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Dilemma of the Token Actress: Better to Have Poor Female Roles or No Female Roles?

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As everyone who reads this site probably already knows, Chris Evans was officially, finally cast yesterday as Steve Rogers in Joe Johnston's The First Avenger: Captain America.  With Evans donning the shield and Hugo Weaving apparently The Red Skull, the next step is to locate the 'female lead/love interest'.  Among the leading contenders are Alice Eve, Emily Blunt, and Keira Knightley, with Blunt in the lead due to her having to turn down the role of Black Widow in Iron Man 2 due to prior commitments.  None of these articles concerning these actresses bother to name the character in question.

We have no idea if the eventual leading lady will be playing Shield Agent Sharon Carter (a relatively three-dimensional character in the current Ed Brubaker arc) or someone else entirely. In the realm of franchise film-making, the name and/or character of the 'female lead' is all-too often completely irrelevant.  Actresses in most mainstream pictures are merely placeholders, basically playing one variation or another of 'the girl'.  Her name is irrelevant and her character usually is too.  She is eye candy for the boys, and for the girls often merely a cynical attempt to pull in females by promising romance and/or a moment or two of alleged 'female empowerment'.  In all but the most overtly female-driven pictures (Sex and the City, Mama Mia!, Whip It), the actress is cast only in regards to how well she compliments the hero.  She may be twenty years younger than him, but rarely older than him.  She is often 'hotter' than him, but rarely taller than him.  She is occasionally beside him, but never in front of him.

Does anyone really think that Jessica Biel will have anything of substance to do or say in The A-Team?  Sure, she may get to carry a gun and she may even defeat a token bad guy or two, but she's there just to look attractive and to give Bradley Cooper someone to make out with.  And what purpose does Megan Fox serve in the Transformers movies other than to run around looking like Megan Fox?  While there are some exceptions (the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, the X-Men trilogy, the Harry Potter series, Fantastic Four 1 and 2), most mainstream franchises have no female representation beyond the token 'love' interest.  Even in franchises that begin with fleshed-out, three-dimensional female leads (Hulk, Batman Begins), the sequels will often undo much of that work and regulate the female lead in question to just another romantic prize to be won and/or woman-in-refrigerator (TheIncredible Hulk, The Dark Knight).

Aside from the obvious issues involving sexism and gender representation, such tokenism actually harms many of the films in question, to the point where said film would be better off with no female representation at all.  Sure, we all love Vera Farmiga in Up in the Air or Nothing But the Truth (two movies that actually pass the Bechdel Rule), but how wasted was she in The Departed, with nothing to do but choose between dating Matt Damon or Leonardo DiCaprio?  And Emily Blunt may be both talented and beautiful, but what did she really offer in The Wolfman other than a tossed-in romantic subplot that dragged the picture to a crawl in the final act (Del Toro may have turned into a werewolf and slaughtered dozens of innocent people, but will he find love with his brother's former fiancee)?  And what purpose did Alice Braga serve in Repo Men save for a random hot chick for Jude Law to grab by the hand and pull along during the various action scenes (never-mind that the plot had him leaving his wife and son behind and instantly falling in love with his new travel buddy)?  It's not the actresses' fault of course, most actors take what work is offered to them.  It was and continues to be the fault of whomever decides/mandates that there has to be a part in such pictures for a female lead and chooses not to come up with anything more interesting that 'love interest'.

I suppose what I'm getting at is, well, why must there be a 'love interest' in franchise pictures?  Why can't such obviously guy-centric pictures make a choice to either create a female lead worth giving a crap about or simply be honest and exclude women from the picture altogether?  It is possible to do the former.  Cate Blanchett was cast in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull not as the romantic interest, but as the lead villain.  Diane Venora was on-board to provide professional and moral support as a Russian government operative helping Richard Gere and Sydney Poitier bring in Bruce Willis's Jackal in the 1997 remake.  Say what you will about Wanted (a terrible picture with serious gender issues), but Angelina Jolie was cast not as the love interest for James McAvoy, but as his teacher and partner in crime.  And while Live Free or Die Hard had a standard damsel-in-distress teen daughter for John McLane to save, it also had Maggie Q as a lead villain who gave and received as much brutality as the male heroes and villains.

Of course, slight digression, an issue with women being cast as villains is the perception of a male hero fighting with a female villain leading to charges of sexism.  Arnold Schwarzenegger crudely but tellingly commented that it was refreshing to fight a female terminator in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, because it was the rare occasion that he could fight a female opponent with the same ferocity that he showed towards male antagonists.  Same goes vice-versa for heroines. The two Charlie's Angels movies were criticized because Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz, and Lucy Liu were allowed to be beaten up by the likes of Crispin Glover, Sam Rockwell, and Justin Theroux at least as much as our heroines in turn whaled on the bad guys.  Just as writers may be afraid of writing flawed roles for minorities to avoid charges of bigotry, I can only imagine the same pressure exists when crafting females who are heroes or villains in action scenarios (which may lead to the genuinely insulting phenomenon of female villains turning heroic in the finale as with Wanted, A View to a Kill, or The Phantom).

It is possible to write roles for actresses that don't completely  revolve around looking attractive, romancing the male lead, and/or being rescued in the climax.  It is possible to write female supporting characters who have their own goals, their own ambitions, and their own respective character arcs.  Do you really think there isn't a correlation between the large cross-gender appeal of Avatar and the fact that both Jake Sully and Neytiri are fully-written characters and are truly co-leads for the majority of the picture?  The problem comes when so little effort is made to flesh out the lead female, that the character becomes nothing but a token inclusion via some mandate.  Thus, with nothing to do and nothing interesting to say, said character becomes a drag on the picture.  I guess it's the eternal question of whether doing 'this' is better than doing nothing at all.  Is it better to have franchise pictures that are basically all-boys clubs, or better to awkwardly shoehorn a token love interest or random 'girl part' for alleged demographic requirements, perhaps to the detriment of the picture as a whole?  Obviously, the best choice would be "C", which is simply to write interesting roles and choose to cast them as female without regard to alleged gender demands.  But, since I don't see that happening anytime soon, the tragic choice for too many actresses is the choice between bad roles and no roles.

Scott Mendelson