Women on Top – was 2013 a good year for women?

It is very much a universal truth that men have a monopoly on Hollywood. And the majority of films in Hollywood are filmed from the perspective of the male both within the films (lead protagonists) and within the technical side of filmmaking. Like with mostly every other workplace, men rule the world. But this year displayed an exceptional diverse group of performances from women. You’d never be too hard pressed to find a group of great female performances every year, but female-centric movies were practically omnipresent this year. Take for instance the Academy Awards; when you compare the Best Actor nominees to the Best Actress nominees, the former group always feels grander in comparison to the Best Actress shortlist. Last year only saw two outright lead performances nominated for the Best Actress: Jessica Chastain for Zero Dark Thirty & Quvenzhané Wallis for Beasts of the Southern Wild. The rest of the nominees were what one would consider to be ‘co-leads’: Jennifer Lawrence, Emmanuelle Riva & Naomi Watts, two of whom were mostly seen through the gaze of their male counterparts. The very same eyes that control Hollywood. Where were the strong central female-centric performances last year? Evidently, they were all being compressed into the ever-burgeoning 2013. Let’s take a gander at the female roles that were unleashed in 2013.

You’re going to get a powerhouse male performance a la Chiwetel Ejiofor & Matthew McConaughey every year (see Daniel Day-Lewis & Joaquin Phoenix last year), but it’s so rare to get a Cate Blanchett & a Sandra Bullock in the same year. We have females quite literally dominating the screen with this year’s contenders: Cate Blanchett is the fallen Upper East Side socialite whose histrionics take centre stage in Blue Jasmine, Sandra Bullock is ready for her closeup in the critical and commercial smash Gravity; Meryl Streep & Julia Roberts are caught in a venomous familial face off in August: Osage County; & Emma Thompson flies the biopic flag as standoffish Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers, as does Judi Dench, who tackles the heartbreaking titular character in Philomena. The difference is stark. But of course, great female performances in 2013 went beyond awards recognition. The likes of Brie Larson in Short Term 12 (the anti-nice white lady), Julie Delpy in Before Midnight (luminous), Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha (undateable, but likeable) & Amy Seimetz in idiosyncratic yarn Upstream Colour have been nominated sporadically, but are naturally glossed over in favour of studio films. And extendedly, world cinema been obliging to (particularly older) women than Hollywood will ever be, and it was every bit as strong this year. Adèle Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux, stars of the French lesbian odyssey Blue Is the Warmest Colour, the obligatory must-see foreign feature of the year, were deemed so good they became the first actresses to win prestigious Palme D’or alongside director Abdalletif Kechiche). Chile’s Paulina Garcia emblematises the underrepresented older female generational in Gloria, which nabbed her the Golden Bear in a role that breaks the ‘housewife’ stereotype beautifully. Other key foreign performances included Veerle Baetens in The Broken Circle Breakdown, Berenice Bejo in The Past & Marina Vacth in Jeune et Jolie.

Even the supporting roles for women were brimming with vitality. There was no stopping Blanchett’s one woman show display in Blue Jasmine, but backing with fine support was the always reliable British thespian Sally Hawkins, and Lupita Nyong’o is one of the talked about breakthrough artists of 2013 thanks her soulful performance in 12 Years a Slave. Scarlett Johansson, experiencing somewhat of a career renaissance, rounds out 2013 with two very much talked about supporting performances: as a Joisey girl in Don Jon & a performance that is physically absent from the screen, but still compelling enough to tug on people’s hearts in Spike Jonze’s Her. Johansson’s Barbara is not the only sassy female causing distress for her male counterpart. 2013 also saw Jennifer Lawrence and Margot Robbie play trophy wives in American Hustle & The Wolf of Wall Street, respectively. While the former character has been praised for her brazen attitude and snappy comebacks, the latter, just like Don Jon, however attracted a similar outcry of misogyny for the way in which women are presented as prized possessions and merely plot devices. While these accusations made by staunch feminists could be easily debunked, it is living proof that the topic of sexism is very much in vigorous shape. But if there is anything that 2013 reiterated, it is that women could also be mentally unhinged, morally bereft characters, and at times antagonists to the narrative further exhibiting the complexities of women that rarely usually seem to distance itself from the ‘girl-next-door’ or the ‘sexpot’ tropes. Rooney Mara (Side Effects), Sarah Paulson (12 Years a Slave), Carey Mulligan (Inside Llewyn Davis) & Mia Wasikowska (Stoker) are examples of this. They’re not jovial, two-dimensional pleasant fantasies for the men to gaze at, nor is primitive stereotyping at play here. And then there’s Jennifer Lawrence – again – this time as the persistent heroine Katniss Everdeen in Catching Fire proving the hidden box office talents that females can truly have.

Behind the lens, the likes of the aforementioned Delpy & Gerwig, as well as Brit Marling (The East) co-wrote films in which they had starring roles, whereas Sarah Polley’s third feature film, Stories We Tell, was particularly ambitious one; it was an intimate documentary that infused family footage with reenactments replicated with a Super 8. The results were resoundingly successful, and Lake Bell also tested her female auteurship skills for In A World… subsequently igniting buzz through Sundance. Veteran indie filmmaker Nicole Holofcener’s follow-up to the underrated Please Give was her first (and most accessible) studio film with Enough Said. It is important that the very few female directors are creating female roles such as Holofcener did with Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Enough Said, as well as Sofia Coppola, who returned this year albeit with a rather dry social critique on suburban ennui in The Bling Ring, which was a bit too objective for its own good. Saudi Arabia made history by creating its first full length feature to be shot inside the country with Foreign Language contender Wadjda, which was directed by, yes, a female director, Haifaa Al-Mansour, as well as a female lead in the name of Waad Mohammed toplining the film. (Which smacks of irony given the repressive state of the film’s country.)

But in spite of this wholly triumphant year, women still have a long way to go, in front of and behind the camera. The truth is there simply are not enough women controlling the strings in Hollywood as one would want to believe no matter how much success women enjoy in front of the screen. Where are the Kathryn Bigelows? We have Lawrence and Bullock fronting enthralling crowd-pleasers at least a few times every year, but where are the uncharacteristic female directors?

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