Strong Male Leads (Or, Why You Don’t Need Them in Every Goddamn Movie)

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The Bourne Identity007: SpecterThe Fast and FuriousThe Dark KnightIndiana Jones, and Rocky. What do these films have in common? Well, aside from being action films and most of them featuring the name of the main character in the title, all of these films have male leads and, at best, female supporting characters. Is this a problem for these franchises? Not really. A series about Rocky should probably feature Rocky, after all, and it makes sense that the same be true for most of the films I just listed. For the most part, men dominate action franchises, with some notable exceptions1 That’s been the way of things for decades, and only until recently has that power been properly challenged, with more and more female-led action franchises hitting our screens. It’s a good thing. Some of those new franchises are fan-friggin-tastic. And those other franchises are fantastic, too. We can have both!

Which brings me to the latest “men aren’t getting their fair share” argument in film…

By now, some of you have seen Todd McCarthy’s review of Rogue One at The Hollywood Reporter. As far as reviews go, it’s a fairly standard piece; read it if you like, but be warned there are some spoilers. Part of the reason McCarthy’s review has garnered a lot of attention, particularly on Twitter, is the following quote:

What the film really lacks is a strong and vigorous male lead (such as Han Solo or John Boyega’s Finn in The Force Awakens)2 to balance more equally with Jyn and supply a sparring partner. None of the men here has real physical or vocal stature,3 nor any scenes in which they can decisively emerge from the pack in a way that engages audience enthusiasm. Both Luna and Ahmed have proved themselves repeatedly in big-screen and television performances, but their characters never pop here, to the film’s detriment. And given that Jyn is rather less gung-ho and imposing than was Ridley’s Rey, there’s an overall feel of less physical capacity on the part of the main characters.4

We heard a variation of this argument last year with the release of Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens; indeed, it was perhaps the second most popular topic about the movie. And I suspect we’ll keep hearing these arguments so long as Disney continues to release Star Wars movies featuring female leads — which means every other year for the next few years. If there’s a root to all of these concerns about the “absence of men” in major film franchises (hold your horses; we’ll get to that in a minute), it’s the slow deterioration of male power:  we’re losing a lot of ground to, well, equality. It’s not really “losing ground” so much as “ceding territory we shouldn’t have had in the first place.” It’s almost like men just annexed 75% of mainstream culture and are now pissed off that the other half of society actually wants half the places at the table. My god. What are we to do?

Much of the issue I take with McCarthy’s quote is the fact that he seems so oblivious to just how male-centered film already is. Yes, women are getting more spaces at the table, but they are still often overshadowed by the men around them, whether in the roles they are offered or the pay they are given. The male-centered-ness of film becomes cleared when you realize how often men dominate film even when they they share the spotlight with women. Earlier this year, Polygraph released a massive study of film dialogue that looked at which sex speaks more in films — specifically, in Disney films (wait for it; it’s coming). Overwhelmingly, MEN speak more than women in most Disney films, with a handful having roughly equal time5 and an equal size handful have more female dialogue than male dialogue.6 Here’s the kicker:  one of the films with more male dialogue than female dialogue happens to be The Force Awakens. That’s right. The newest Star Wars film, which has a female and male lead, still gave significantly more dialogue to men than to women.7 Now, there are a lot of reasons for this. One of them is pretty easy to figure out:  there are more men than women in the movie, and a lot of the men talk. BUT that’s a choice they made. Captain Phasma has almost no dialogue despite being one of the more iconic characters in the film, and other women in the film are basically relegated to the background or have minimal roles; Leia and Rey are the only major speaking roles for women.8 Now, I’m not crapping on the film’s representation here;10

The point is this:  the “absent male leads” criticism of Rogue One is essentially a complaint that rests on the assumption that men are actually being denied something they were entitled to.  Supposedly, there are no male characters who have nearly the dialogue-power as Finn had in The Force Awakens, and so everything is just not right with the world because you just need a strong male lead for things to be OK. It’s a complaint about equal representation that is, frankly, bullshit. If the Bourne franchise does not require a “strong female lead,” then one Star Wars film doesn’t require a male equivalent. Representation isn’t about having absolute parity all the time; it’s about the reality that men dominate films in almost every avenue except films not advertised to them, and that is hardly fair when 50% of the population are women. Men get to be the action heroes. Men get to be the romantic lead. Men get to be doctors who save the day. Men get to be Sam Neill running away from dinosaurs and saving the day. Men men men men MEN. But now we have TWO Star Wars movies in a row in which a woman is in the lead (well, one and a half films, really) and all of a sudden we just have to have strong male leads? Why? Where are the strong female leads in the Bond franchise or any other major franchise featuring men? These franchises don’t have the female equivalent and likely never will. And they don’t need to. If representation is something that matters — it is — then absolute parity in all things surely can’t be one of the requirements. And that’s certainly not what any of us concerned with the limited roles for women or people of color in Hollywood are calling for.

So to men who are upset that they’re not the leads in Rogue One, I say this:  you don’t get to be the lead in every film, let alone every franchise. It’s OK. More importantly, you shouldn’t be the lead in every film or even the majority of films. And you certainly shouldn’t complain about the fact that one film in a franchise that includes multiple TV shows, 7 movies, novels, and comics decided to give one film to a woman. You’ve owned the franchise for 40 years. It’s time to fucking share.rogue-one

  1. The Tomb Raider series, Resident EvilUnderworld, and The Hunger Games are some notable exceptions. A more complete list of female-led action films/franchises can be found here.
  2. Umm, Han Solo wasn’t a lead, you idiot. He was a supporting character like Poe. You’re confusing “iconic former lead character” with “lead character.”
  3. Except the fucking blind force user who kicks the shit out of a bunch of Stormtroopers. But sure:  no physical stature.
  4. McCarthy’s review also makes mention of a “rainbow coalition,” a term he applies to the relatively diverse cast. Twitter seems to take this to mean something more insidious, though I’m having trouble tracking down where that comes from. My familiarity with the term is in the political context — a group consisting of people with various political views but who otherwise agree on some set of things that the “coalition” fights for. However, if someone can point me to where “rainbow coalition” has a more insidious root, that’d be great. Either way, I’m not convinced McCarthy meant it in any other way than the most simplistic. Then again, I’m not terribly familiar with McCarthy’s work, so…
  5. To my surprise, Frozen is one of those films. it has two female leads and two male supporting characters, and yet the men speak nearly as often as the women. WTF?
  6. There are complicated reasons for this, ranging from “it’s a film with a male lead” to “there’s one female lead and 57 dudes.”
  7. I don’t know if they count Chewbacca’s dialogue in this study. Since he’s male, I suppose he should be counted.
  8. I don’t count Maz Kanata (voiced by the incredible Lupita Nyong’o) because she is only present in one sequence.
  9. it does a lot of things right, most important of which, I would argue, is the inclusion of people of color and women in prominent and background roles. Sure, the original films always had people of color hiding in the background, but let’s be real:  besides Leia and Yoda, the only real diversity in the original trilogy is fulfilled by Lando, who has to have his own redemption story because he’s a backstabbing turd9To be fair, he does a good job making up for his shortcomings, and it’s not as though Solo wouldn’t have done something similar in the period preceding A New Hope.

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

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