The Twilight versus Bond battle at the box office has highlighted the domination of tough teen girls in Hollywood - and there are more young big screen heroines in waiting. But strong roles for women are rare and the industry still suffers from entrenched sexism, writes Paul Harris.
It was a hard fight, but in the end there was only ever going to be one winner. As Americans flocked to the cinema last week over the Thanksgiving holiday, the latest and last Twilight vampire movie knocked James Bond blockbuster Skyfall from its perch atop the US movie charts.
In the end Bond, in the macho incarnation of the brooding, highly masculine Daniel Craig, was no match for a teen action heroine called Bella. Though Skyfall took the top spot at the New Zealand box office this week, it still has a way to go to catch Bella and her vampire and werewolf buddies in terms of pulling power and takings.
But maybe Bond, and other male heroes of the silver screen, are going to have to get used to being beaten by much younger girls. For Twilight's Bella is far from alone when it comes to young, active heroines invading cinematic territory usually occupied by male characters. In fact, many people see the Twilight series - whose five movies about teen vampires have been smash hits since 2008 - as paving the way for a wave of new, aggressive and tougher feminine stars.
"Twilight has done so much to change the culture of Hollywood and it does not get the acknowledgement it deserves because it is about a girl," said Melissa Silverstein, editor of the blog Women and Hollywood. "It is gigantic. It has shown women can fuel box office. But it still is something that Hollywood does not know what to do with." One thing, however, that Hollywood is doing with it is trying to replicate the Twilight films' success: telling stories of young, powerful female characters in settings not usually associated with them. The most obvious example of that desire has been the movie Hunger Games, set in a brutal, futuristic dystopia where the bow-wielding heroine is a ferocious young girl called Katniss Everdeen. The movie - which, like Twilight was based on a bestselling young adult book series - was an enormous hit, taking in more than $680 million and making a global star out of actress Jennifer Lawrence.
More Lawrence-led Hunger Games films are in the works, but there are others too as film executives pore over the literary world in a hunt for other teenaged heroines ready to lead the way. In 2013 another supernatural series, Beautiful Creatures, will get its turn in America's cinemas. The main character of Lena - a "caster" whose magic powers can be claimed for good or evil on her 16th birthday - is to be played by young actress Alice Englert.
Next year will also see the first Mortal Instruments movie featuring Lily Collins as Clary Fray, a young girl battling demons who have kidnapped her mother. Meanwhile, top director Sam Raimi has been signed up for Angelfall, the first movie in another adaptation from a young adult book with a female protagonist and which takes place in a post-apocalyptic Earth. The trend has even reached the world of animation. This year Pixar released Brave, its first-ever film with a female lead, a Scottish princess called Merida who is far more skilled with a bow and arrow than any of the male characters in the film.
One thing that has struck many observers of the trend is that the young female characters emerging in post-Twilight Hollywood are not overly sexualised. Instead they wield weapons, lead other characters and exist in film genres - such as horror, dystopian science fiction and post-apocalyptic settings - where strong male characters have usually dominated. Again The Hunger Games is a classic example. The character of Everdeen is dominant and strong, including over her putative love interests. "These girls are not all wearing bikinis. It is not just about showing skin," said Noah Levy, senior news editor at celebrity magazine In Touch Weekly.
But, just as Hollywood seems to be getting something right, many experts would argue that the trend is still unlikely to reverse deep-rooted sexism in the world of movie-making. Silverstein pointed out that, while Hollywood now seems content to make action movies with strong, young, female leads, it is still risk-averse when it comes to strong adult women's roles. With a few exceptions, it seems Hollywood studios are still not comfortable in taking the progress made with teen movies and turning that into the more grown-up spectrum of entertainment.
"Girls can be powerful and strong. Women can't. We are comfortable with girls kicking ass, but not a woman who is in their 20s or 30s, unless she happens to be Angelina Jolie. But she is an anomaly," Silverstein said.
Nor is it any coincidence that the hits are all based on already highly successful young adult books. That means much of the marketing and branding for the movie is already built in, greatly reducing the risks and cost of selling the film. That will allow historically timid movie studios to take a risk on having a strong, young, girl protagonist. "Hollywood could never make these movies by itself. You could not pitch these movies without the books behind them. They had to have already proven themselves in another milieu," said Gayl Murphy, an author and long-standing Hollywood correspondent.
It is unlikely then, many observers believe, that the success of Twilight and the movies that it has paved the way for will do much to change the balance of power in favour of women elsewhere in the industry. Women will still struggle for good roles and high wages compared to their male co-stars, they will still find sitting in the director's chair a rare experience and they will still be troubled by the industry's pervasive ageism. A recent study of family-oriented films - likely to be friendlier to female roles than elsewhere - showed that only 11 per cent featured girls and women in roughly half of their speaking parts. It also showed that, while women make up 47 per cent of the labour force in the US, they occupy only one in five jobs featured in family films.
In Hollywood itself the statistics are just as bad.
The Boxed In survey of women in the industry in 2012 found that just 11 per cent of directors are women and just 13 per cent of editors. Overall, 26 per cent of people working in movies are women, a figure that has moved up a mere five percentage points over the last 15 years.
"Hollywood plays catchup with the rest of society. In big movies they are often behind where the rest of us in the culture already are," said Murphy.
So while Bella Swan, the teen vampire of Twilight, might have bested James Bond this weekend on the big screen, there is a long fight still ahead of her and her kind for a wider levelling of the playing field in the real world.
What: The young heroines of Hollywood take on Bond and the boys
In cinemas: Skyfall, Twilight: Breaking Dawn Pt. 2
- TimeOut / Observer