Tuesday, October 6, 2009
Whipping the Sexism Out of Whip It's Box Office Numbers
Apparently Whip It, starring Drew Berrymore and Ellen Page, didn't do so great at the Box Office last weekend, pulling in about $4.9 million. The male-dominated cast of Zombieland dominated, trouncing all other movies with $24.7 million last weekend. (To be fair, zombies are amazing.) But critics say Whip It is a pretty good film. It's getting 81 percent over at Rotten Tomatoes, just 8 points behind Zombieland.
Over at NPR, Linda Holmes doesn't understand why the film is doing so poorly. "Not only is it touching and funny and a rollicking good time, but it's a movie that rarely finds its way to the multiplex -- it's a sports movie about a team of women, it's got a cast chosen mostly for suitability and not perceived hotness, and it's warmly funny but almost wisecrack-free," she writes.
Box office numbers do matter, though. Melissa Silverstein, who writes the blog Women & Hollywood writes, "I am seriously sad." Many people viewed Whip It and Jennifer's Body (Diablo Cody's adventure into feminist horror fimmmaking) as the rise of the film starring young women. "So now we won’t have movies about older women and we won’t have movies about younger women," Silverstein writes. "Great."
As Silverstein has noted often, films that star women are few and far between. And films that do star women (and are directed by women) become "underperforming films," Silverstein writes, though they are often produced on small budgets so they still usually make a profit, even if they don't do so hot at the box office. And that's not to say that Whip It won't do well eventually. It might. After all, Julie & Julia, the Julia Child/blogger biopic, is still raking in a reasonable amount of money (outperforming, ahem, G.I. Joe) even though it came out over the summer. And as I recall Juno wasn't an instant hit either. Many word-of-mouth films don't have a smash opening weekend but end up performing well overall because the public wants to see it after hearing from a friend that it's good.
Silverstein has done a phenomenal job of pointing out that there just aren't enough films written by, directed by, or starring women coming out of Hollywood. The problem is, Hollywood executives will look at a film that didn't take top spot at the box office produced by women, even if it ultimately ends up making a profit, and assume that it performed poorly it's because it was produced by women. Then they'll back fewer films directed by women. It's a bad cycle.
Worst of all, people are starting to put Whip It and Jennifer's Body in the same category. Because, um, I guess we have to put all women-produced films in the same category? That's like putting Drag Me to Hell in the same category as The Hangover. I guess they are lumping the two together because they're both "female empowerment" films. God, that's horrifying.
It's useless to look at Whip It in a vacuum. If there were gender parity in the films that Hollywood produced, I think you'd end up seeing that films directed by women "underperform" at about the same rate as male-produced films. It would be nice if feminism didn't have to put all of its eggs in one basket every time a film is written by, directed by, or stars women. As it is now, as a feminist, I feel like I failed because I didn't block out time to see Whip It this weekend. I plan to see it soon, but because I didn't see it on opening weekend, my voting dollars somehow count less.
But let's be clear about one thing: Hollywood produces a ton of crap every year that doesn't take a top spot at the box office on opening weekend. Much of it is produced by men. But Hollywood still produces crap produced by men. Hollywood execs shouldn't look at films like Whip It as failures because they're directed by and star women. Looking at Whip It as an indicator of whether women's films can and should succeed is dangerous business and downright silly. Let's hope movie executives realize that.