In terms of sheer numbers, men dominate the big screen by a long shot.
In 2017, three movies with women-led casts — Beauty and the Beast, The Last Jedi, and Wonder Woman — were the three highest earners of the year in North America. But only 24 percent of protagonists in the year’s 100 highest-grossing films were women — an overall drop of 5 percent from 2016.
How 2018 will match up is yet to be seen. But as of early December, you have to scroll down to spots 11 through 13 in the year’s box office rankings to find films with women in the starring roles: A Star Is Born, A Quiet Place, and Crazy Rich Asians.
Still, even if men do end up ruling the box office, there’s something notable about the way that many of 2018’s movies have rendered them utterly useless, making them not just secondary characters but actively portraying them as beside the point. And I’m not just talking about films where “strong female characters” got to ride motorcycles and perform roundhouse kicks alongside confident dudes; I’m talking about a number of films that basically posit that men are slaves to passion and caprice, which in turn forces women to figure out how to keep the world going despite them.
A year of these movies certainly culminates in Mary Queen of Scots, a sumptuous costume drama written by former House of Cards showrunner Beau Willimon. The movie stars Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie as Mary Stuart and Elizabeth Tudor, a.k.a. Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I of England, as the two women attempt to rule their rightful domains while being provoked and manipulated by power-hungry but inescapable men. Meanwhile, they try to grapple with what it means to be a woman filling a role of power.
But Mary Queen of Scots is hardly unique. It’s the endpoint of this 2018 trend, one that includes some of the year’s most notable films. And in an industry where women are still underrepresented on screen, these movies flip the script, not just making women the lead characters but edging the men out entirely.
In Roma, the men are pitiable, cowardly hypocrites
“Never mind what they tell you: We women are always alone in the end,” Señora Sofia (Marina de Tavira) says to Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) midway through Roma, the Netflix-produced drama that’s both a critical darling and contender for some of the year’s biggest awards.
Cleo, who works for Sofia and her family, has been abandoned by her machismo-obsessed boyfriend after telling him that she’s carrying his child. And Sofia and her four children have been abandoned by her husband, a doctor, who’s left the family entirely while lying about his whereabouts and pretending he doesn’t have any money to send.
Their two plights form the narrative backbone of Roma, which director Alfonso Cuarón based on his own childhood memories. But the movie doesn’t just settle for focusing on them; it takes pains to depict weakness in the men who abandoned them.
Cleo’s boyfriend, Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), is a faintly ridiculous figure. In one long scene, clearly post-coital, he earnestly brandishes a shower curtain rod while fully naked, prancing around the room to show her the martial arts he practices, while she sits in bed trying to stifle her giggles.
After he leaves, she finds him practicing martial arts in a large field in his home village with dozens of other men. She approaches him after the group disperses, and he tells her to never come near him again — an obvious counterpoint to the gospel of discipline and self-knowledge that his teacher espouses.
Similarly, Cleo encounters Sofia’s husband, the doctor, in the hospital elevator as she’s going into labor. He recognizes her and makes a show of comforting her, but then tells her that he can’t accompany her into the delivery room because her doctor won’t let him; after the attending physician says he can come along, he makes a lame excuse and disappears. That’s the last we see of him.
Roma’s most cathartic moment of humor arrives when Sofia trades in the doctor’s comically wide car, much too wide for the family’s enclosed driveway, for one that fits nicely in the driveway yet can still hold Sofia, the four children, and Cleo as they all embark on a road trip.
It’s a metaphor, of a kind: the doctor’s ego, and Fermin’s, too, are big enough to fill a driveway or brandish a curtain rod in a show of manliness. But in the end, they take up far more space than they were ever worth, and without them, everyone — Cleo, Sofia, the children, the driveway — is better off.
So if women are always alone in the end, as Sofia tells Cleo, that may not be the worst thing in the world.
In Support the Girls and Widows, women work together just to stay afloat in a world that’s not built for them
The idea that being alone might be better than dealing with weak men all the time is a ruling notion in some of the other 2018 films that also center on women finding ways to live in a world where men try to crowd them out.
