This time last year everyone was talking about newest Star Wars outing Star Wars: The Force Awakens and its female hero, Rey (Daisy Ridley). Praised for having a female protagonist in a male dominated franchise, with a character little girls can look up too as much as little boys looked up to Luke or Hans Solo in the past, there was also backlash from fans claiming that this was not a women's world.
One year later, and the discussion and praise is the same; this time with most recent addition to the Star Wars universe Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and its main character, Jyn (Felictiy Jones). However, this time, the backlash has not been as strong – The Force Awakens proved that the franchise can still be a success with a female at the helm of its narrative.
Though it worked for Star Wars, rebooting a well loved franchise with a female lead cast does not always work, and this was the case this year for Ghostbusters. As soon as a remake was announced, fans of the original picture (Reitman, 1984) took to social media to slam the project - and again when it then was announced that it would be rebooted with a cast of female comedians instead of male. The outcry was huge, and unfortunately for Ghostbusters the bad publicity did not turn into good. With lack-lustre reviews and poor box office numbers, this suggests that maybe mainstream cinema audiences aren't so ready for majority female casts.
In the year where females have been dominating the Sci-Fi genre, (see also Amy Adams saving the world one whiteboard at a time in Denis Villeneuve's Arrival) the superhero genre has been less so. Wonder Women (Gal Gadot) appears in Batman v Superman, Captain America: Civil War features reoccurring characters Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) however it's Margot Robbie portrayal of Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad which was the stand out female performance in a superhero movie this year.
Robbie's Harley Quinn was so popular in fact that she was one of the main marketing tools for the film and continues to be one of the most merchandised characters from it, even spawning her own spin off film. The problem with this character though, is that she's existing for the gaze of the male audience and characters. Yes, it's great that a main selling point of a superhero franchise is a woman, but it's not so great that she's a selling point for the wrong reasons.
In 2016, female directed films have been fairing particularly well on the independent market and festival circuit with stand out, cross over hits such as American Honey directed by Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank), Maggies Plan directed by Rebecca Miller (The Private Lives of Pippa Lee) and A United Kingdom directed by Amma Asante (Belle).
Andrea Arnold's latest film American Honey was one of the critical darlings of the year, holding a 80% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, winning the Jury Prize at this year Cannes film festival and being named the 5th greatest film of the year by Sight and Sound magazine. The only problem is that American Honey failed to make the budget back at the box office. Now, Arnold is not a director who cares about breaking box office records, but it proves that films about women, made by women is still considered a niche market no matter how acclaimed the films may be.
Ironically in 2016, it's been the films about women and for women made by men that have been performing much better in the box office. Whit Stillman's Jane Austen adaptation Love & Friendship was a surprising and charming hit of the year grossing almost $20 million at the box office – impressive considering it's modest $3 million budget. The biggest women's film of the year however, was the return of Britain's favourite literary heroine, Bridget, in her third outing, Bridget Jones' Baby that so happened to be the second biggest UK movie of the year. So the audience is obviously out there, unfortunately it so happens that films made by women are less accessible and distributed than women's films made by men.
So has 2016 been a good year for women's cinema? Well yeah - we've been spoilt for female roles and female role models; whether that have been Bridget, Jyn, Star from American Honey or even Brie Larson in Room. We still have a long way however to go in terms of having cinema made by women seen. If the varied representation on our screens is the two steps forward then the lack of representation behind screen is the three steps back.
Females are now protagonists in reboots and franchises, yet they have not necessarily been a success. Female protagonists are now featuring in genre cinema, but the representation is still negative. Films directed by women are critically acclaimed, yet they do not turnover massive box office success. And films for women are being made, but why are they being made by men? It's clear that the gender imbalance is still frequenting cinema - and particularly Hollywood - but it seems in 2016, at least we've been working on it.
So what's in store for 2017? If Obama era cinema was about women beginning to find their voice, will the beginning of the Trump era see the female agenda pushed even more passionately or aggressively, or will it return to three steps back and no steps forward?
In memoriam: Dedicated to Carrie Fisher, who made badass characters like Rey and Jyn able to exist.
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