Were 2016 Blockbusters a Step Forward for Female Characters?

Felicity Jones in Rogue One and Margot Robbie in Suicide Squad- Split-H 2016
Courtesy of Lucasfilm Ltd.; Warner Bros./Photofest
Strong performances didn't always mean the year's big screen heroines could step out of the shadows of their male counterparts.

On paper, 2016 was a quantum leap for women and the blockbuster business.

At this time last year, Hollywood’s slate boasted lineups of what looked like a leap forward for female representation. And, in terms of sheer numbers, it was: Wonder Woman finally made her big screen debut after decades of halted production plans, Harley Quinn gained such a dedicated cult following that she became a coveted Halloween costume, Ghostbusters resurfaced with a female-fronted cast (a concept that materializes onscreen like some kind of feminist SNL sketch), and soon Jyn Erso is poised to become the impetus behind Rogue One, the second Star Wars film in as many years fronted by a strong woman.

But many of the year's female characters still felt like afterthoughts in the shadows of their respective leading men. While Hollywood has recently made a deliberate effort to craft female characters in sci-fi and superhero films that depart from the ingenue trope, it has proven a slow-moving process. And it makes sense, to a certain extent, because the hero characters that drive their plotlines — often lifted directly from their comic book franchises — are overwhelmingly men.

Two of the most highly anticipated female superhero characters of this year were Wonder Woman and Harley Quinn (and the latter was particularly intriguing, because Quinn was not technically a superhero, but a supervillain — a type of role seldom portrayed by a woman). Wonder Woman, played fiercely by DC newcomer Gal Gadot, carved out an impressive space for herself amid Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice's largely male characters. Gadot's Wonder Woman felt purposeful — she wasn't a love interest, and certainly wielded a unique kind of power. Still, the way the film focused on her femininity — and her male counterpart's interactions with her — made it virtually impossible to forget that she is a woman first, hero second. In a way she felt like a prop (she and Superman don't even exchange words). 

Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn fell victim to a similar kind of underdevelopment, which was especially disappointing after Warner Bros.' yearlong advertising campaign touted her as a new breed of character, a sort of Pandora's box for women in blockbusters. And, in theory, she could have been just that. Quinn possesses all the building blocks for a complex villain — seemingly sociopathic, impulsive, but retaining a barely-there softness reminiscent of her former, more human self. While she does receive a significant amount of screen time, Quinn's characterization revolves heavily around her woman-ness (even the ways in which the film plays out her “deranged” persona relies mostly on the tired “hot crazy chick” caricature).

From Quinn's inaugural scene, which sees her performing aerial silk acrobatics in her jail cell, she seems more like a body than a character. Garnished with an acid tongue, a pair of spandex booty shorts and a t-shirt that reads “Daddy's Little Monster” in baby-pink lettering, Quinn was literally created in the Joker's (Jared Leto) image, and she spends the better part of the film following his orders despite his gruesome mistreatment of her. (DC and Warner Bros. have an opportunity to correct this in an upcoming female-centered villains movie, fronted by Margot Robbie.)

But the pursuit of three-dimensional women onscreen was not entirely lost in 2016 blockbusters. Amy Adams' expert portrayal of PhD linguist Dr. Louise Banks in Denis Villeneuve's Arrival is an interesting exception. It clearly fails the Bechdel test, as Banks is essentially the only female character in the film (besides her daughter, at various ages of childhood and adolescence, during a series of flashbacks — or flash forwards; it's never entirely clear). But, because her character is so intricately fleshed-out and consistently regarded by the sea of men around her as the saving grace of their operation, it doesn't feel so much like a slight. The heart of the story lives within the crevices of Banks' conscious and unconscious mind, and those are the elements that truly carry the plot. Banks is so captivating as a leading character that, after watching her, it almost feels as though there weren't any other characters in the film, anyway. 

While 2016 fell short of ideal for female characters in blockbusters, it did reflect an upward trajectory for representation, at least in an elemental sense. Perhaps 2017 will continue to push things forward. Wonder Woman's long overdue motion picture looks compelling — as does her turn in Justice League.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 boasts multiple female leads (Zoe Saldana's Gamora and Karen Gillan's Nebula), Daisy Ridley's Rey will return in Star Wars: Episode VII and Spider-Man: Homecoming features Zendaya as a character she maintains is definitely not a love interest. Then again, 2016 looked quite promising on paper — and proved it's all in the execution.