Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Happily Never After: The sad (and sexist?) rush to cast some of our most promising young actresses as fairy tale princesses.

There were a few interesting articles written over the last several months about the unusual amount of ass-kicking (or at least take-charge) young female roles being written into mainstream cinema.  Whether it was Chloe Moretz in Kick-Ass, Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit, Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone, or Saoirse Ronan in Hanna, the last 18 months or so has seen a mini-wave of genre pictures where young females were basically the lead characters (or in the case of Kick-Ass the star attraction), 'strong independent character' (god, I hate that cliche) who not only could fend for themselves but were not defined in any way, shape, or form by their male love interest (not a one of them had a boyfriend).  Yes, I would include Sucker Punch in this category, as it was basically a satiric examination of whether ass-kicking young women in pop culture were automatically sexualized by virtue of the salacious nature of such imagery (stop whining and read THIS).  The somewhat negative undercurrent of this trend is that these actresses were generally under 18, often barely passed puberty.  Point being, what would become of these actresses once they reached adulthood?  If recent developments are any indication, Hollywood has a genuine desire to roll back the progress clock and turn these actresses into fairy tale princesses.

At the moment, we now have two competing variations on Snow White set to be released in the next year.  One, pictured above, will star Lily Collins (from The Blind Side and soon to be seen as Taylor Lautner's token girlfriend in Abduction) as the titular princess, while the other will star Kristen Stewart as the 'fairest of them all'.  Both are claiming to be somewhat revisionist, and for the moment I shall take them at their word.  But no matter how much armor and battle-axes you give Snow White, you're still hiring one of our more talented actresses (say what you will about Twilight, but she absolutely sells Bella Swann and shines in the likes of Adventureland) to play a woman whose primary job is to run away from an evil witch, play house with a bunch of asexual dwarves, then finally bite a poison apple and await rescue from a theoretical Prince Charming.  Of course, you could argue that Ms. Collins isn't one of the 'great actresses of our time' yet.  But the fact that we have two competing projects based on Snow White is a sad commentary on our times, both as a statement about how obsessed the studios are with any kind of brand recognition as well as the kind of roles available for actresses on the cusp of adulthood.

And it gets worse.  What was Hailee Steinfeld's reward for earning an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for a film where she was unquestionably the lead?  What was her follow-up project for stealing True Grit from Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and Josh Brolin?  She gets to play Sleeping Beauty in (yet again) a revisionist variation on that old-chestnut.  And we'll see who gets to play Princess Aurora in the other competing project, Maleficent (allegedly starring Angelina Jolie as the villain) which was to be directed by Tim Burton before he came to his senses.  Worst of all (and the catalyst for this rant) is the news that Emma Watson, who portrayed one of the great feminist icons of recent times, Ms. Hermione Granger herself, is being wooed for the lead role in Guillermo del Toro's live-action variation of yes, Beauty and the Beast.  Never mind that Guillermo del Toro certainly has better things to do with his time.  Never mind that we have no real need for a live-action version of "Stockholm Syndrome: The Movie" (even my 3 year old dismissed the Disney version, because she stated that the Beast was mean and a grouch).  It is sadly predictable that, as soon as Ms. Watson (a fiery feminist in her own right) was able to basically play adult roles, she would be shoved into the helpless fairy-tale heroine box.

And that is really the point. To be fair, it's not an all-encompassing issue.  Chloe Moretz remains fairy tale-free at this point, and Saoirse Ronan has yet to be cast in a theoretical live-action version of The Little Mermaid.  She does have a 'teen girls as hit-women' caper with Alexis Bledel, Violet and Daisy, that I desperately want to see.  And Dakota Fanning has yet to be cast as the token hot girl quite yet.  But there remains a disturbing trend that allows young actresses to be vibrant and active in their onscreen fates only until they reach young adulthood.  Once they are old enough to be legally sexualized, their worth as empowered heroines is seemingly lost and they end up being tasked with playing the token love interest (SEE Emily Blunt be pulled by the hand by Matt Damon in The Adjustment Bureau!), helpless hostage/potential woman in refrigerator (SEE Blake Lively as the kidnapped girlfriend of both Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson in Oliver Stone's Savages!), or both (SEE Amanda Seyfried as Justin Timberlake's hostage who learns to love him in In Time!). It is as if female roles can only be worthwhile when they are too young to be viewed exclusively as sexual objects.  Now there is a new category for which to pigeon hole these actresses: perfectly pretty princess. Once they are old enough to be cast in stereotypical female roles, it's straight to the 'token' box, with an occasional diversion in fairy tale theater. Is this new mini-fad simply another variation on tokenism, or a more insidious attempt to keep said young actresses virginal and pure?

It is telling that bloggers and pundits bemoaned Jennifer Lawrence passing on Savages and picking The Hunger Games instead.  Maybe, no matter how prestigious an Oliver Stone film might be (because he writes SO well for female characters...), Lawrence chose to be a lead in her own action franchise rather than play a random hottie who is abducted as a pawn in a drug spat involving her dueling boyfriends (on the surface, it seems like a prestige variation on Double Dragon).  And it is telling that no one seems to notice or care that a number of our most promising young actresses are being jammed into the 'girl cage' just at the age when they would be old enough to play quality adult female roles.  Of course, roles such as that are few and far between.  For the likes of Watson and Steinfeld, it appears once again that the choice is between no mainstream roles or regressive token roles or playing a live-action Disney princess.  Oh well, I'm sure they can find an episodic television series when the time comes.  When it comes to quality roles for adult women, for too many actresses, it is television instead of film that is the pathway to happily ever after.

