By Eliana Dockterman
August 27, 2015

The success of last summer’s female-centric movies came as a surprise. Box office analysts were confused when Scarlett Johansson’s sci-fi thriller Lucy outsold Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson’s Hercules. They were downright dumbfounded when Shailene Woodley’s tearjerker The Fault in Our Stars edged out the Tom Cruise action film Edge of Tomorrow at the box office.

Perhaps it was the success of those films that led hopeful critics and audiences to have such great expectations for this summer’s leading ladies. There weren’t many surprises—unless you count the fact that Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, not Tom Hardy’s Max, was the star of Mad Max: Fury Road. This was to be the summer of women, what with Pitch Perfect getting a sequel and TV feminist sensation Amy Schumer making her big screen debut.

And it was. These films held their own among the macho men of Avengers and Jurassic Park. In fact, seven of this year’s top 10 films so far star women. Here’s what we ought to take away from an aca-awesome summer for women at the box office.

MORE: In Praise of This Summer’s ‘Complicated Women’

Lily James is Cinderella in Disney's live-action feature Cinderella.
Jonathan Olley—Disney

Movies don’t need men

Young, white men are the most coveted demographic in the industry — hence the endless parade of pasty male superheroes. But a FiveThirtyEight study of the biggest blockbusters since 1970 found that films that passed the Bechdel Test—a simple yet somehow elusive bar that measures whether two women in a movie talk to one another about something other than a man—make more money than those that don’t.

That theory was borne out at this year’s box office. Of this year’s top 10 grossing domestic films, seven of them — Furious 7 (#3), Inside Out (#4), Minions (#5), Cinderella (#6), Pitch Perfect 2 (#7), Home (#8) and Fifty Shades of Grey (#9) — all had women in starring roles.

Universal

The most successful studio this year is catering to women and people of color

Diversifying your films on the whole is now a proven strategy for success. Universal Pictures, despite not owning the rights to any superheroes, is handily beating its competitors at the box office this year, thanks to its blatant disregard of the white teenage boy. The studio has five of the 10 highest-grossing movies of the year. Save Jurassic World, the rest of those movies “took risks” on non-male, non-white stories.

Straight Outta Compton and Furious 7 both feature diverse casts. Pitch Perfect 2 and Fifty Shades of Grey were each directed by a woman and told women’s stories (empowering or not). And Minions — which has grossed over $1 billion worldwide — had the biggest opening weekend of any of the Despicable Me films with Sandra Bullock — not Steve Carrell — as its featured villain.

Amy Poehler stars as the personification of Joy, left, with Phyllis Smith starring as the voice of Sadness.
Pixar/Disney

It’s okay to ditch the crown

Following the Frozen fervor, Disney doubled down on its peppy princess strategy, green-lighting a Frozen sequel and a new film called Moana. But in June, Inside Out set a record for the highest-grossing weekend of any original film — a movie not based on a book, comic book or previous movie. More importantly, the movie’s main character has nothing to do with royalty. Families, it seems, are willing to shell out big bucks to learn about what’s going on inside the mind of an ordinary, hockey-loving girl who hates broccoli on her pizza.

MORE: Why It Matters That Inside Out’s Protagonist Is a Girl — Not a Princess

(L to R) Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), Owen (Chris Pratt), Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray (Ty Simpkins) watch in terror in Jurassic World.
Universal

You can’t get away with lazy sexism anymore

When the Jurassic World trailer premiered back in April, Avengers director, Buffy creator and self-proclaimed feminist Joss Whedon tweeted, “I’m too busy wishing this clip wasn’t 70’s era sexist. She’s a stiff, he’s a life-force—really? Still?”

Once the movie hit theaters in June, critics largely agreed with Whedon. The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis wrote Bryce Dallas Howard’s character “mostly just schemes and screams, before Owen melts her like an ice cube on a hot griddle.” Plenty of fans piled on on social media, complaining that the female star was forced to run around in heels the whole movie.

Ironically, Whedon himself came under fire later that spring for writing in a sexist plot line for Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow in which being barren is equated with being a “monster.”

Of course, take this Twitter outrage with a grain of salt. Despite these atrocious, sexist plot points, Jurassic Park and Avengers: Age of Ultron were the two highest-grossing films of the summer. Still, even if misogyny won’t affect a movie’s bottom line (yet), it won’t help the filmmakers’ standing in the cultural conversation. I doubt, for example, Whedon will be making that same mistake again.

And writers who do take women into consideration are rewarded for doing so. The spy played by Rebecca Ferguson in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation removed her heels every time she had to fight, run or ride a motorcycle. It was a small touch, but one that was greatly appreciated by female moviegoers and lovers of realism alike.

As Margo, style icon Cara Delevingne takes her next-door neighbor Quentin, played by Nat Wolff, on the ride of his life
Michael Tackett— 20th Century Fox

Movies about women still have to be good to sell

Yes, Hot Pursuit and Paper Towns fell on their faces. It turns out that — just like with all other movies — the script, the director and the casting matters. Hot Pursuit tried to capture the same movie magic Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock had conjured with The Heat, but the unconvincing premise and lame jokes fell flat. The disappointing Paper Towns box office proved that not all young adult novels (even ones by John Green) are created equal — nor are leading ladies.

The Barden Bellas perform in a scene from Pitch Perfect 2
Universal Pictures

Feminism and blockbusters totally mix

Amy Schumer, who made her name writing sketches that smartly skewer sexism, is well on her way to becoming a bona fide movie star. Lame boyfriends were shunted to the side in Pitch Perfect 2 in favor of girl power. The writer of the famed Vagina Monologues was asked to consult on big budget action film Mad Max: Fury Road. Feminism had made its way into mainstream culture, and it’s making for better, more complex female characters.

The Apatowian romance between Schumer and Hader plays out in typical rom-com conventions.
Universal Pictures

The women blazing the trail in Hollywood are under a lot of pressure

That being said, women characters in blockbusters are far from the Platonic feminist ideal — a fact that critics are pleased to inform the few female writers and directors who bring them to the screen. Amy Schumer came under the microscope this summer: was Trainwreck empowering enough? Does the entire premise of a rom-com undermine feminist ideals?

Of the top 250 grossing films in 2014, only 11% of writers were women and just 7% of directors were female. The few women who are afforded the opportunity to helm big budget films are under scrutiny for whether they are doing their job well and whether they’re advancing their gender in doing so.

Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road.
Jasin Boland—Warner Bros.

Studios need to make more female action movies already

Director George Miller can now be declared the master of “sneaky feminism.” His film, which was (smartly) sold as a testosterone-filled, post-apocalyptic road rage extravaganza, was actually a feminist manifesto about a group of women escaping sex slavery, tearing down a patriarchal society and finding safety in a community of Amazons. Charlize Theron did more shooting, driving and talking in that movie than Tom Hardy (as evidenced by the honest trailer that mocks “Tom Hardly There”)—thanks, in part, to Ensler’s consultations.

Melissa McCarthy also did her part to convince audiences that women belong in shoot-outs as much as men do. Her latest movie with director Paul Feig, Spy, placed her in the role typically reserved for the James Bonds and Ethan Hunts of the world. To the surprise of anyone who watched the trailer, McCarthy wasn’t a bumbling spy but actually a kick-ass heroine who still managed to get laughs.

Neither of these films reached Mission Impossible level box office success, but their sequels just might. And not that studios care more about reviews than the bottom line, but Mad Max was heralded by most critics as the best film of the summer. If Charlize Theron can’t convince studio execs that women can rule the summer, nobody will.

MORE: Eve Ensler on How Mad Max: Fury Road Became a ‘Feminist Action Film’

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