Why Can't Hollywood Let Women End Up Single?
The Debrief: Why do female protagonists in films only reach their 'happy ending' (sigh) once they've found a man?
For years, mainstream Hollywood has dictated that female protagonists in comedy films reach their ‘happy endings’ by ending up with (sigh) a man.
In recent times, female comedy has come on a long way (shock horror who knew women could be funny; everyone with a brain that’s who) with films like Bridesmaids and Trainwreck. Main characters Annie and Amy, played by Kristen Wiig and Amy Schumer respectively, are both flawed, boozy, believable women and yet, their happy ending still wasn’t complete without Chris O’Dowd and Bill Hader swooping in to top everything off.
New, super-mainstream film How To Be Single then, was a bit of a curve ball. If you haven’t seen it, go and see it this weekend. Sure it’s not without problems (most notably in the form of the woman-baiting Anders Holm and the shrill n' desperately single Allison Brie) but it is funny and (HUGE MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT) both girls (played by Rebel Wilson and Dakota Johnson) end up single at the end, and happily so. Not like Laura Linney in Love Actually who only ends up single because she has family responsibilities and we all feel sad and sorry for her and oh God she’s going to die alone with cats.
Nope, Rebel and Dakota’s characters end up happily single and in love with each others’ friendship which, when it comes to female-led comedies isn’t all that usual. Easy A, the excellent Emma Stone film based on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter ends with Dan from Gossip Girl taking our heroine away on a romantic lawnmower ride, Mean Girls sees Lindsay Lohan and Aaron holding hands, Clueless shows Cher macking off with her stepbrother and Pitch Perfect ends with Anna Kendrick’s Beca together with Skylar Astin’s Jesse. Even Juno and Obvious Child, films so progressive they had a totally laissez-faire attitude to abortion, left their leading ladies with feet firmly in the relationship pool.
In fact, other than First Wives Club (which doesn’t really count anyway as it’s the benchmark by which all films should be judged) films that have dared to leave women happily singe are few and far between. When we polled the excellent ladies of TwoXChromosomes; Reddit’s subreddit for women’s stuff, they came up with Romy & Michelle’s High School Reunion and The Break Up. In terms of female-led comedy films, that was it.
So, why do we expect our heroine to end up coupled up? Is it because we’re afraid to leave her story while she’s still single; as if a piece of her puzzle hasn’t been completed yet? Susan Quilliam, a relationship psychologist and author of How To Choose a Partner, thinks it’s down to tradition, ‘It’s difficult to break away from that happily ever after culture,’ she says.
Corrina Antrobus, the founder of feminist film festival The Bechdel Test Fest reckons there’s another, heavier reason behind it; ‘Look at how suppressed women are in terms of making sure they’re not educated, that they don’t have jobs, that they don’t have the vote.’ She says, ‘This suggests a fear of women and, in this context you’re talking about the single woman and she is a big threat; she can go where she likes, do what she likes, she doesn’t have a husband or kids strapping her to the home where she can’t get up to any er, “mischief”'. She laughs.
We’ve come a long old way from women being married and chained to the kitchen by the ripe old age of 22. In fact, women today are more likely to be single than ever before; writer John Birger even claims there’s actually a ‘man shortage’, and yet Hollywood is behind in bequeathing us with a worthy onscreen representative. This is something Susan Quilliam reckons is ‘undoubtedly’ influencing the way we perceive single women IRL. ‘We are completely absorbed by the media to the point where I suspect that media influence is now in the top three influencers along with friends and family. It is absolutely centre stage.’ She says. ‘Because of this society today is still considering that a single woman is the least desirable human state and I am sad and angry and irritated by that.’
Sara Eckel, author of It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single, a hilarious de-bunking of the ‘sad single woman’ agrees. ‘We just don’t get given a picture of what it looks like when a woman decides “I just want to be by myself for a while”’ She says. ‘I see women in real life doing just that and creating these amazing, complete lives but I just don’t see it on screen at all.’ And indeed, it is true that Hollywood does lag behind in terms of representation; take 2001 being the first time a black woman picked up the Best Actress Oscar or 2016 being the second year in a row where the academy failed to nominate a single black actor.
The single woman as seen on screen has evolved over time – probably for the worse. ‘If you look at films like Fatal Attraction, the single woman is viewed as “dangerous” says Corrina. ‘Now you’ve got a bit of a shift where the single woman is fun and happy, she has a good time but actually that’s just a big guise to comfort how sad she actually is.’ It's these stereotypes are ruining the fun of being single. ‘No-one want to associate themselves with the desperate cartoonish single woman’ Says Sara Eckel. ‘But it does get lonely sometimes and that’s normal but then you’re like “Oh gosh, not only can I not find a partner, I also suck at being single!” The pressure to be a happy single woman is tough.’
What can be done to change it? ‘I’d like to see more (female-led) movies that aren’t about romance at all’ Says Sara. ‘If you see a beautiful actress who is happy and doing well by herself, that’s going to make you feel more assured that your own life is an equally valid choice. We need to shed the idea that there’s certain ways to behave.’ Corrina agrees. ‘Every now and again you get sprouts of hope that there can be a film that celebrates a woman just being a woman like Frances Ha’ She says. ‘But then ultimately you get things like Trainwreck which is presented as this big celebration of singledom but in the end she gets together with the guy and does a big cheerleader routine for him and you’re just like, “really?? So close, so close.”’
For Corrina it’s a lack of women being able to make films that’s the real problem. ‘To find films that portray powerful single women, we need more women making films because there’s no way men are going to make these films.’ That’s easier said than done though. The problem lies in the age old issue of funding; with Hollywood afraid to invest in female led films when then alternative is tried and tested. ‘We need to get more funding and more trust from the grass roots level.’
There are changes on the horizon; this year's upcoming female only Ghostbusters film looks set to be one of the most promising female releases in years. There's also the small matter that female led films from 2006 to 2015 trumped male led films in terms of box office revenue; something that's bound to get the cash rolling in. 'We need to keep banging on about it,' Says Corrina. 'We need to keep talking about how female-led films are making as much, if not more money at the box office', she says, 'so those "money talks" headlines can finally be heard.’
The Bechdel Test Fest are introducing a screening of Frances Ha on Saturday 5th March at the Everyman Cinema at Baker Street.
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