Originally published at my Watching God blog at Patheos.org.
It’s been a great year for women in movies. Check out the year’s 15 top-grossing films, and you’ll see that a majority of them—from Inside Out to toPitch Perfect 2 to Mad Max: Fury Road—feature strong women in leading roles.Time, Forbes and io9 have all noted what a great year it’s been for girl power, and all I can say is, it’s about time.
How Hollywood ever got the idea that blockbusters have to be anchored by men is a little mystifying—particularly in an age where there are so many fantastic female actors out there who can bring depth and drama to any role. Here’s to hoping that Kate Blanchett gets her own action franchise.
But as the summer movie season comes to a close, there’s another trend to make note of.
Take a look at that Top 15 list. How many R-rated movies are on it? Two. Fifty Shades of Grey at No. 9 and Mad Max: Fury Road at No. 14.
How many R-rated movies have been released so far this year? About 126, according to Box Office Mojo—out of 226 total rated by the MPAA in 2015. That means more than half of Hollywood’s output (56%) has come in the form of R-rated movies.
Another illustrative, stat: The average R-rated movie in 2015 has made $12.1 million. MPAA movies rated G, PG or PG-13 rake in an average of $48.3 million.
Hollywood is beginning to understand that women can front big, successful flicks—and for their own well-being, it’s important that they do. The entertainment industry is a business, after all. It’s important to understand what people want to see.
So why so many R-rated movies?
Now, I’m not hating on the R. I believe that some stories, to be told well, need harsh content. Schindler’s List and 12 Years a Slave wouldn’t have had the same resonance without it. But I don’t buy that f-bombs and exposed intestines inherently make for good storytelling, either. In fact, I think gratuitous content is often used as a substitute for it.
When I watch old Hays code-era films—movies made between 1930 and 1968 under strict moral guidelines on what could be depicted onscreen—I don’t see stunted storytelling. I’d argue that, often, the restrictions in place enhanced it, forcing moviemakers to be more creative. Indeed, the Hays Code era encompasses many of the greatest films ever made. Don’t try to tell me that Citizen Kane would’ve been so much better with more swearing, or that Casablanca would’ve been more moving if we saw Rick and Ilsa in the sack. I don’t buy it.
Indeed, the less content a movie has, the better it does. There are five PG movies in the year’s Top 15: Inside Out, Minions, Cinderella, Home and The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water. Only 15 G or PG movies received anything close to a wide release this year—and a full third of them are among the year’s most successful movies.
None of this is breaking news, of course. Since the Hays Code was abolished in 1968, moviemakers have always made far more R-rated movies than we’ve ever wanted to see. In 2013, the National Association of Theater Owners pleaded with Hollywood to turn down the R-rated spigots. “Make more family-friendly films and fewer R-rated titles,” said the organization’s President John Fithian. “Americans have stated their choice.”
Alas, the entertainment industry continues to chase the same mythical moviegoer that, I think, kept it from acknowledging the inherent draw of woman protagonists for such a long time: The 20-something male who likes his jokes profane, his women objectified and his cinematic action coated in a sheen of gore.
Do such men exist? Perhaps. But they’re not going to movies like they used to, apparently, and Hollywood’s never-ending pursuit of them leaves moviegoers like me—and perhaps like you—with fewer options than we’d like.