The new “Hunger Games” film, which opens nationwide on Friday, is not just a surefire blockbuster, it’s also the culmination of a particularly strong season for women in action roles amid a year dominated by debate over pay equity and diversity in Hollywood.
Jennifer Lawrence, the star of the “Hunger Games” franchise, has become one of the more prominent voices on the issue, writing an open letter last month detailing how she discovered she was paid significantly less than her male co-stars for the hit film “American Hustle.” Jessica Chastain, who played the leader of a team of astronauts in “The Martian,” recently echoed her sentiment. And it was actress Patricia Arquette who got the ball rolling with a passionate Oscar speech in March, where she declared “It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America.”
With “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2” set to dominate the box office, and a new "Star Wars" film featuring a female heroine coming next month, does the industry deserve a pat on the back or are these films just a drop in the bucket?
Although all of this year’s releases were in production long before the wage gap controversy picked up steam, they seemed to suggest Hollywood was heeding the call for more representation and diversity. “Tomorrowland,” “Ant-Man,” “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation,” “Terminator: Genysis” and “Avengers: Age of Ultron” all featured fleshed-out female lead characters who were integral to the action — not just damsels in distress. The director of the critically acclaimed hit “Mad Max Fury Road” even took the unprecedented step of reaching out to renowned feminist Eve Ensler to consult on that action film’s script and production, resulting in what has widely been hailed as one the most stealthy female-friendly films of the year.
“When it comes to doing female characters justice, Hollywood has a lot of ground to cover just to break even. It's great to see progress in terms of select female leads, which clearly have the potential to make big box office bucks, but we still have a long way to go including to center the stories of women of color,” Lori Adelman, executive director of Feministing, told MSNBC.
Indeed, although women are starting to take charge in more blockbuster movies, they have been, on the whole, overwhelmingly white. Adelman pointed to the controversial new cover of The Hollywood Reporter, which features only white actresses as another example of how far behind the film business still is.
“Look at Shonda [Rhimes]. I'd like to see Hollywood follow TV's lead on this one and give more black women reign to tell their authentic stories — and make blockbusters in the process,” she added.
A USC study of 2014’s 100 top grossing films showed that women possessed less than one-third of the speaking roles, just more than a quarter featured people of color and less than 1% were identified as members of the LGBT community. Meanwhile, Lawrence is ranked by Forbes as Hollywood’s highest paid actress — yet she still makes $30 million less than the top ranked male star, Robert Downey, Jr.
Of course, to the average American, these numbers are so astronomical they hardly evoke pity, but they do underline the fact that in virtually every industry, including one with a liberal reputation like Hollywood, women are still being paid far less than men for doing the exact same job.
Eric Kohn, the chief film critic and senior editor for IndieWire, believes the current struggle is more about "acknowledgement than empowerment."
"In the post-Lena Dunham era ... people are much more cognizant of the challenges involved with being someone who has a history of being marginalized," Kohn told MSNBC. "It's almost like we're finally seeing the impact of the Obama age on the stories that Hollywood tells." He cited the new "Rocky" spin-off film "Creed," starring Michael B. Jordan, as an example of positive change, because the lead character's race is not used as a plot device, instead it's just an accepted part of a multiracial social fabric. "Nobody ever even says the word black once in that movie," said Kohn.
Still, Kohn concedes that studios are still "mostly run by white guys" and, for every blockbuster that provides a refreshing female character, there are ones like the new James Bond film "Spectre," which he sees as taking a step backwards. He argued that stars like Lawrence generally don't have the impact and influence they once did, and that it's really power players behind the scenes — like Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president Cheryl Boone Isaacs — who can actually make a difference.
On Nov. 14, Isaacs addressed the elephant in the room during her introductory remarks at the annual Governor's Awards. “You, the people in this room, the true movers and shakers in our industry, you understand that when it comes to fair and equal representation in our industry, words are not enough," she said. "We also have a responsibility to take action, and we have a unique opportunity to do so now. Interest in the motion picture arts and sciences has never been as strong as it is today. The world is watching to see how we respond to this critical issue.”
Isaacs has launched a new initiative called A2020, which will evaluate the academy's practices over the next five years, with an emphasis on promoting diversity. Director Spike Lee, while being honored at the Governor's Awards this year, applauded her efforts but also quipped: "It’s easier to be the president of the United States as a black person than to be the head of a studio."