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This is not a story about comics — but in a way, it is: In a fairly devastating piece in the New York Times and a no-holds-barred interview with Jezebel, film critic Manohla Dargis lays out the sorry state of films made by and for women in Hollywood today.
Dargis presents the evidence in painstaking and depressing detail. First there’s the good news: hits like Sex and the City, Mamma Mia, and The Twilight Saga: New Moon have made it all but impossible to dismiss women as a “niche” audience. (Which stands to reason, since they’re 51% of the population after all.) The bad news, of course, is that these films — and most romantic comedies and Sandra Bullock vehicles, to name a pair of other standard and successful “femme-driven” film types — are not very good. Dargis argues that their success stems from a massive number of female moviegoers desperate to see themselves represented somehow, anyhow, on screen.
Another silver lining: women-directed films have some hot Oscar prospects this year, led by Kathryn Bigelow’s masterfully suspenseful Iraq War action-drama The Hurt Locker. But Bigelow had to struggle for years to get that movie made, while equally worthy male directors with similar track records cruise from one big-budget star vehicle to the next. And the critical success of The Hurt Locker or Nora Ephron’s Julie & Julia can’t mask the fact that the major Hollywood studios released a grand total of 11 films directed by women this year. Want a comics connection? Soon-to-be Marvel parent company Disney had one; DC owner Warner Bros. had none. Meanwhile, perhaps Bigelow shouldn’t hold her breath on Oscar night: In the Academy Awards’ 81-year history, only three women have been nominated for Best Director, none of whom went on to win.
But Dargis doesn’t argue that the remedy is for female film fans to blindly support any movie directed by a person with a uterus. (“So does that mean I have to go support Nora Ephron? Fuck no. That’s just like, blech.”) Nor does she spend much time kicking the lousy but prominent women-oriented movies in the teeth. Nor does she see much hope for the notion that putting women in positions of authority at the studios will trickle down to create more opportunities for female directors and better movies for female audiences — the recent stint during which four of the six big Hollywood studios had female head honchos is proof enough of that. Indeed, she concludes that the studio system is all but impregnable for women. And here’s another comics connection for you: in part, she blames “the vogue for comics and superheroes” for marginalizing female voices.
So what does she suggest as a solution? A sort of step one is already taken care of — women audiences have been turning movies into hits at a prodigious rate lately, which may help break the vicious cycle of not making movies for women because “women don’t go to the movies.” But mostly, Dargis rests her hopes on people on the creative front lines who care, or presumably care, about the lack of good movies by and for and about women finally putting their money where their mouths are. “I also hope that the money people, including [Sandra] Bullock, whose production company actually makes hits, like ‘The Proposal,’ start giving female filmmakers a chance to do something other than dopey romances,” she writes. “(Good romances would be a start.)” For her part, Dargis says she worked hard to get Bigelow on the cover of the Times‘ Arts and Leisure section.
There’s been much passionate advocacy about women in comics lately — on the page, behind the scenes, in the shops, lining up at cons. But precious little of it has centered on the comics equivalents of Bigelow and The Hurt Locker. It stands to reason that superhero fans will debate superheroine costumes, or cheesecake covers, or the nomenclature of showcase titles, or which fandoms threaten to eclipse their own at San Diego, and so on. But just as film is more than romantic comedies, comics is more than superheroes, and just as the future of women in Hollywood cinema depends on much more than The Ugly Truth, the future of women in comics depends on much more than Power Girl and She-Hulk. The advancement of women in comics ultimately hinges on producing more and better books by and about and for women — on carving out an ever more prominent space for C. Tyler, Carol Swain, Danica Novgorodoff, Kate Beaton, Hope Larson, Lynda Barry, Lilli Carré, Phoebe Gloeckner, Vanessa Davis, Jillian and Mariko Tamaki, Julia Wertz, Lisa Hannawalt, Miss Lasko-Gross, Lucy Knisley, and on and on. And even within the superhero world, it depends a lot more on the staff of Girl Comics — and what they do afterward — than who or what’s on the cover.