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.