Girl Power at the Box Office

Over the recent Thanksgiving weekend, box office analysts were wowed by the performances of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Frozen, which outdid expectations and earned 200 million dollars in combined grosses over the long weekend. While the numbers might have put smiles on the faces of studio heads, there was something even more significant about these movie’s success: they are both led by strong female characters who in both cases play by their own rules amidst a male-dominated society.

In Catching Fire Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen is a tough heroine who isn’t only directly menaced by the political system (the President himself wants to have her killed!), she also often finds herself fulfilling the domineering/protective role in her personal relationships. As Linda Holmes at NPR has already pointed out one of Katniss’ love interests, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) fulfills the role of the traditional movie “girlfriend” as in how it’s Katniss who has to come to his rescue in times of peril. Peeta also asks Katniss to be more in touch with her emotions and in one of the film’s key moments reveals a secret that would be usually “saved” for a woman to tell. This has nothing to do with whether those gender roles are right or wrong, but more with how uncommon it is to see Hollywood subvert them.

Does this mean that come Christmas Day, little boys will shout in excitement upon opening their new Katniss Everdeen action figures? Perhaps not, but it’s certainly significant given how movies led by women are usually treated at the box office. If and when The Hunger Games: Catching Fire becomes the year’s top grosser, it will be the very first time in history that a female-led movie has done so (Titanic might come close but it was always more about the romance and the spectacle) and that’s something that must be applauded and repeated. In terms of its audiences, this installment of the series so far has, according to Cinemascore, been more watched by men (51%) than by women (49%), a vast improvement from the original which increased female attendance by more than 30%.

The case of Frozen is perhaps even more interesting because marketers at Disney did everything they could to hide the fact that this was a film about women. And how could they not be afraid given how poorly their female-led movies are received at the box office? 2009’s The Princess and the Frog earned a “small” one hundred million dollars at the box office and Tangled’s two hundred million although satisfying didn’t justify the film’s $260 million budget or its “underperformance” when compared with the billion dollar juggernauts produced by Pixar (and even their Brave was a disappointment compared to all the boy movies, even the terrible Cars made more money).

The truth about Frozen is that it seems as if it’s a movie that was consciously made to go against the grain. Besides being a story about two princesses who need to save each other (men in the film are accessories or funny sidekicks) the voice cast is entirely made up of Broadway performers (and Kristen Bell who is an out of the box choice as well) as opposed to movie stars and the story itself is a throwback to the “princess movies” that made Disney so beloved by audiences. At some point it seems that someone at Disney realized what they’d done and tried to bury the mistake under a series of posters, trailers and ads that revealed nothing about the female-centric plot and highlighted the adventure and a funny snowman voiced by Josh Gad.

Fortunately their plan misfired and the film was almost as popular with women as it was with men (attendance was 57% female, 43% male) which begs the question of the individuality of these men and women, what other subgroups are included among these larger ones. Frozen for example is a case where, all clichés aside, you can see a strong gay male population being supportive of. The film features Broadway performers that have become beloved gay icons (Jonathan Groff who plays the main male character is himself gay) and the film’s beautiful story is one about accepting oneself that goes beyond general lessons and actually seems to be addressing a more “modern”, less intolerant audience.

In the film’s showstopper, “Let It Go”, Princess Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel from Wicked) sings about letting go of the past and feeling at home in your own skin. The fact that she performs a Broadway song as she erects herself a phallic icy castle all her own (throwing nods to infamous Disney marketing lore and Dr. Freud) will undoubtedly speak to both little girls and boys who will undoubtedly feel glad they’re being included in movies they love, even if they don’t fit into the heteronormative societal structure they think is right. Frozen isn’t only Disney’s best film in at least ten years, it also offers moments of subliminal queer sublimity that fill us with hope for what’s to come in the studio.

The surefire winner of the Animated Feature Oscar is a film that pays tribute to film history while reveling in the exciting promise of a more accepting future where little girls and boys will be at ease deciding whether they want to be Katniss or a funny snowman. As such, the box office for the last week of November is historical. Looks like Meryl Streep won’t have to carry this burden on her own any longer…