This summer’s subtly feminist comedy Support the Girls, directed and written by Andrew Bujalski, is set in a Hooters-style bar called “Double Whammies.” A group of waitresses, led by their manager Lisa (Regina Hall), work to scratch out a living by pleasing the customers (who aren’t allowed to disrespect or touch the girls, but definitely reward flirting) and pacifying the owner, who has obviously retrograde ideas about the women and what they owe him to show their gratitude for his gracious employment.
Lisa is the main character, and we follow her throughout her day, discovering that there are other male characters — notably her useless ex-husband, whom she’s helping find a place to live, as well as the abusive boyfriend of a former Double Whammies waitress she’s been looking after — who are slowly driving her to her breaking point. Similarly, the waitresses spend their day trying to please the men who come into the bar, from regulars to strangers, coddling and mollifying them as they try to get to the end of the day.
Their attempts to merely survive come to a head when a bunch of things go wrong at once. But the way they navigate a veritable prism of male weakness will be familiar to any women who’ve ever had to find their way around men not to get what they want, exactly, but rather to simply continue existing.
Whether the women of Double Whammies are building up a whimpering, wounded ego or escaping a dangerous situation, it’s all there in Support the Girls. And the film ends without any solutions; the best the women can do is figure out how to support one another.
A similar dynamic is on display in Widows, Steve McQueen’s remake of an older British miniseries. The film centers on a group of women whose thief husbands died in a botched heist; as they wrestle with their grief, they must also figure out how to protect themselves from politicians and criminals (who are sometimes the same people, it turns out) who are out for revenge.
The women of Widows — led by Veronica (Viola Davis) — aren’t as chummy as the women in Support the Girls. Before the movie starts, they don’t even know one another. But they meet because they need one another, and they become, in a way, like co-workers; just like the women of Support the Girls, they’re plotting a way to circumvent men who are obsessed with power and money, and they’re doing it despite being played by the men in their lives in ways they’re only starting to come to understand. The film deploys a few twists to show just how alone they’ve always been. And once again, the only respite they have is in each other.
In royal courts, even where women rule, they still fight to keep from being crowded out
Roma, Support the Girls, and Widows all deal with workplace settings of one kind or another: a home, or a sports bar, or a warehouse where plans for robberies are hatched. And some of these settings are more traditionally women-centered than others. (Widows, which spends a fair amount of time in the deceased husbands’ former headquarters, still stages the women’s first planning session in a steam room in a spa — definitely a women-coded meeting spot.)
But 2018’s movies where women must put up with men while more or less controlling their own fates didn’t limit their purview to historically women-centric spaces. And that was particularly true in two period pieces that seemed like funhouse mirror images of one another: Mary Queen of Scots and the much kookier and more transgressive The Favourite.
Mary Queen of Scots is largely set in the 16th-century court of Mary Stuart, while The Favourite is set in the court of Queen Anne, Mary’s great-great-granddaughter, who ruled at the start of the 18th century.
Mary Queen of Scots portrays the Scottish court ruled by Mary, who has lived much of her life in exile and returns to her country as a teen, but one with a staunch sense of both duty and a commitment to freedom, particularly freedom of religion (at least in this version of the story, directed by Josie Rourke).
That commitment is calculated to upset the more dogmatic reformers in her country, especially John Knox, who — incensed that Mary, a Catholic, is threatening his power and doing it as a woman — preaches against her, smearing her reputation and inciting civil war by portraying her as a whore.
Meanwhile, her half-brother who has been effectively ruling in her stead is too governed by his emotions to serve as a reliable ally, and the man she falls in love with and marries turns out to be not only chasing her power, but also far too easily swayed by threats from stronger, more treacherous men.
Not far from Scotland, Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, who rules over England, lives what appears to be an unhappy life. She refuses to marry her close companion Robert Dudley because he is not of a high-enough rank. But as the movie would have it, she is choosing her own freedom and the maintenance of her station as queen over the possibility of some man — even Dudley, or one of her counselors — usurping that power.
