2012: The highs and lows of women in Hollywood

Posted at 10:52 AM, Dec 27, 2012

Kristen Stewart

By Stephanie Goldberg (CNN) — Katniss Everdeen emerged victorious in “The Hunger Games,” and it was Snow White (rather than a charming prince) who defeated her evil stepmother in both screen adaptations she starred in this year.

Even Bella Swan, the formerly weak and needy protagonist of the “The Twilight Saga,” was confident and fearless in the franchise’s final installment.

This year’s influx of big screen heroines appears to be a leap toward equality, prompting praise from film critics such as A.O. Scott of The New York Times. Off screen, however, things were a little more complicated.

“Zero Dark Thirty” actress Jessica Chastain has garnered praise for her turn as Maya, the CIA agent — aka “the girl” — who led the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Meanwhile, Kathryn Bigelow’s success as the film’s director comes saddled with commentary that she, as Bret Easton Ellis pointed out via Twitter, is “a very hot woman.”

“Kathryn Bigelow would be considered a mildly interesting filmmaker if she was a man,” the author posted this month.

He has since apologized for the tweet, noting Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” “felt like it was directed by a man. Its testosterone level was palpable, whereas in Sofia Coppola’s work you’re aware of a much softer presence behind the camera.”

In the world of animation, while “Brave’s” heroine Merida trounced her suitors in an archery competition for her hand, Pixar replaced Brenda Chapman as the film’s director. (Mark Andrews and Chapman now share the directing credit.)

The ousted director opened up about her experience as a woman attempting to infiltrate the “Hollywood Boy’s Club” with The New York Times in August, writing, “This was a story that I created, which came from a very personal place, as a woman and a mother. To have it taken away and given to someone else, and a man at that, was truly distressing on so many levels.”

Despite accounts of inequality, 2012 has been dubbed the year of the woman, and with good reason, given the many strong female characters and women breaking through in the entertainment industry as well as our culture at large.

Not only will a record 20 women hold U.S. Senate seats next year, but women voters also greatly influenced the 2012 election, making an impact in swing states such as Ohio.

As founder of Margot Magowan says, Hollywood needs to catch up.

The sheer increase of strong female characters isn’t enough, Magowan said, noting that role models such as “Wreck-It Ralph’s” Vanellope (voiced by Sarah Silverman) are often secondary characters.

“It’s important for the female to be the star of the movie,” the mom of three girls said. ” ‘Harry Potter’ has Hermione, but her role is to help Harry on his quest. … You can be the first lady, but you can’t be the president. … If you can’t imagine it, you can’t be it.”

Hollywood overachievers Mindy Kaling and Lena Dunham have enjoyed success this year; both women created TV shows in which they also star — “The Mindy Project” and “Girls,” respectively.

Embodying versions of the everywoman, their characters Mindy Lahiri and Hannah Horvath don’t ignore their curves, a simple but subversive statement in image-conscious Hollywood.

Before “Girls” debuted on HBO in April, Dunham told CNN, “I don’t look like everybody that you usually see on television. I wanted to make sure to cast actresses who were beautiful, but beautiful the way that your sexiest friend is beautiful, not beautiful the way that someone who is on a CW show is beautiful.”

Dunham is undeniably an up-and-coming 20-something powerhouse, but instead of her merits, public focus was placed on her body and the lack of racial diversity on her show.

When she was criticized for alleged nepotism, she shot back, telling The B.S. Report’s Bill Simmons, “I really did want to challenge all the people crying nepotism to actually tell me who either of my parents were, because it’s the contemporary art world.”

Outrage continued when reports surfaced in October that Dunham signed a book deal with Random House for $3.7 million. Sure, that’s a good chunk of change in exchange for tales of poetry camp and vegan dinner parties, but it’s no more outrageous than the deals offered to her A-list counterparts.

Dunham also came under fire for the things her “Girls” character did between the sheets.

Noting the sometimes disquieting — but realistic — sex scenes, columnist Frank Bruni wrote, “You watch these scenes and other examples of the zeitgeist-y, early-20s heroines of ‘Girls’ engaging in, recoiling from, mulling and mourning sex, and you think: Gloria Steinem went to the barricades for this?”

And while Kristen Stewart starred as two different empowered heroines, in the real world, her “indiscretion” with “Snow White and the Huntsman” director Rupert Sanders had the public branding her with a scarlet “A.” In some of the coverage, Sanders was portrayed as a victim in the scandal, while Stewart was called a “trampire.”

Back on the big screen, Stewart’s Snow White character was berated for being too masculine by critics such as Debbie Schlussel.

“I know it’s a fairy tale, but since when was Snow White a she-man warrior?” Schlussel wrote on her website in June. “Uh, sorry, but reality check: men are the strong ones and the ones in physical fighting who win and best women.”

Around the same time, Sanders explained Stewart’s tough Snow White character to USA Today, saying, “I love to play against expectations. … I made a decision not to have Kristen do anything that she wouldn’t realistically be able to do. No Bruce Lee or ‘Braveheart’ moves. She is not on a killing rampage. The men follow her into battle because of the spirit within her.”

In 2006, while accepting an award from Equality Now (an organization promoting the human rights of women), Joss Whedon (“The Avengers,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) said he’s often asked why he creates such strong women characters.

His response: “Why aren’t you asking 100 other guys why they don’t write strong women characters?”

Now, more women are entering the conversation themselves such as Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, who wrote last year’s hit “Bridesmaids” starring an all-female ensemble cast.

Strong female characters are also becoming more prevalent. There’s The CW’s new Robin Hood drama, “Sherwood,” which will have a female lead, according to The Hollywood Reporter, and Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock’s buddy comedy, “The Heat,” which is expected to hit theaters in April.

In January, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler will co-host the 70th annual Golden Globes (the first time any woman — let alone two — will helm the event without a male co-host), proving that the so-called “year” of the woman shows no signs of slowing down.

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