I saw two movies this weekend, Fifty Shades of Grey and Jupiter Ascending.
Fifty Shades of Grey is a movie by, for and about women. The women in it are real people, given real lives which they control. Yes, it's about a BDSM relationship, but it was not nearly as spanky as I was expecting, and there was not a single thing in it that I'd consider non-consensual. I haven't read the books, so if that complaint comes from them, it didn't make it to the screen.
And maybe that's because of who brought this movie to the screen. The book was written by a woman, who was also a producer on the film; the screenplay was written by a woman; and the movie was directed by a woman. The final product is pure wish fulfillment for many women, myself included, not because of the content of the movie, but because it is such an unadulterated joy to see a story told through the female gaze. This is a woman's story, start to finish, as we watch a young college grad grow and explore her own sexuality with a partner who challenges her to find and assert her own limits. It's sexy and sensual and there isn't a moment of male gaze in it. I did not see one scene in which Dakota Johnson's Anastasia was an object, even while being forced to submit to her lover. The camera just didn't view her that way.
Throughout the film, Anastasia has agency. She is in control of herself, even while being subject to domination. She makes reasoned, measured decisions about her own body and her own life. She passes what comic book writer Kelly Sue DeConnick calls the "Sexy Lamp Test." In DeConnick's words, "If the main female character in your movie can be replaced by a sexy lamp and the story can proceed unaffected, then f*ck you." Anastasia Steele is a lot of things, but she's not merely some sexy lamp.
The exact opposite is true for Jupiter Ascending. If this is the version of female empowerment that the writer-directors, producers and studio executives think anybody wants (aside from 14-year-old boys), then all of them have a lot to learn about women -- and empowerment. Jupiter Jones, the supposed heroine of the movie, is given so little to do (other than wear pretty dresses and outrageous makeup) that she is actually unconscious during the pivotal Act I battle scene. Unconscious! She doesn't choose to leave earth for her home planet, she is transported to it -- in her sleep!
She makes absolutely no decisions about her own life, and neither do the other female characters. Her mother could have been a powerful force to be reckoned with, but instead, when threatened, she shrieks in fear and winds up... you guessed it... unconscious for the rest of the movie. The space sister has one nice scene, then does nothing else, as is understated by the fact that after explaining to Jupiter what their world is all about, she disappears. She just never shows up again. ("So, hey toots, thanks for all the exposition and by the way, nice dress.") Every woman in this movie could easily be replaced by a sexy lamp, even the lead.
And in the end -- HUGE SPOILER ALERT -- the big change that Jupiter goes through, the life-changing character arc that is the raison d'etre of any titular hero's journey, is that she decides to be a better maid. Yep, you read that right. She starts the movie scrubbing toilets and she ends the movie... scrubbing toilets. Only now, she's really good at it. Like, really. Totally. She is beyond committed to toilet scrubbing. NO -- I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP! You would have to have been born and raised with a penis to make this up and think it could be the basis of a gripping piece of filmed entertainment.
In contrast, Channing Tatum's character, Caine Wise, is given the complete package -- a compelling backstory, a troubled soul, the ability to kick ass repeatedly, boatloads of agency, tons of risky choices, a huge arc from where he starts to where he ends up and tons of admiration from everyone he's had to win over in his manly struggles, particularly the dopey-eyed Jupiter, who twice stops and confesses her desire for him while they are being shot at.
His name is Caine Wise, for God's sake! Gosh, could it be that he's strong and smart, as opposed to Jupiter Jones, whose name makes her sound like she works the noon-to-six shift at an airport-adjacent topless bar? But but but, she's the star! The one the movie is named for, the one whose dreary opening voice-over tells us it's her story.
"Thanks for sharing, sweetheart. Now run screaming until you get knocked out and abducted while the men do some real fighting."
The problem with the male gaze is that when you are a man, you don't see it. It's like trying to hear your own bad accent when speaking a foreign language. You can acknowledge that it's probably there, but since you don't experience it directly, you have no idea how bad it sounds to native speakers, and you pretty quickly stop worrying about it, if you ever did. When almost everyone who decides which movies get made are men, and men are the ones writing and directing all of the stories, even stories supposedly about women, we women lose sight of what it looks, feels and sounds like to have our stories told from our perspective. We stop seeing it as the male gaze, too, and just see it as the norm -- the lens through which all stories are told.
Fifty Shades of Grey cost $40 million to make and earned $85 million this weekend. It's the third highest-grossing opening weekend in the 103-year history of Universal Studios. Jupiter Ascending cost $176 million to make and has earned $33 million in two weeks. It's the third consecutive Wachowski movie to lose millions. And yet, I am willing to bet the Wachowskis would have a much easier time getting a big-budget movie greenlit than anyone involved with a female-centric movie that was profitable by the end of its second day of release.
It would appear that movies by, for and about women are more profitable than their similarly-budgeted, male-gaze counterparts, but there is a limit to the comparison, since it is almost impossible to find a movie by, for and about women that has anywhere near the budget and marketing of the standard studio tentpole. If Hollywood cares at all about profit, that would change.
And that may be the core of the problem. Hollywood does not care about profit. If they did, they'd be making better movies geared towards under-served audiences, and they would hire the people who know how to tell those stories, then get out of their way as they tell them. But doing that doesn't ensure the bragging rights of "winning the weekend" regardless of the cost. Doing that means that when you whip it out on Monday morning and measure it, yours might not be biggest.
Unless, of course, you're screenwriter Kelly Marcel and director Sam Taylor-Johnson. In your case, you told a woman's story from a woman's point of view and gave the woman in it complete control over her own outcome, and the women of America thanked you for it to the tune of $85 million and counting. Let's just hope Hollywood gives these women, and all others like them, the chance to keep it up.
Valerie Alexander is a writer, speaker and filmmaker, and the author of Happiness as a Second Language, Success as a Second Language, and her latest book, based on her popular talk, How Women Can Succeed in the Workplace (Despite Having "Female Brains"). She can be reached through her website, SpeakHappiness.com.