Fifty Shades of Gone Girl: Is Hollywood Finally Wooing Women?

In the age of iTunes and illegal downloads, Hollywood movies are overwhelmingly pitched at the teenage boys who still buy movie tickets. But lately, it seems that movie studios are spending big on blockbuster adaptations for women, based on smash-hit books. Anthony Morris asks what it all means for the future of film.

50 Shades of Grey, in a cinema near you.

Could film be about to follow the novel and become a medium increasingly made by and for women? Well… probably not considering the near-total lack of women directors, scriptwriters and executives in Hollywood. But right now, it’s a question that seems almost reasonable to ask. Last week saw the release on DVD of Gone Girl, director David Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s hit novel; this week sees the big screen release of Fifty Shades of Grey, director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s adaptation of E.L. James’s hit novel. The surprising thing is that this thing is so rare: with novels increasingly being written by women for women readers, these kinds of big budget adaptations should be commonplace by now.

And yet, it’s a measure of Hollywood’s skewed perspective that movies about giant robots destroying cities is considered mainstream entertainment while movies about things that most of us have actual first-hand experience with in our daily lives – love, sex, relationships – remain a fringe prospect aimed at a minority audience. But since the film adaptation of The Notebook hit big in 2004 there’s been a slow but growing trickle of romance dramas, the kind of thing marketed by Hollywood almost entirely towards women. A man going to see one of these films of his own free will? Hilarious! And yet I seem to have seen all of them, even the one where someone turned out to be a ghost.

Meanwhile, after more than a decade where mainstream movie comedies were all about man-children avoiding women by getting high, Hollywood seems to have worked out that women like to laugh too. Well, they like to laugh at Melissa McCarthy when she’s being directed by Paul Feig, as the two big hits of this particular trend have been Bridesmaids and The Heat(Feig is also the man behind the upcoming all-woman remake ofGhostbusters). While the door is currently only open a crack, at least it’s open and somebody – Tina Fey? Kristen Wiig? – is surely going to push it open further.

Even superhero movies − traditionally so guy-focused that, as Joss Whedon, director of The Avengers, recently noted, they were more willing to put a gun-toting CGI raccoon in the lead than a woman − have shown some recent interest in girl power. Last year Scarlett Johansson, who plays regular supporting character Black Widow in the Marvel movies (including The Avengers), stepped up to star in Luc Besson’s entertainingly crazy Lucy, about a woman who overdoses on a drug that gives her full access to her brain’s abilities. Free of comic book continuity, it was easily the best superhero movie of the year and a box office hit; both Marvel (owned by Disney) and rival DC (owned by Warner Brothers) have announced superhero films with female leads for the next few years.

Scarlett Johansson in <em>Lucy</em>.

Scarlett Johansson in Lucy.

But comedies and superhero movies generally follow Hollywood’s fondness for the ‘four quadrant’ school of marketing, designed to appeal to as wide an audience as possible (the four quadrants are men over and under 25, women over and under 25) – the idea being you can maybe have a female lead if the subject of your film will bring in men. What makes Fifty Shades of Grey different is that – much like the Sex and the City films before it – it’s a big Hollywood film that’s not all that interested in bringing men to the party.

In fact, the lack of male appeal is a big part of the sell. Unlike something like Magic Mike, which was a): about male strippers (which women like) but b): featured actors like Channing Tatum and Matthew McConaughey (who men like) and also featured c): female nudity (which men are traditionally fond of), Fifty Shades of Grey doesn’t even pretend to have anything to offer men. Rather than being an experience where your good time is diluted by a bunch of stuff put in for someone else, this is a film focused entirely on the needs of its female audience. You know, like action movies do for men.

Still: Magic Mike

Magic Mike.

That’s not to say they don’t want as many people as possible to tag along. In much the same way as instalments of the geriatric action franchise The Expendables are usually released close to Father’s Day (c’mon kids, take dad to the movies), Fifty Shades’ Valentine’s Day release date is there because the studio figures that is the only day of the year where this kind of film might get a male audience – dragged there by their girlfriends and wives.

The trouble is, whichever way Fifty Shades pans out as a film, it can’t win. If it bombs – which we’re already being primed to expect, thanks to well over a year of negative press and awkward interviews with the two leads – it’ll be taken as a sign that big movies like this aimed solely at women are a bad move. Even though it was the prospect of cashing in on a publishing phenomenon (that was driven by women readers) that brought Hollywood calling in the first place. Meanwhile, hardly anybody reads comic books yet Hollywood adapts a bunch of them into movies each and every year; oh right, (superhero) comics are still largely aimed at men.

And if it succeeds at the box office, that proves nothing about its (already much-derided) quality. Movies aimed at women are so rare, it’s assumed women come out for them whatever the end result is like. Look at 2010’sSex and the City 2: slammed by critics (and with good reason), it still made close to US$300 million. Normally you’d think if your audience is that desperate for product you’d provide them with it: but presumably there’s more money in selling action figures than sex toys.

Yet there is one area where Hollywood is firmly following the lead of the novel’s increasingly female focus. Young adult fiction is now firmly established as a big screen genre, thanks to the success of Twilight (and let’s not forget Fifty Shades started out as Twilight fan fiction) and The Hunger Games, both with female leads. The next instalment of the Divergent series is due later this year, and another film in the boy-friendlyMaze Runner saga isn’t far off either.

Twilight.

Clearly Hollywood is gradually wising up as to where the money is. There’s still a long way to go though: it’s when they start making serious historical biopics about women that you’ll know things have really started to change.

Portrait of Anthony Morris

Anthony Morris is home entertainment editor at the Big Issue and a freelance film writer. His first novel, The Hot Guy, has been co-written with Mel Campbell and will be published in June 2017.

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