One of my very earliest memories is of me and my friend Paul — I don’t even remember his last name — running around the schoolyard of PS 119 in the Bronx, the top button of our sweaters fastened around our necks to form awesome capes, playing superheroes. I’m not sure where we had gotten the idea of superheroes from. This would have been in 1974 or 1975, when I was in first or second grade (my family moved after that, and this memory is definitely from that school), so it was before 1978’s Superman reignited Hollywood’s love affair with comic books. There was Wonder Woman and The Six Million Dollar Man on TV, but they didn’t wear capes. Super Grover made his debut on Sesame Street in 1974, so maybe that was our inspiration. Or Saturday morning cartoons, but I don’t recall any specific examples of them.
Whatever it was, we knew that superheroes were cool, and capes signified them. And in our games, I was never a damsel in distress. I was not waiting around for Paul in his sweater cape to come and rescue me. I was a co-superhero with him in whatever adventures we were having. I still remember the surge of power I was filled with as we raced around saving the world.
Later, after Star Wars was a thing and when my brothers and I didn’t want to play with the kids across the street (they had all the toys, including a coveted Landspeeder; we had lots of figures, but that was it), we would make our own lightsaber hilts out of empty toilet paper rolls. I never daydreamed about being a Galactic Senator/Princess who needs to get rescued; I was a Jedi! I wielded the incredible power of the Force. (I might have wanted to be kissed by a Corellian smuggler, however.)
Even later, when I was aware that I was falling in love with movies with Raiders of the Lost Ark and the other Indiana Jones flicks — I would gobble up every bit of production information to be had, which was hard to come by in those pre-Net days — I never identified with the women in those movies. But it also never occurred to me that I should. I wanted to be Indiana Jones (though also, simultaneously, to be kissed by Indiana Jones, a type of pop-culture dichotomy that is probably worth another essay of its own).
I don’t know exactly when it dawned on me that I was never seeing women characters that I wanted to be. It was certainly after I became a film critic; maybe it was the additional exposure to so many more movies, and almost all of them about men, that finally caused something to click. I was never seeing women characters having adventures, saving the world, righting wrongs, meting out justice, risking life and limb, kissing a handsome man or three, and having the time of their lives along the way.
I love all kinds of movies, but for whatever reason — perhaps because I am a child of the 1980s explosion in blockbuster films, which hit during my most impressionable early teen years — the movies I love most are the big-budget Hollywood flicks (when they’re done right, of course, which they mostly aren’t, but that’s another essay for another day). I want movies to do this to me:
(And yes, it pisses me off that there isn’t a version of this ad with a woman in it, because women love being blown away by their entertainment, too. Though if there was, she’d probably be mostly naked and staring at the viewer with a come-fuck-me stare, and it would still be about promising men something.)
The movies that do that are action, adventure, science fiction, fantasy. Foreign dramas and charming indies can be their own kind of thrilling, but I love how viscerally overwhelming a Back to the Future or a Lord of the Rings can be. I want a movie to be huge. And I like a movie that takes me to imaginary places that can never exist.
But I am now very tired of being taken to those places only through the eyes of boys and men, as if they were the only ones who crave adventure and excitement. As if they were the only ones who want their dreams indulged.
So now, when I see a trailer for a new film that looks huge and exciting and full of adventure and hopefully not too stupid, I am all like, “Yeah! Awesome! Can’t wait!” But there’s a little voice in the back of my head that says, “Oh. Did he have to be a guy? Why couldn’t a woman be the intrepid journalist?” Or: “Are there no rock-star particle physicists who are women?”
Repeat for almost every trailer and every film.
I can watch a trailer for a new Arnold Schwarzenegger flick and think it looks pretty cool and want to see it, and know that I may well have a blast with it, and at the same time, I am thinking: “So, men can still be badasses at 70, which is not very likely but fine, yet they can’t even give him a wife or a girlfriend who’s close to the dude’s own age?”
I’m tired of men’s fantasies being indulged from every angle — badass at 70 + superhot 30something girlfriend — while women’s fantasies are all but ignored. This get worse when it comes to the kind of movies I’m less of a fan of (though I hasten to add that I want to love all kinds of movies, and frequently do… and I hate that I have to justify myself by even saying that). It’s more difficult to give a romantic comedy a fair chance when it is the umpteenth iteration of “schlubby homely guy thinks he deserves the love of a supermodel, and discovers that he is correct” and we have yet to see the opposite happen, even once. Yes, guys: some very rich, very powerful men will end up with supermodels even if they look like Oscar the Grouch, but most people, in the real world, end up with someone who is generally in the same attractiveness range. Most overweight UPS delivery guys, no matter how sweet they are, do not have hot wives. So where are all the fantasy stories about kind, funny, overweight secretaries with hot husbands? We should not expect the one without the other, and both are equally valid as fantasies… and yet Hollywood doesn’t even recognize that the first one is a fantasy.
I don’t want to be angry when I go to the movies. But it’s not my fault that I am, far too often. I deserve the same acknowledgement of my fantasies — which have nothing to do with overpriced shoes that are impossible to walk in, or fairy-tale weddings, not that there’s anything wrong with those fantasies, either — that the boys get.
Being a woman who loves movies these days requires an extra suspension of disbelief beyond what men have to engage in. I have to to try to look past the worlds they far too often depict, worlds in which women exist mostly as pawns in men’s games, have no hopes or dreams of their own, and take no spiritual or emotional journeys. Even the dumbest action flick sends its protagonist on a journey, and he has changed as a person by the time his story ends. Don’t women deserve that, too?