Why Female Action Vehicles Won't Break Hollywood's Boys Club (Opinion)

The recasting of male-centric film franchises with women is a welcome development, but should hardly be touted as groundbreaking progress.

The phrase “total reboot” isn’t exactly an oxymoron, but when applied to the Hollywood practice of dusting off pre-used premises and characters, it’s something of an exaggeration. Poised to join the recycling queue of movies based on movies are a couple of projects propelled by a gender switcheroo: Bridesmaids director Paul Feig is in talks for an all-female retread of 1984’s Ghostbusters, and Sylvester Stallone is working on an Expendables spinoff featuring female operatives, potentially starring  — if Stallone gets his way — Sigourney Weaver, and called (really?) The Expendabelles.

Whether distaff versions of established franchises are an emerging business model is yet to be seen. But regardless of how good the movies turn out to be, or how well they perform at the box office, this is a promising development only because it means high-profile roles for actresses. In the bottom-line reality of the dream machine, it also acknowledges that female stars can open films and carry them to box-office heights, as Feig’s Bridesmaids demonstrated a few years ago and Luc Besson’s Lucy has done in recent weeks.

Despite that, given two of Hollywood’s most persistent problems — gender imbalance and a reliance on formula over freshness — the recasting of proven (i.e., safe) male-centric properties with actors of the female persuasion hardly qualifies as earth-shattering progress.

As the dispiriting statistics attest year after year, movies that are written and directed by women are in short supply in Hollywood, as are substantial roles for actresses. Industry watcher Martha Lauzen, author of the annual Celluloid Ceiling analysis of films released stateside, has found that only 11 percent of screen protagonists are female. She points, understandably, to “gender inertia” in the industry.

Filling a movie with women is a start, but it doesn’t necessarily make for full-blooded storytelling. It’s true that not a single character with XY chromosomes appears in George Cukor's classic The Women, yet the 1939 comedy-drama defines its ladies who lunch by their relationships with men. Bridesmaids expanded the mainstream movie universe, ever so slightly but with great warmth, comic energy and relatability, by moving beyond the default setting of bitch-fest to focus on female friendship in all its complications.

Characters who are recognizably human in their messy, conflicted longings and behavior are naturally compelling, whether the movie’s a contemporary comedy, a period romance or a sci-fi adventure. But in Hollywood’s often misguided attempts to shift the gender equation, it has overcompensated for a lack of variety and complexity with that paper-thin conceit known, with increasing disparagement, as the Strong Female Character. The SFC is a trope that many female critics deplore, and for good reason. Carina Chocano, formerly of the Los Angeles Times, has pinpointed the lack of dimension in female roles that essentially amount to male stereotypes of toughness, and The Dissolve's Tasha Robinson writes trenchantly of the bait-and-switch that presents intriguing, self-defined female characters — like the Jane Goodall-voiced-by-Cate Blanchett mother in How to Train Your Dragon 2 — only to have them retreat into domesticity, romance or the woodwork before being thrown into peril, all in order to give male characters someone to save.

The Ghostbusters and Expendables reboots will, at least, showcase female action heroes, not damsels in distress (albeit, in the latter case, ones whose mission requires them to pose as hookers). Considering the winking nature of both projects’ source material, it’s unlikely that they’ll adopt the SFC template of killing-machine invulnerability. They might even offer a playful insight or two about women in the movies, along the lines of 22 Jump Street's meta-spoof of the whole reboot business.

But there’s another meta angle to consider when looking at women in Hollywood: Beyond the characters themselves, there are the careers of the women who play them. Scarlett Johansson, at the ripe old age of 29, has defied ingenue expectations and made bold choices, and whatever you think of the films themselves, her recent output, particularly the trifecta of Her, Under the Skin and Lucy, suggests movie-star possibilities beyond the Oscar-focused A-list mold.

Lucy has divided critics for a number of reasons. The most provocative question to arise concerns whether the title character is a fully conceived 21st century woman or just a curvier version of a male action figure. LA Weekly critic Amy Nicholson and The New York TimesManohla Dargis came down on opposite sides of the debate, with the former calling Lucy “a flat male fantasy” and the latter applauding “the latest brush stroke in Ms. Johansson’s emerging portrait.”

My experience of the film is closer to Dargis’. Lucy is a whacked-out rush of cinematic adrenaline, and the action is truly female-driven because it’s character-specific. However nutty the story, the breakneck transformation of a party girl into a superhuman registers in flashes of emotion via Johansson’s performance. Thrill rides are an essential part of movie tradition, and Besson and his leading lady provide exhilarating evidence that women can embody the pure-cinema kicks of ultra-kinetic action in ways that are rooted in their experience — in this case, in the combustible mixture of Johansson's no-nonsense physicality and Lucy's mental and spiritual awakening, even as she moves at warp speed beyond mere humanness, each backward glance at her former life briefer than the last. A character doesn’t need to represent, signify, enlighten or redeem to be fully developed and enthralling, although Lucy’s trajectory goes the extra mile, transcending kick-ass for goddess.

It’s safe to expect nothing so eccentric from a female team of Ghostbusters. The original comedy, however beloved and quotable, is a pretty mild exercise in genre riffing that could stand a jolt of complicating character development. Though it’s no “total protonic reversal,” the prospect of suiting up a cast of ace comic actresses to track down nasty spirits might take female-driven action in diverting new directions. For true innovations in solving the gender imbalance problem or paving the way for richer female roles, though, the answer to “Who you gonna call?” lies somewhere else.