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The girls of summer: Some wins, some losses and lots of mixed signals

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At the box office, the summer of 2012 may be about breaking records with movies about boys and their toys (“Hulk smash,” indeed). But culturally, the season’s been all about the girls. Beginning with “Snow White and the Huntsman,” continuing through “Brave” and with a dash of talk-worthy premium cable thrown in, girls seem to have taken over screens both large and small, their inner struggles magnified into mythic battles, their most mundane problems examined with probing, disarmingly frank intimacy.

For generations of viewers who for decades have been asking, “Where are the women?” the trend of female-centered films feels like we’re finally getting what we’ve been asking for — a welcome, if belated, acknowledgment that boys aren’t the only characters qualified for a classic hero’s quest. It’s an especially gratifying development when it comes to movies aimed at kids. What parent didn’t silently cheer when it turned out that Merida, the plucky Scottish princess in “Brave,” not only refused to allow herself to be married off, but then embarked on an ad­ven­ture that had nothing to do with a handsome prince? (Instead, “Brave” centers on the protagonist’s ambivalent relationship with her mother, a bracingly resonant psychological twist.)

In fact, by the time “Brave” and, earlier, “Mirror Mirror” hit theaters, a story line featuring a conventional fairy-tale romance would have seemed as dated as an ill-fitting glass slipper (so last season). For the past few years — helped along by such boldly re-worked fables as Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” and bolstered by such girl-powered fantasies as “The Hunger Games” — the old-school plot of the helpless princess saved by the strong prince has been summarily vanquished. Now, the passive heroines of yore have been repurposed into warrior-queens-in-waiting, their lissome exteriors just clever masks for the latent powers within.

The fact that “Alice in Wonderland,” “The Hunger Games” and “Brave” have been big hits suggests that the cheering trend of strong female heroines will only gain traction. But, move the lens slightly, and the promising development isn’t migrating to other genres. Indeed, the very autonomy and empowerment that are celebrated in fanciful movies aimed at youngsters are all too often punished or ridiculed in stories that are more squarely aimed at adults, and purport to take place in the real world (or at least a real world in which teddy bears can swear like stevedores and fictional characters can spring to life and cook spaghetti).

Girls may be winning the day this summer, but what about women?

So far this summer, we’ve watched Greta Gerwig’s smart, if admittedly self-involved, grad student in “Lola Versus” take her lumps and end up alone, even though she’s the one who’s been jilted by a callow fiance; in “Ted,” Mila Kunis’s sharp, mature career woman finally asks her underachieving boyfriend (Mark Wahlberg) to break off relations with his childhood teddy bear, only to realize that his inner arrested adolescent is what makes him so totes adorbs.

In “Celeste and Jesse Forever,” opening later this summer, Rashida Jones plays a similarly put-together and on-track young woman who, as she navigates a complicated relationship with the far less directed man in her life (played by Andy Samberg), is made to look either uptight, witchily judgmental or miserably alone — before she sees the light and realizes that she’s the problem, what with her intelligence and high expectations and all.

To be fair, Samberg’s character undergoes his own, albeit far less punitive, conversion in ”Celeste and Jesse Forever.” As does the male protagonist in “Ruby Sparks” (opening later this month), in which Paul Dano plays a one-hit author suffering a crippling case of writer’s block. When he begins to type out a fictional character on the page, his creation winds up existing in real life, sending him on a cathartic journey of self-discovery, personal growth and letting go of his overweening need for control.

As the perky, pliant belle ideal that Dano’s author creates, Ruby Sparks (played by Zoe Kazan) seems to be just the latest iteration of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, an archetype first discovered and named by Onion film critic Nathan Rabin, who described the recurring character as a “bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” (For examples, Rabin pointed readers to Kirsten Dunst’s character in “Elizabethtown” and Natalie Portman in “Garden State” although Portman arguably anticipated the form with her precocious cutie-pie in “Beautiful Girls.”)

It’s true that, at the outset, Kazan’s wide-eyed, unthreateningly eccentric Ruby plays like the MPDG ideal taken to its most absurd extreme, as it becomes clear that Kazan, who wrote “Ruby Sparks,” is seeking to critique the archetype more than indulge it. “Quirky, messy women whose problems only make them endearing are not real,” one observer tells Dano’s character, adding later, “You haven’t written a person. You’ve written a girl.”

But as clever as “Ruby Sparks” is in puncturing the male wish-fulfillment fantasy of unconditional acceptance and worship, Kazan’s Ruby never gets to be her own fully realized character, instead playing a role similar to that of the Magical Negro, who exists chiefly in order to help the white male hero find transcendence, meaning and the happy ending that was somehow never in doubt. (Even “Girls,” which just wrapped its first season on HBO, performed something of a bait-and-switch; despite the title, the show’s most complex and dynamic character turned out to be a guy, played by the fascinatingly scurvy-looking Adam Driver.)

The man-children of these movies — from Ted and Jesse to the male characters in ”Lola” and “Ruby” — may grow up, but at no real or psychic cost. Their female counterparts, meanwhile, are made to suffer, look needy or ridiculous, or simply accept the fact that it’s their ambitions and aspirations that need curtailing. What’s more, these heroines exist in near-perfect social isolation; if it weren’t for the co-workers in “Ted” or de rigueur best girlfriends in “Lola Versus” and “Celeste and Jesse Forever,” their female leads would exist in virtual estrogen-free zones; for her part, Ruby Sparks only has one memorable conversation with another woman, about — what else? — Dano’s tortured writer. (Admittedly, a mentoring relationship that Celeste embarks on with a young pop star in “Celeste and Jesse” offers a promising but all-too-glancing glimpse of female solidarity.)

Unlike their sisters over in the action and fantasy section, these girls of summer are failing miserably on the Bechdel Test, invented by cartoon artist Alison Bechdel to ascertain a movie’s feminist quotient. All a film needs to do in order to qualify is (1) feature at least two women, who (2) talk to each other about (3) something besides a man.

Based on that simple matrix, last summer’s hit “Bridesmaids” earned straight A’s, while this summer’s otherwise promising adult-geared flicks are epic fails — with one or two notable exceptions. “Your Sister’s Sister” centers on the intriguing emotional interplay between two female siblings (as well as an incipient romance). And in the flawed but undeniably stirring indie hit “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” a self-possessed 6-year-old heroine named Hushpuppy saves her Louisiana bayou community with ferocity and fearlessness that would have made her right at home in a world conjured by Mark Twain or Maurice Sendak.

Then again, with its pint-sized heroine, magic realism and hallucinatory symbology, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” might have more in common with “Brave” than its art-house peers. Perhaps when they’re finished saving their respective kingdoms, Merida and Hushpuppy can reach back and give a hand to their older, real-world sisters. For now, it seems, the only time self-actualized young women can earn more applause than anxiety is when they occupy a truly alternate universe.

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