Star Wars set records but it won't change Hollywood

By Alyssa Rosenberg

Daisy Ridley, right, as Rey, and John Boyega as Finn in The Force Awakens.
Daisy Ridley, right, as Rey, and John Boyega as Finn in The Force Awakens.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens has prompted plenty of writing about how putting Rey (Daisy Ridley) in the lead role shook up the way we see one of the most venerable action franchises of all time. And Forbes box-office watcher Scott Mendelson made the point that the film didn't just lay down an artistic marker. The Force Awakens has made a giant pile of cold, hard cash, the kind of signal the entertainment industry is quickest to respond to.

But while money talks, I think it's important to be cautious before declaring that Rey and The Force Awakens will change everything. And even if they do, The Force Awakens illustrates just how far Hollywood still has to go to shed the assumption that its core customers are men who only want to see men on screen.

"I've talked about how one big female-centric hit or another (Twilight, Bridesmaids, The Hunger Games, Frozen, etc.) offered some kind of proof that female-centric mainstream popcorn entertainment was just as viable as male-centric fantasy films and male-centric comedies.

And taken together, the last several years of big hits and small hits starring women and about women provide indisputable proof of the idea that targeting women is not a risky proposition and not a niche demographic sell," Mendelson wrote.

"But now there can really be no argument. Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a female-centric mega-budget action fantasy which features a young woman in the core heroic 'chosen one' role, is the biggest movie of all time. ... Even if you argue that having a female lead made no difference in terms of its success, you must also agree that it did the film no harm either."

There are a couple of caveats to that precedent, of course.

As Amanda Marcotte pointed out in Salon, putting women at the forefront of existing properties, from The Force Awakens to Mad Max: Fury Road, meant that "a lot of franchises that were feeling a little long in the tooth felt reinvigorated and fresh, reminding people of the magic that made them fans in the first place."

That's absolutely promising and enjoyable, but it doesn't necessarily promise a boom in original action storytelling with women at the center. Rey is part of a tradition that includes Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) from the Alien franchise and Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in the Terminator movies. And while these predecessors aimed battering rams at the door that keep women marginalized in action movies, they splintered that barrier rather than smashing it decisively to pieces.

Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road.
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road.

For all that Hollywood tends to be motivated by money, part of what's interesting about the industry is the times when it diverges from cold economic logic. The movie The Force Awakens is unseating at the top of the box-office charts is Avatar, a film that broke records and was supposed to spawn sequels but faded quickly from public memory. I'm cynical enough about Hollywood to find it entirely possible that the entertainment industry will credit anything other than Rey for the financial success of The Force Awakens, or at least to treat Rey as a non-entity, rather than a character to emulate.

Even if Hollywood decides that it wants more Reys in the mix, the past month is a great illustration of the many ways in which the entertainment and retail industries will have to break free of old assumptions and shake up long-established habits to respond to the enthusiasm for these new characters.

Hasbro neglected to make Rey playing pieces for the Force Awakens edition of Monopoly, then tried to pass the choice off as an attempt to avoid spoiling the movie for fans. The character was left out of other figurine sets as well, just as companies have neglected to make toys of female characters from some of Disney's other other franchises.

And it's not just action movies where big companies have underestimated the demand for products tied to beloved female characters. Frozen, Disney's animated musical, was much more explicitly aimed at girls and young women than The Force Awakens ever was, but even so, merchandise for the film sold out rapidly, leaving parents to take dramatic steps to try to track down Elsa costumes.

Elsa of the Disney movie Frozen.
Elsa of the Disney movie Frozen.

Perhaps it's better to be sold out than to find yourself with a lot of leftover figurines or blonde wigs. But these sorts of omissions and shortages suggest just how strongly entertainment-industry thinking is aligned toward men and boys. Changing what sorts of movies get green-lit, and what sorts of actors get to lead projects, is an important start.

But incentives work in multiple directions: If Hollywood and the companies that license its products for games, toys and costumes still think of boys and men as their market for tie-in products, then there will be strong imperatives to make movies that can feed those markets and be supported by those other lines of revenue. Shaking up this sort of demand will make sure that every kid who wants to dress as Elsa or Rey for Halloween can do so and also provide another financial demonstration that female characters are a major draw.

The success of The Force Awakens is welcome and important. But befitting the first installment of a franchise, its victory for women is an early step on a long journey rather than the destination.

- Washington Post

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