Scott Mendelson


Kyle Leaman said...

"If recent developments are any indication, Hollywood has a genuine desire to roll back the progress clock and turn these actresses into fairy tale princesses."
- Do you think that market forces come into play or are you saying there is a purposeful agenda to 'roll back the progress clock'?

Bill said...

NHBill -
Could not agree with you more Scott!
That's a rant that I could have written IF I were an exponentially better writer.

Brandon said...

"who not only could fend for themselves but were not defined in any way, shape, or form by the men in their lives"

So Big Daddy had ZERO influence on how Hit Girl was who she was?

Also, Kick Ass himself probably influenced the fact that she wore a costume to fight crime.

Otherwise, I agree. But I also think the female actresses sometimes knowingly choose these films to build up their repertoire with a different audience/get bigger exposure/play around in a different genre.

While she seems to be nobody's favorite, in the early 90's, i didn't really care much for Gwenyth Paltrow. I didn't watch her movies. I was a teenage guy. But then I saw Seven. For me, as a young lad, I garnered so much respect for her that I never had before, that an actress like her would choose to do such a project*. It turned my head, and I've always had somewhat of an interest in her work. And had that not happened, I probably would never have checked out 2 films that I rather enjoy, Sliding Doors and Duets. Not amazing movies, but I enjoy them nonetheless.

*Same head turning/respect went for Brad Pitt. Seven and 12 Monkeys changed my opinion on this no-good/only girls like him cuz he's attractive actor.

Cory Sims said...

Great article, Scott.

Scott Mendelson said...

You are absolutely right in regards to Kick-Ass (and Hanna). I was specifically referring to boyfriends or like-aged male companions. The offending sentence has been altered, thanks for catching that.

Diane Lowe said...

You have some interesting thoughts here Scott. Isn't the "young, strong, independant character" also a cliche though? Please don't take that the wrong way; I really enjoyed watching Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit.

Let's not forget that the films with mainstream-action-type characters (Angelina Jolie in Salt last year, for example) tend to get significantly altered by the time they release.

Looking at it on the other side of the coin, it seems like the more interesting parts for men are also on T.V. Most "men of action" characters don't really appeal to me, even if they are considered "mainstream" and a nice paycheck for the actor. As much as I enjoyed watching Chris Evans as Steve Rogers/Captain America, which you considered a new/different turn than the average super hero character, by the end I thought he was a bit boring (for a great turn as a 'truly good' male character, see Jude Law in Cold Mountain).

It wasn't until I saw Cate Blanchett as Galadriel in Lord of the Rings that I appreciated what a fantastic character actress she is; I especially liked her turns in The Aviator and The Good German, even though I didn't care much for either film.

I used to like "reimaged" stories for films, but after The Other Boleyn Girl and last year's Robin Hood, I've given up on them.

cdog said...

Great article. I also am distressed to see great actresses such as Laura Linney, Mary Louise Parker, Edie Falco, Marcia Gay Harden, Chloe Sevigny, Melinda Clarke, Elizabeth Mitchell, and Patricia Clarkson to name a few who constantly are ignored for their brilliant acting on television and then compounded with scenery chewing roles in feature films that they only appear in infrequently. Why oh why do we let this happen and continue to celebrate such talentless hacks as Jennifer anniston and demi Moore.

jiminnc said...

You're right that this trend is horrible but there are some seriously cool versions of the Beauty and the Beast story out there, like the novel by Robin McKinley: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beauty:_A_Retelling_of_the_Story_of_Beauty_and_the_Beast

Lua Cheia said...

Good article, Scott!

But this phenomenon is not just happen with young actresses, is also happening with young male actors, with all these "Marvel movies" and action movies. Fairytale for woman and marvel for man...
There are not great character driven movies being producing by mainstream studios! These incredible talented young women are having a hard time, as well, us as an audience! All we have are male action movies based on comic books or games, full of CGI, 3D and explosions. If not, they are new versions of old box offices success movies (mostly mediocre movies).

I wonder... How this generation of actors will grow in their craft if they don't have good material to work ?

THAT is the real problem!

At least young women are starting to get lead parts and they are not just the girlfriend of the hero, even if it is in fairytale (Remember, female audience also have the right to have movies dedicated to them!). Their characters are fighting their own battles, becoming the hero.
In the case of the Snow White and the Huntsman, you are wrong, at least, second the script that leaked in the internet. Snow White is not weak. She is an ex-prisoner who ask a man to teach her how to fight, as a warrior, for her to free her people from an evil queen, who is really a serial killer (as said by Charlize Theron in the Comic Con's panel). She don't play house with a bunch of dwarfs and she don't wait for her prince charming to save the day and her. She goes for, against all the odds!

As an woman and also an avid movies goer now a days, mainstreaming movies are a disaster and a deception, with a few good movies to go. What I see is a industry fated to a crash, with low level productions and subjects. Lets hope this crash happens in a near future, because most of the audience above 25 is without good movies to see and good acting to admire!

BTW, sorry by my English, but it is not my first language.


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