Mary Queen of Scots is mainly focused on Mary and on Elizabeth, and the ways they both have to deal with the collected passions of the disloyal men around them — who often pay lip service to their respective queens while plotting behind their backs. The pivotal moment comes during a meeting between the two women (which, according to “official” accounts of history, never really happened). The scene plays out like a chess game, with Mary calling on their shared womanhood as a basis for agreement while Elizabeth, older and more world-weary, draws back.
Still, the prevailing mood at the end of Mary Queen of Scots feels familiar to many in 2018: Why have men ever been trusted to rule? There’s something strikingly recognizable in the portraits of men dragged away by their passions and egos when they get too close to power. You’d almost say it was modern, if it wasn’t so obviously historical, too. (It’s worth noting that another film that raises exactly that question, but with only male protagonists, The Death of Stalin, also came out this year.)
The Favourite, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos and set in the court of Mary’s great-great-granddaughter Anne, gives us a similarly bleak view of men. The ones in Anne’s court are all too busy scheming to grab power they’ll never really be able to wield, chasing pretty chambermaids around, or playing bizarre games of duck racing and weird debauched naked dodgeball to do anything of substance.
The trio of women at the film’s center — Anne (Olivia Colman), her closest companion and confidante Sarah (Rachel Weisz), and Abigail (Emma Stone) — are all richly aware of this. Anne, whose health is failing, is too weary to deal with the men, either telling them what they will do and shooing them out of her presence or deputizing Sarah to take care of things for her, a job Sarah relishes. That’s why Sarah feels threatened by Abigail’s attempts to usurp her place as Anne’s favorite.
But there’s never any sense that the men, even those closest to places of power, are of any serious consequence at all. The best way to deal with them is to distract them or placate them, while never ceding any power.
The Favourite has a grimmer view of its women subjects’ nature than Mary Queen of Scots, which paints its royal highnesses as noble and even regal — though Elizabeth’s fading grasp on reality at certain times occasionally echoes Anne’s. Still, it’s clear both women have some kind of backbone that the men around them just don’t have.
And that’s the point. In both The Favourite and Mary Queen of Scots, as in Roma and Support the Girls and Widows and other films from 2018, the women at the center of each story don’t actually threaten the culture’s men-centered centripetal force. There’s a sense that they are all just fighting to keep from collapsing under the weight of that force — whether a character is a domestic worker in Mexico City or the manager of a sexist sports bar or a widowed woman in Chicago or the rightful heir to the throne of England.
And yet the movies, if not their worlds, give these women space to breathe outside the confines of what is so often expected of “strong” female characters. Sometimes they’re broken and vulnerable. Sometimes they’re sexy and funny. Sometimes they kick someone or laugh at them. Sometimes they’re disfigured, and sometimes they indulge in things that comfort them, and sometimes they’re outright disgusting.
That’s unusual and still a little disorienting to see on screen, even in 2018, when the majority of screen time and lead roles still go to men. To see richly drawn women characters without corresponding men leads in so many movies — especially movies that appealed to broad audiences and were positioned to compete in awards races — feels striking.
But that’s not to suggest that 2018 was devoid of nuanced portraits of masculinity. For instance, in the upcoming Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic On the Basis of Sex, Ginsburg’s husband Marty (Armie Hammer) — a strong, smart, successful lawyer who encourages his wife’s work and takes equal part in child-rearing and home duties — plays an important supporting role. And movies like First Man, Minding the Gap, and A Star Is Born are about men navigating their own difficult, complex emotions and trying to find answers.
And, of course, it would be no great stride forward in equality if all men were portrayed as useless. Movies reflect real life, and the world is made up of both great men and women and terrible ones.
But with women still fighting to be portrayed in equal numbers — and with the same kind of richness and complexity and dignity as men — on the big screen, it’s refreshing to see five of the year’s most praised films flipping the script, and often having a lot of fun doing it, too.