Women ruled the box office in 2017 but Hollywood’s still got a ways to go

Diana puts her game face on in Wonder Woman.
Image: Clay Enos / Warner Bros.

For the third year in a row, a Star Wars movie emerged as the highest-grossing release of the year in the U.S. – which meant that for the third year in a row, the biggest film in the country was one featuring a female protagonist. 

But Rey was just the beginning.

The second-biggest film of the year was Beauty and the Beast. The third? Wonder Woman. According to TheWrap, 2017 marks the first year since 1958 in which the three highest-grossing domestic titles all had female leads. (If you’re wondering, the top three that time were South Pacific, Auntie Mame, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.)

It’s an exciting achievement from an industry that’s tended to prioritize male stories, and one that speaks to how the industry’s evolved in recent years. 

Star Wars was a male-centric saga until Rey and Jyn were introduced in 2015’s The Force Awakens and 2016’s Rogue One, respectively. Similarly, the superhero movie craze that’s gripped Hollywood for the past two decades has focused almost exclusively on men – Wonder Woman was the first mainstream superheroine movie since Catwoman and Elektra in the mid-aughts.

Furthermore, both The Last Jedi and Wonder Woman are positioned as part of a trend, rather than as one-off anomalies. 

This year’s Star Wars entry, Solo, is about a guy, but next year’s Episode IX brings the focus back to Rey. And Wonder Woman was just the first in a growing wave of female superhero stories. The next two years alone will see Ant-Man and the Wasp and Captain Marvel from Disney, as well as another Wonder Woman movie from Warner Bros. 

It’s worth pointing out, too, that as important as Rey and Diana and Belle are to the conversation, Katniss Everdeen made Catching Fire the top-grossing picture of 2013 – breaking an all-male streak of #1 films that dates back to 1997’s Titanic. Taken all together, it becomes clear that Hollywood is slowly but surely warming up to female stars.

But if the data seems to indicate that the film industry is moving in the right direction, it also reminds us that we’ve still got a ways to go in terms of female representation. Yes, women took the first, second, and third spots at the U.S. box office in 2017 – but you have to go all the way down to #25 (Girls Trip) to find the next lady lead on the list. 

The imbalance is even more drastic behind the camera. Beauty and the Beast and The Last Jedi may be about women, but both were directed by men. Wonder Woman is the only one of the three with a female director, Patty Jenkins, and after her, you don’t see another female director on the list until Pitch Perfect 3‘s Trish Sie at #41.

(And that’s not even getting into how much worse non-white and queer women have it – you’ll notice that the vast majority of the female filmmakers and characters mentioned so far are apparently white, straight, and cisgender.)

Still, progress is progress, and there’s every reason to hope this trend sticks around. 

The next twelve months have a lot to offer in terms of female protagonists, including fantasies (A Wrinkle in Time and Mary Poppins), heists (Widows and Ocean’s 8), actioners (Proud Mary and Tomb Raider), romances (Crazy Rich Asians and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again), and sci-fi adventures (Annihilation and Alita: Battle Angel).

If any of those sound appealing to you, 2018’s the year to vote with your box office dollars. With some luck, next year’s charts could prove even more girl-friendly than this year’s was.

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