Guardians of the Galaxy opened huge last weekend, and with it came the shattering of some heavy pieces of glass at the Marvel empire. One of the movie’s scribes, Nicole Perlman, is the first credited female writer on a Marvel film. Such a milestone makes me want to both buy Perlman many rounds of champagne and clonk the bottle over my head.
Perlman, who shares a screenplay credit with director James Gunn, described her tedious path to the big screen in a recent Time profile. Her bag has always been sci-fi, a preference that confounded Hollywood studio execs. ”There was a little bit of an attitude of ‘Well, you’re a woman, you’re not writing romantic comedies, we’ll give you the Marie Curie biopic,”’ Perlman said. ”They kept saying, ‘This is a guy’s movie, you know, it’s really a guy’s movie.’ I didn’t want to say, ‘Are you saying a woman can’t write a guy’s movie?’ What is a guy’s movie anyway? If you’re making a movie that’s just for one gender, what’s the point?”
I’d argue that another important question is what’s the point if the only people making the movie are of one gender? According to a recent Writers Guild of America report, women accounted for just 15 percent of employed screenwriters (down from 17 percent in 2009). When actresses talk about all the great roles on TV these days, that’s likely in part because female writers are climbing in that medium, with representation rising to a still-modest 27 percent. The numbers are even bleaker when it comes to captains of the ship: Women directed just 5 percent of studio films in the past five years.
If the Hollywood lunkheads Perlman had to deal with can’t imagine the range of stories women are capable of telling, it’s no wonder the stories that do get told lack female characters with real scope. Instead we get hand-wringing girlfriends, damaged strippers, doting mothers, tempting bitches. Source material matters. The Fault in Our Stars was a hit with female audiences partly because author John Green based his heroine on a sharp, wise friend from his own life, not on a type. And good egg Paul Feig, the Bridesmaids director reportedly in talks to helm a female-driven Ghostbusters reboot, continues to prove that his favorite stories star funny, complicated women.
But perhaps of more vital interest to studios is the cash left on the table. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire was the biggest movie of 2013. It’s a universe created by Suzanne Collins and protected by producer Nina Jacobson. Frozen, written and codirected by Jennifer Lee, was the third-highest-grossing film of 2013. The trailer for Fifty Shades of Grey, adapted by Kelly Marcel from E L James’ novel and directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson, debuted on July 24 online and took the record as the year’s most viewed trailer. If you let smart women build stuff, there’s a good chance people will come.
Scarlett Johansson, now at the top of her well-played game, has been reeling in audiences this summer. She was ferocious in Lucy, despite being seen through the slightly scummy lens of male fantasy, as when she suffers through villains’ groping hands down her tight T-shirt. And she was a formidable Black Widow in the latest Captain America, in spite of the obligatory scene of the hero carrying her limp body out of the wreckage. I like to imagine that she’ll soon get the Black Widow spin-off she deserves, and that someone like Perlman is busy working on a script.