For the entire history of moviemaking, men have been the focal point. There have been exceptions, of course, but the epic hero journeys, the buddy comedies, the spy thrillersâ€”most of them revolved around dudes. Until recently. From calls for equal pay for actresses to calls for more women-led films, Hollywood has slowly been making strides to rectify its gender imbalances. There have been growing pains, but progress has been made. Things are working! Thereâ€™s just one issue: The success of female-fronted movies is always measured against the boys who came before.
The most recent example, naturally, is Oceanâ€™s 8, which opens today. A continuation of the Steven Soderbergh-helmed franchise starring George Clooney, itâ€™s built around the conceit What if women had been involved in those heists? (Yes, I know Danny Ocean employed Julia Roberts in later installments, but Tess Oceanâ€™s skill was playing a Julia Roberts lookalike, not, you know, hacking a security system.) As the story goes, Danny had a sister, Debbie (Sandra Bullock), who is also good at pulling off a job and has a whole cadre of other female friends who are too. Directed by Gary Ross (Soderbergh served as a producer), itâ€™s 100 minutes of fast-talking, fast-acting fun. It’s just like the Oceanâ€™s movies that came before it.
And thatâ€™s the problem. The movieâ€™s critical and economic reception will forever be measured against those of the previous installments. As Hollywood has broadened its horizons to include movies led by women, written by women, directed by women, one question has always loomed: Will these films do as well as those from their male counterparts? Will critics like them? Will audiences go see them? Because the (very wrong) collective wisdom of Tinseltown had stipulated that audiences only wanted male-led films, movies that bucked that wisdom always got heaped with the burden of Having Something To Prove. It happened with The Hunger Games; it happened with the all-female Ghostbusters. Itâ€™s happening again with Oceanâ€™s 8.
In a way, this can be a good thing. So far, the positive reviews have largely pointed out that it has the magic that the original three films did. When the movieâ€™s early box-office tracking numbers came in, reports noted that it was in line to claim more cash than Oceanâ€™s Eleven. (Though some were quick to wonder whether it would meet the same poor-performing fate as Ghostbusters.) By both of those counts, Oceanâ€™s 8 is doing part of what it set out to doâ€”prove that a previously bro-tastic franchise could be executed successfully with a cast of women. Behold: It is proven.
Oceanâ€™s 8 is doing part of what it set out to doâ€”prove that a previously bro-tastic franchise could be executed with the same success rate with a cast of women. Behold: It is proven.
How itâ€™s provenâ€”and what itâ€™s provingâ€”is another story. In the lead-up to release, trade publications ran stories on how the movie’s studio, Warner Bros., and theater chains were going to market the film. While the studio seems to be leaning on the movieâ€™s starsâ€”Bullock, Anne Hathaway, Cate Blanchett, Rihanna, Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, Awkwafina, and Helena Bonham Carterâ€”theaters are drumming up interest with themed screenings. I went to one of these, a black-tie event at the Alamo Drafthouse in Brooklyn; it was a hoot, and the most dressed-up crowd I’d ever seen at an Alamo Drafthouse.
Thanks in part to the misogynist, racist reactions to movies like Ghostbusters, Wonder Woman, and even Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, fans now know that if they want to keep seeing movies like this, they have to show up in droves on opening night to prove theyâ€™re being serviced. No surprise that studios and theaters are more than happy to cater to that.
But that all side-steps the real issue. No matter how good Oceanâ€™s 8 isâ€”and it isâ€”it will never be judged on its own merits. Itâ€™ll only ever be seen as an example of women being able to do something as well as men. And thatâ€™s the truly unfortunate thing. Oceanâ€™s 8 is full of moments that speak to womenâ€™s experiences, moments that are more than just women doing things typically thought of as â€śguy stuff,â€ť but because of the very nature of the â€ś____, but with womenâ€ť concept, they get drowned out.
It might be incumbent upon the rest of us to stop caring so much about
Star Wars and Marvel movies and other empires originally built in less-progressive eras. â€¦ Maybe itâ€™s time for us to put our heads
together and walk a new path, one that doesnâ€™t put faith in corporate
mega-properties that are predicated on appealing to as many people as
possible. â€¦ Could it be that the best route forward is to start
putting more dollars into truly *new * stories, ones that center
traditionally marginalized creators and characters, that are not just
tilting toward our values, but are instead built on them?
Movies in the Oceanâ€™s franchise don’t approach the scope of a Star Wars or Marvel film, but what heâ€™s saying still applies. Oceanâ€™s 8 holds its own, but it couldâ€™ve been better if that same group of eight fantastic women had been hired to pull off a job of their own design. When that happens, it will be clear that women can truly steal the show.