2014 was a good year for women in film. Recently, it was revealed that the top ten most searched stars on IMDB this year were all women. This on its own might not mean much, given the off-screen personas of today’s women and the fascination with their personal lives. Coupled with a careful examination of the roles that women, especially young women, have played on screen this year, it’s easy to see that women’s roles in Hollywood may be headed in the right direction.
Emma Stone provided the first indication of this in 2014, with her work in The Amazing Spiderman 2. Though the movie is problematic on many levels, her performance as Gwen Stacy is one of the few things that make it work. Her Gwen is intelligent, ballsy, and determined, unafraid of the dangerous situations she finds herself in and unwilling to simply wait around for Peter Parker. This is easy to see even in the film’s early moments, when she calls things off with him, revealing how fed up she is with his inability to decide whether they should be together. She then spends the majority of the film pursuing her own interests without much regard for her relationship to Peter. Ultimately, when she gets an opportunity to move to London, Peter decides to follow her instead of the other way around.
For a movie with three separate supervillains, this is fairly progressive stuff, especially when you consider the role Kirsten Dunst played in the first Spiderman trilogy. Though the two play different characters, Stone’s Gwen is far more progressive than Dunst’s Mary Jane, whose only function in the narrative is to get saved. Gwen, on the other hand, is actively involved in the actual plot of the film. She’s smart, maybe even smarter than Peter, and is therefore crucial to defeating Jamie Foxx’s Electro as he fights with Spiderman in a power grid. This all culminates, of course, in her death, which is where her impact on the film as a whole is the most clear. Her death, interestingly enough, leads to Peter retiring Spiderman, and casts a pall over the entire resolution of the film. It is also Gwen’s words that inspire him back into action, and give him the strength he needs to carry on.
Gwen is more than just Peter’s inspiration, though. She’s witty, charming, and remarkably alive. Stone’s character does not subordinate her needs to Peter’s and doesn’t expect Peter to do this either. Their relationship works because they treat each other like equals, capable of transcending some of the boundaries of gender in that they are both remarkably capable, even if Peter is the only one with supernatural abilities. Maybe that’s actually what makes Gwen great. She’s real, natural, and strong, without ever appearing or needing to be supernatural.
Though Stone had a good year (especially considering the current buzz surrounding her performance in Birdman), Shailene Woodley’s year might have been even better. She headlined two highly anticipated releases in Divergent and The Fault in Our Stars. Though her work in both has been widely praised, and Divergent’s Tris is the more overtly butt-kicking, The Fault in Our Stars’ Hazel Lancaster is ultimately the more interesting character. As Hazel, Woodley is able to show us a real person, damaged by her advanced realization of her own mortality and coming to terms with what death means. Woodley’s performance is surely the highlight of the film, and Hazel’s maturity and complexity come through in every scene. She falls in love, sure, but she also does much, much more. She thinks and speaks with a great sense of irony, and refuses to let anyone, including the viewer, feel sorry for her.
All of this is just part of what makes Hazel a step forward for women. Like Gwen Stacy before her, Hazel also has a leading man love interest. Gus, though he seems quite masculine in many ways, with his love of sports and video games, could also be seen as a kind of reversal of the idea of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. He’s the optimistic one, the one who is neither bothered nor deterred by the main character’s fears and flaws, and the one who insists on being in a relationship with Hazel. On top of all this, Gus is also very much a “carpe diem” figure for Hazel, encouraging her to live her life fully instead of contemplating its inevitable end. Hazel is the more subdued of the too, and it is Gus who opens her up. The film’s view of love is, to some extent, sappy. It works, however, at least in part because Hazel and Gus seem like actual people. It’s the rare male-female dynamic that enhances both characters, especially Hazel. She fights Gus off, agrees to love him, and eventually, she loses him. Through the whole process, though, she is no one but herself, unwilling to peel off her scabs or hide the truth of their situation. Her realism stems largely from this, and it is what ultimately creates a character complex enough to ponder, before you even realize she’s a young woman.
The same could be said, of course, of Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen. Though she’s existed in the collective pop culture consciousness for several years now, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 explored her character more deeply than either of the prior installments. Katniss has been praised for her rebellious nature, her somewhat apathetic attitude toward her male counterparts, and her fascinating complexity since she burst onto screens in March of 2012. She has been hailed as the modern equivalent Ripley, from the Alien series, largely because of her nurturing, maternal instincts which are coupled with a somewhat paradoxically lethal nature. In many ways, Mockingjay Part 1 initially seems to contradict this characterization, in that it removes Katniss from the games which defined the first two films and relegates her to a bunker, where she spends the majority of this installment. Katniss is a revolution for women in film not only because of her physical skills and her bravery but also, as Mockingjay Part 1 reveals, because she is more than that.
Katniss is broken in this installment, and there is no way to get around that fact. As Lawrence plays her, she is scarred by the horrors of two games, and by the devastating bombings that have destroyed her home, along with most of its residents. Understandably, then, Katniss spends a great majority of her time in this film confused, haunted, and terrified. It would almost be hard to believe that this character was the same one that existed in the earlier films if it weren’t for the fact that glimmers of that Katniss are still shown. As she instills hope in the wounded, bonds with her sister, and fights to rescue Peeta from the clutches of the Capitol, she becomes the nurturing warrior she used to be, albeit only briefly. Katniss is both exactly the same and markedly different, someone who has been realistically traumatized by her experiences and is having difficulty overcoming these obstacles.
She has also become a puppet here again, much like she was for the Capitol during each of her Hunger Games. Here, though, she is working with, or for, the rebels. She films propaganda spots for them, but ultimately seems quite disconnected from the larger war effort. Katniss is their symbol, but she is not their leader. Both Katniss’s scarring and her ultimate status as a puppet provide what comes a much needed dose of realism in a story that could otherwise seem incredibly otherworldly. Katniss grounds it by revealing the scars people carry with them, and how these scars can affect people who may ultimately be irrevocably broken. Katniss has already proven her strength. Mockingjay Part 1 is revolutionary because we get to see her weaknesses too.
That’s the goal. Women, especially young ones, should fight for the ability to play strong characters, of course. These women are all strong, and they all take active roles in shaping their own futures. Ultimately, though, these young women may be more revolutionary because they move past a mere reversal of the male/female dynamic that existed for so long in Hollywood. Instead, Gwen, Hazel and Katniss are all strong and sensitive, smart and kind, and many other startlingly complicated things. They’re characters who feel like people. Man or woman, shouldn’t that be what every actor searches for?