The team of women fronting Ocean’s 8 is undeniably progress. But I struggle to call it progressive.
After months of excitement in the build-up to its release, this month saw Ocean’s 8 hit the big screen – the female-fronted fourth instalment of the Ocean’s film franchise. The reason for this buzz? The film features not just one, but eight female leads – sadly a newsworthy fact given that in 2017 women made up a mere 24% of protagonists in the top-grossing films, which is, incidentally, 5% fewer than 2016.
Seeing this team of women front Ocean’s 8 is undeniably progress. But I struggle to call it progressive. The sad reality is that Hollywood is not yet convinced that feminist films sell, as evidenced by the types of female-fronted films that have recently debuted.
The first category is female reboots such as Ocean’s 8 and Ghostbusters, both of which had male directors. What’s frustrating about these films is that they are not original female narratives – they are male narratives that have proven to be financially successful, and that studio bosses have now decided to let women inhabit. This is reinforced further by their marketing. The new Ghostbusters poster gave Chris Hemsworth (a supporting character) equal visual weight to Leslie Jones, one of the film’s leads. The Ocean’s 8 posters fall into the same trap, copying the original all-male poster format from 2001, seemingly dropping its female leads into the franchise, like guests in their own film.
Grace & Frankie challenges Hollywood ideals around women, breaking feminine façades around ageing, relationships and sexual pleasure.
And then there are superhero films. Wonder Woman, debuted just last year, was ground-breaking because it was the first time a female superhero had her own film. Directed by Patty Jenkins, it even had the female gaze capturing a female narrative. Accordingly, the posters show Wonder Woman in action poses that celebrate rather than objectify her physicality. Compare this with the poster for the male-directed Justice League, in which Wonder Woman also features, and her portrayal places focus on her chest, curved back, and bare legs. Alongside the sturdy front-facing power poses of her male co-stars, the double standards are all too apparent.
So, while there have been steps forward, when the bar is so low, does any of it really equate to progress?
Promisingly, TV is becoming a bastion of hope for the representation of women. Channel 4’s most recent campaign for The Handmaid’s Tale pushed provocative public statements that are alarmingly topical in the current political debate around women’s freedom, with activists even adopting the show’s infamous red uniform to protest restrictions to women’s abortion rights.
And then there is Grace & Frankie, a show whose very premise challenges many of the Hollywood ideals around women, age and appropriate behaviours. Its marketing – with taglines such as ‘Having A Nervous Breakthrough’ – breaks feminine façades, tackling everyday issues for Flat Age women, such as ageing, relationships and sexual pleasure.
Unsurprisingly, all three shows have been created or produced by women, but what’s more interesting is that the studios behind these shows – Netflix and Hulu – are themselves challengers to Hollywood’s outdated systems. They and others are leading the shift towards more honest depictions and aesthetic codes around the portrayal of women and other underrepresented communities. So when it comes to the battle for viewers, if consumers are seeking out more diverse content, and the social equality dialogue continues to gain strength and awareness, Hollywood has no choice but to truly embrace this wave of change – if, of course, it wishes to stay relevant.
Discover how brands and marketers are rewriting female narratives through our Female Futures series.