Ross, who previously helmed Seabiscuit and Pleasantville and hasn’t been behind the camera in almost a decade. These were both wonderful films, but his background in horses and suburbia hardly made him a comfortable fit for directing straightforward action. His inexperience shows. Most of the film is shot with the sort of shaky, handheld cam technique reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project, and Ross’ insistence on close-ups tends to obscure the action on screen. Like Nolan’s much-criticized action sequences in The Dark Knight, many scenes in The Hunger Games appear to be a bunch of body parts flying around onscreen.
Although Ross’ impeccable work with Lawrence and his cast partially justifies his presence behind the camera, I wonder why they did not find a more capable female director to helm it, especially when Kathryn Bigelow and Debra Granik around. In the 2009 Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker, Bigelow showed herself to be choreographing and filming action better than any male director working today. Granik previously worked with Lawrence on the aforementioned Winter’s Bone, and she would have especially been perfect for this film because of how much District 12 seems to resemble the world Granik so perfectly rendered in that film. Her vision of a meth-addicted town in the Ozarks is often eerily similar to the society of the Seam—which is supposed to be the remains of rural Appalachia in the novel’s vision of a post-apocalyptic future. Granik’s direction here makes what could be simply a coming-of-age story thrilling and tense, and the movie is sometimes unbearably suspenseful. How the producers overlooked her for the part boggles my mind.
Hollywood has made great strides in women’s representation in the past year, and I’m surprised the production of The Hunger Games doesn’t reflect that narrative. I’m particularly excited to see how Lena Dunham’s much-buzzed about Girls continues broaden the spectrum of women we see on television outside of TV’s pervasive club of bad girls: the real housewives, desperate housewives, gossip girls, pretty little liars and the good Christian bitches. Although baby steps like these are nice, so much work still needs to be done, and we should not lose sight of that every time one film or TV show happens to do well. For instance, did having The Cosby Show on television fix the TV industry’s pervasive problems with race? Of course not.
Rather than being satisfied with one movie, we need to give young women a diversity of characters to actually look up and emulate, but the white male-dominated system makes it difficult to do that. The decisions of Hollywood will always reflect their biases and a bottom-line increasingly dictated by worldwide grosses, and recent data on Oscar voters (which showed that a vast majority are old, white men) and on women behind the scenes shows just how much Hollywood caters to that demographic. Of 2011’s top grossing films, women accounted for just 25% of the producers on these films, 20% of the editors, 18% of the executive producers, 14% of the screenwriters, 5% of the directors and just 4% of the editors, and this doesn’t even take into consideration ethnicity and race. (For further proof of this phenomenon, none of the 2011 films I mentioned in the third paragraph were directed by women, and the highest grossing female-helmed film last year was the animated film Kung Fu Panda 2.)
If we want to see more films for a female audience, viewers cannot be the only ones that demand better representation for women. Women and people who care about women’s representation in film can champion movies like The Hunger Games and encourage others to see it, but women have been going to the movies since the invention of the camera, and we still see the inequalities we do. We tend to punish female audiences for “not going to see women’s films” and for men not attending films with a female lead, but the success of The Hunger Games has shown that neither of those things is necessarily true. As with the Twilight films, women turned out in droves to see it, but this time, they brought men with them: 39% ofThe Hunger Games’ audience was men, compared to just 20% of the audience for Twilight: Breaking Dawn – Part 1. The overall CinemaScore for the film was an A, so those men clearly liked what they saw.
With The Hunger Games, both women and men have indicated that they are ready for something different. However, if we want to see real change, to see an industry that truly privileges films geared toward a female audience and a culture that recognizes women’s narratives, Hollywood must stop being surprised every time a film about women does well. The industry needs to wake up and realize that women are a part of cinema, too; the system must be ready to change.
The world is watching. Is Hollywood paying attention?
Nico Lang is the Co-Creator and Co-Editor of In Our Words and a graduate student in DePaul University’s Media & Cinema Studies program. Lang is a Change Coordinator for LGBT Change, the Co-Founder of Chicago’s Queer Intercollegiate Alliance and a film critic for HEAVEMedia, where he talks about nerd stuff on a weekly podcast called Pod People. Nico is also a contributor at Thought Catalog and the Huffington Post and has been featured in the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, the New Gay and on his mother’s refrigerator. Nico is poly, pansexual and genderqueer but really just identifies as whatever David Bowie is. Follow Nico on Twitter @GidgetLang or on the Facebook.