Is This Really a “Summer Movie Season for Women”?

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If Hollywood had its way, it’d just be summer all damn year around — which is why one of the most anticipated franchise movies of the season opened on April 4, and why Vulture is doing a big “summer movie preview” this week, when it was literally snowing in their home base of New York City like a week and a half ago. Anyway, said preview includes a rather hopeful look at “a Summer Movie Season for Women,” showcasing a handful of movies made with, for, and even (in a couple of cases) by women. Is this finally the Bridesmaids revolution we were promised, um, four years ago?

Well, sort of. Vulture lists ten titles in which “women are represented onscreen in roles besides Unidentified Love Interest No. 2”: Trainwreck, Spy, Pitch Perfect 2, Tomorrowland, Aloha, Inside Out, The Bronze, Paper Towns, Ricki and the Flash, and Hot Pursuit. Some of these designations are arguable, though; Aloha is very much packaged as a Bradley Cooper vehicle with Emma Stone and Rachel McAdams as, well, Love Interests Nos. 1 & 2, and while Tomorrowland has a teenage girl as its protagonist, its trailers sure are positioning co-star George Clooney front and center. (That said, Vulture’s Kara Cutruzulla is spot on in asking, “how likely is it, if the film bombs, that the studio will blame not co-star George Clooney nor director Brad Bird but the lead character’s gender?”).

Pixar’s Herman’s Head rip-off Inside Out also concerns a female protagonist, but the evidence thus far indicates a movie not exactly forward-thinking in its gender commentary. And including The Bronze in that list is a little bit of a cheat; it’s a Sundance-opening, low-budget indie, and that world has always been better (though still way behind) in matters of onscreen representation. So that leaves more like six out of forty-some summer wide releases with a focus on women, which is still pretty sad, percentage-wise.

But! It’s getting better! In the season of superheroes and explosions, even this smattering of high-profile movies about women represent an uptick from the depressing stats we see every year from researchers like the team at USC Annenberg, and the box-office figures for the year to date are pretty astonishing, in terms of diversity in both gender and race. According to Box Office Mojo, here’s what 2015 looks like so far:

  1. Cinderella ($167 million)
  2. Fifty Shades of Grey ($165 million)
  3. The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water ($160 million)
  4. Furious 7 ($147 million)
  5. Kingsman: The Secret Service ($122 million)
  6. The Divergent Series: Insurgent ($103 million)
  7. Home ($95 million)
  8. Taken 3 ($89 million)
  9. Paddington ($75 million)
  10. The Wedding Ringer ($64 million)

So in the top ten, that’s only three movies with Hollywood’s traditional go-to protagonist, a white male, in the central role (and you can probably discount The Wedding Ringer, which is about Josh Gad, but was made and sold as a Kevin Hart vehicle). Now, it’s still spring — in spite of what the multiplex wants you to believe — and those numbers reflect it; it’s a season where studios are more likely to release films that are more “niche-oriented” (y’know, that female “niche” of half the population) and “risky” (like a film adaptation of a huge book franchise, a sequel to a film adaptation of a huge book franchise, and a Disney remake of one of their most iconic titles). The makeup of that box office rundown will undoubtedly change once the spandex-heavy summer hits, but the point’s been made: the conventional wisdom that people don’t see movies with an eye on gender and racial diversity has crumbled.

So how long will it take for studio slates to reflect that? It’s hard to say. We’ve got a long way to go before we’ll see true parity in mainstream moviemaking, but this summer’s handful of high-profile releases is certainly a start. For some reason, of all the movies Vulture singles out, the one that cheers my heart the most is Hot Pursuit, a buddy action/comedy starring Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara, from director Anne Fletcher (The Proposal, 27 Dresses). It looks really putrid, a totally vapid throwaway and/or embarrassment for the great Ms. Witherspoon. And frankly, that’ll be the one to watch when it hits on May 8. Because if a movie like Hot Pursuit can simply come and go as the lightweight Avengers counter-programming it’s intended as — if it can just be a bad summer star vehicle whose failure (or, in a less likely but still plausible scenario, success) isn’t a referendum on movies by and about women — then we’ll know that we’re truly making progress.