The Mysterious Disappearance of Hollywood's Trailblazing Women

02/25/2011 12:55 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Francine LeFrak Social entrepreneur, film producer, and Founder of fair trade jewelry company, Same Sky

It's time once again for the Oscars, when millions of Americans plunk down in front of their televisions to watch Hollywood's starlets and veteran actresses walk together down the reddest red carpet of them all. This Sunday evening, like so many years prior, our shared fascination with seeing female stars strut their glitziest and glammest looks will mean big ratings for the networks, not to mention box office bucks for the winning films. Our fervent interest in what Hollywood's women are wearing, it seems, never goes out of fashion. But when it comes to the films they star in -- specifically those with strong, pioneering female leads -- our interest has waned. Several films from this year and last told the story of groundbreaking women in action, taking on the system to achieve their dreams, but none were met with box office success. If so many of these recent films have failed, it begs the question: has feminism in film become passe? And if so, will it ever be fashionable again?

Last year was a painful one for movies about fearless women struggling for rights, freedom and equality. Do the titles Amelia, Made in Dagenham, Conviction, Fair Game or Secretariat ring a bell? Probably not, because they all came and went without much, if any, traction at the box office. This, despite big names like Hilary Swank (playing the title role in Mira Nair's Amelia and the lead in Conviction), Naomi Watts (playing ex-CIA spy Valerie Plame in Fair Game) and British star Sally Hawkins (of Made in Dagenham), and despite generally favorable reviews across the board. In these films, women flew across the Atlantic Ocean for the first time in history, won the first Triple Crown for the United States in decades, fought hard for equal pay in 1970s Britain -- among other amazing feats -- and yet, no one was watching.

It's not to say that all films with female leads were a flop this year. After all, many flocked to the theaters to watch Annette Bening and Julianne Moore play lesbian partners in The Kids are All Right, and Natalie Portman play a tortured ballerina in Black Swan. Clearly, female characters in film aren't automatically unappealing to American audiences. But could it be that once these characters start to take on whatever system obstructs their goals, we're no longer interested? If Black Swan were about a woman who challenges the dance world's rigid codes and ultimately triumphs, would it be such a hit?

It's hard to tell how or why feminism has fallen out of favor with moviegoers, but Hollywood certainly has taken note. Disney, for one, changed the name of its film, "Rapunzel" to Tangled, ostensibly to make it less girl-centric and more appealing to audiences. In 2007, industry blogs were atwitter about a rumor that Warner Brothers' head of production declared the studio was no longer interested in movies with female leads. While Warner Brothers came forward and denied the claim that it won't even look at a script with a female lead, one can easily see this change of tide by taking a good look at what the studios have put out recently, and what still remains in "development limbo." Anyone in the industry will tell you that it is next to impossible to get a movie green-lighted these days, but this is particularly true for films that revolve around female leads that defy the status quo. A biopic about Janice Joplin, the singer-songwriter who broke ground in a male dominated rock industry of the 60s, has been on hold for years -- so long, in fact, that the lead role has been passed from actress to actress. The delay has left many wondering if the film will ever happen. Halle Berry recently revealed that it took ten years to get her recent film Frankie and Alice made. If it takes Halle Berry ten years, what does that mean for other filmmakers trying to make films about women battling adversity?

It wasn't always this hard to get audiences interested in movies about women who break barriers. In 2000, Erin Brokovich -- the film dramatizing the real life Ms. Brokovich's legal battle against the Pacific Gas and Electric Company -- was a massive success, garnering five Oscar nominations (including a win for Julia Roberts) and big box office numbers. In 2003, Charlize's groundbreaking performance as Aileen Wuornos in Monster earned her an Oscar as well, and the film grossed almost ten times its budget. The Hours and Boys Don't Cry are two more examples of films made around that time that tackled female empowerment and succeeded both critically and financially.

So what has changed in the last decade that these kinds of films have now fallen out of favor with audiences? Perhaps moviegoers are looking for a fresh new take on female empowerment in film. Something wild, new and fun, and pioneering in a whole new way. Maybe the film industry needs a Lady Gaga to call its own; someone to show younger audiences that empowerment can be cool. If filmmakers who want to tell these kinds of stories don't innovate soon, we may see another slew of quality films about strong women come and go faster than you can even get to the theater. This May, we will see the release of Bridesmaids, a Judd Apatow-style comedy that consists of an all-female cast (in fact, Apatow himself is Executive Producer). A biopic of Margaret Thatcher starring the beloved Meryl Streep has recently gone into production. Can these films, and others, initiate a comeback? Or is feminism dead in Hollywood?