Solving the Case of the Missing Feminist Superhero

We recently sat down with screenwriter Amy Fox to discuss gender equity in film and discovered that while women represent more than half of the moviegoing public, they comprise a fraction of creative leadership behind the top-grossing films. Fewer women behind the camera means fewer female-drive narratives.

In fact, new data released by the Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative (MDSCI) at USC Annenberg reveals an ugly trend: the percentage of screentime for women has flatlined.

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It’s doubtful that this poor representation of women actually reflects what the moviegoing public wants, but with counting and data at the core of GenderAvenger’s mission, we wanted to find quantitative evidence.

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Enter Lynn Reed, a political operative turned screenwriter and film producer, who shared a unique success story that shows the demand for strong female protagonists and feminist narratives. Reed introduced us to the women behind Every Cloud Productions who recently crowdfunded a feature film based on the popular Australian series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. After years of seeking funding for a feature with little success, the producers went straight to their fans. The enthusiasm was record-shattering: they tripled the fundraising goal, making the upcoming feature the most crowdfunded film in Australian history 7 times over.

Deb Cox and Fiona Eagger, producers of the upcoming Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears see the campaign's success as signalling an unmet demand.

While it’s difficult to argue there’s a negative bias towards funding feminist narratives, the crowdfunding campaign for Miss Fisher definitely helps us prove that there’s a craving for heroic, female lead stories that promote absolute gender equality. As Wonder Woman demonstrates, women of all ages are keen to enjoy and support these films.
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"When we look at the Annenberg numbers, we see the results of a system’s worth of gatekeepers, who, for a variety of reasons, are not supporting women’s stories," Reed tells us. "On the flip side, we can look at Miss Fisher and see the demand that these gatekeepers are either overlooking or ignoring."

Reed points out that while women leads dominate the screen far less than men, those numbers get even worse when we look at women actors over 45 years of age. Of the 100 top grossing films in 2016, only 8 women leads or co-leads were in this age group. And if you are a woman actor in the action/adventure genre, good luck getting a speaking role.

Actress Essie Davis defies these trends. In her late 40s, she has become a beloved feminist action hero in her role as Phryne Fisher, a detective in late 1920s Melbourne, Australia. Miss Fisher is unapologetic in her support of women’s rights and LGBT rights, and she stands up for those treated unfairly by the system.

Miss Fisher makes it to the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, D.C. via thetoristori

Miss Fisher makes it to the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, D.C. via thetoristori

Reed, who initially came to the series as a fan and later signed on as a supporter of the film, highlights the qualities of Phryne Fisher that are rarely seen in typical women’s lead roles.

It’s rare to have an action hero who is in her late 40s and it’s one of the things that the fans of the show are very drawn to. Our American prestige dramas tend to have female anti-heroes — someone who may be competent in her professional life but a mess in her personal life and constantly compromising her ideals in the name of realism. Phryne doesn’t compromise and she fights for what she believes in.

Reed is not alone — almost 50% of the funds came from US contributors.

Reflecting on her past work in politics and women’s advocacy, Reed draws a connection to her work in entertainment: “So many of the issues that divide us in politics are so deeply rooted in culture, including how people feel about the role of women in society. There is more we need to do in cultural terms to further the progress we’d like to make on the political front.”

The success of Miss Fisher is evidence that it’s time to improve gender equality in film by bringing more powerful roles for women to the big screen. Producers Cox and Eagger realize the power online community can contribute to these efforts.

This wider community of creative women surrounding our Miss Fisher aspirations, certainly lends us more ballast so we can all challenge the status quo together. It’s been fantastic to feel the power and potential of that global connection.

Reed advises that another important part of supporting change is for audiences to seek out more films written, produced, and directed by women. We couldn’t agree more.