And what a strange time for women on film — especially this summer, when the contradictions of progress were evident in full force. I’ve taken to calling it the “B.A., but . . .” effect.
B.A., in this instance, stands for Badass, a word frowned upon not only by editors of discerning taste and discretion, but also impressionable readers. But how better to say what’s been one of the cardinal trends of this summer? From the #yesallwomen trend that took hold on Twitter in May to Mo’Ne Davis’s scorching fastball and last week’s BeyMA’s, women claimed a new pride of place in the culture over the past few months, a phenomenon that was mirrored with encouraging symbolic and economic force at the movies.
First, Angelina Jolie brought her A-game and ice-sculpture cheekbones to “Maleficent,” a revisionist take on Sleeping Beauty in which women save each other rather than waiting around for a prince. The sisterhood-is-powerful fairy tale became an early summer blockbuster, the most financially successful of Jolie’s career, earning more than $700 million worldwide.
In short order, “Maleficent” was followed by “The Fault in Our Stars,” “Tammy” and “Lucy” — all dramatically different in tone, genre and audience but each a big success in its own right and each led by a female character who defied retrograde notions of what it means to act like a woman. Just as Jolie’s evil enchantress harbored a maternally incorrect loathing of kids (played for laughs in the film when the actress looks down on her real-life toddler daughter and hisses, “I don’t like children”), Shailene Woodley’s Hazel, the feisty heroine of “The Fault in Our Stars,” wasn’t a typical lovesick teenager. For one thing, she really was sick, bravely enduring a childhood cancer diagnosis. Smart, sharp-witted, adamantly un-romantic, Hazel may fall in love in the course of the weepie romance, but it’s on her own self-aware, headstrong terms.
Perhaps the most startling portraits of female power came in the form of “Tammy” and “Lucy,” a one-two punch starring Melissa McCarthy as a foul-mouthed, dim-witted force of nature and Scarlett Johansson as a cool, preternaturally sharp-witted force of nature, respectively. Neither Tammy nor Lucy is a heroine we would necessarily want our daughters to emulate. But their I-don’t-give-a-fig comportment, their willingness to flout traditional feminine norms, their steadfast refusal to beg to be liked, was viscerally bracing nonetheless. (One of the summer’s coolest macha heroines was Emily Blunt’s Rita in the sci-fi action adventure “Edge of Tomorrow,” in which her super-soldier character was derisively nicknamed “Full Metal B----” and seriously schooled Tom Cruise in the ways of warfare and hand-to-hand combat.)
In many ways, this summer was simply the most full-blown fulfillment of a promise made back in 2010, when an unknown actress named Jennifer Lawrence astonished audiences with her steely portrayal of a girl trying to save her rural Ozarks family in “Winter’s Bone.” That was the same year that gave us Chloe Grace Moretz’s destructive dervish Hit Girl in the action flick “Kick-Ass” and Mia Wasikowska playing Alice in Wonderland with her own distinctive, self-determining flourish. It didn’t take long for “Brave” and Lawrence’s star vehicle, “The Hunger Games,” to come tumbling triumphantly after.
Dear reader, do you detect a pattern? As bracing as these portraits of female potency and swagger are, they seem strangely straitened, relegated to the realms of animated fables, retooled fairy tales or action-driven fantasy. There’s no question that with “Maleficent” and “The Fault in Our Stars,” women and girls helped save Hollywood’s bacon this summer. But the industry has repaid that kindness by giving them only a very narrow range of permissibly powerful characters — a spectrum roughly defined by the sexy, cyborg-like title character of “Lucy” on one end and the outrageous, slapstick overstatement of “Tammy” on the other.
The mixed message: You can be B.A., but . . . You need to be young, blessed with sci-fi superpowers or otherwise imaginary (blue or green skin helps — just ask Zoe Saldana). You can be faster and smarter and generally better than boys, but you’ll have to lose something in the bargain, preferably a cherished family member — or even the boy himself. Under no circumstances are you to grow into a recognizable adult with a job, career, family or other signifier of functional, if flawed, adulthood.
Those prizes, apparently, are reserved for TV: Just a cursory glance at Margulies’s fellow winners and nominees last week revealed an enviably rich environment for awesome, admirable, sometimes subversively antisocial women who also happen to be recognizable adults, from Margulies and Christine Baranski in “The Good Wife” to Robin Wright in “House of Cards,” Claire Danes in “Homeland,” Kerry Washington in “Scandal” and the B.A. all stars of “Orange Is the New Black.”
We see precious few of these reality-rooted characters in the movies, a gap that was brought home with force a few weeks ago with the passing of Lauren Bacall — who, when it comes to B.A.’s, provided a particularly stylish tutorial. Revisiting her knowing, husky-voiced turns in “To Have and Have Not,” her maturity and self-assurance were made all the more breathtaking by the fact that when she made that movie, she was only 19.
Luckily for her, she had come under the tutelage of the great director Howard Hawks, who had already helped guide Rosalind Russell and Katharine Hepburn into careers that allowed them to be tough, no-nonsense but also sophisticated women — not just girls who could fight or shoot or swear like a guy.
Today, a young Bacall or Russell or Hepburn would no doubt be shocked that the feminist progress their characters embodied and anticipated has been so strangely channeled through popular culture. The lack of sophisticated, mature roles for women can surely be blamed on the market: Hollywood is still stuck in the rut of making movies for and about young people, ignoring the fact that the girls who made “Twilight” and “The Fault in Our Stars” big hits often went with their mothers (who themselves helped make “Mamma Mia!,” “Sex in the City” and “The Help” big hits). But the market excuse also reflects a tautology having to do with structural sexism, a notoriously wimpy, risk-averse business model and a collective failure of imagination — the wash, rinse, repeat cycle of franchise properties and their endless sequels, reboots and spinoffs.
Thus, when the creakily overcompensating “Expendables 3” fails to perform at the box office, its parent studio doesn’t reconsider its strategy, look at the summer’s winners and losers, and dare to try something new. It announces that the flaccid franchise will launch a spinoff called — I kid you not — “The Expendabelles,” due out some time in 2015.
It doesn’t take a lot of huevos to say: That’s not B.A., that’s just plain pathetic. It may be a wonderful time for women on TV, but as far as movies go, we still have to take more than our share of woe with the wonder.