The progressive '80s?

Hollywood’s backlash against women

Life Moves Pretty Fast:

The Lessons We Learned from Eighties Movies (and Why We Don't Learn Them from Movies Anymore)

In Life Moves Pretty Fast: The Lessons We Learned from Eighties Movies (and Why We Don’t Learn Them from Movies Anymore), journalist Hadley Freeman takes us on a cinematic tour of the 1980s, arguing that on matters of gender, race, and class, Hollywood films in the decade of Reagan were more progressive than they are today.

Each chapter of the book is structured around a particular film, which Freeman uses to illuminate some aspect of the cultural politics of the decade. While she never claims to be writing an exhaustive history of ’80s movies, the book is heavily skewed toward her personal taste: comedies, rom-coms, teen movies, and tearjerkers. 

It may seem odd to read a book about ’80s films that doesn’t discuss E.T., The Terminator, Die Hard, Aliens, the Indiana Jones and Star Wars trilogies, or any of the half-dozen horror franchises the decade birthed. But the genres Freeman favors are useful for her analysis, since they are the parts of the film industry that have been hardest hit by the current business model of endless blockbusters and superhero franchises.

Freeman’s argument is strongest in the five chapters structured around realist comedies and dramas about women and girls (Dirty Dancing, Pretty in Pink, When Harry Met Sally, Steel Magnolias, and Baby Boom). She tracks how film portrayals of everything from abortion to working women to female friendship and sexuality have grown more conservative in the past thirty years, and identifies this as part of the backlash against the gains of the women’s movement of the ’60s and ’70s.

The politics of the ’60s influenced the filmmakers and Hollywood executives of the ’80s, whether they were conscious of it or not. Dirty Dancing’s plot involving a botched illegal abortion seems shockingly bold by today’s standards, when carrying an unplanned and ill-advised pregnancy to term has become a comedy conceit. But in 1987, according to screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein: “They didn’t even notice [the abortion storyline] was there. The studio thought the script was stupid and bad for so many reasons they scarcely noticed that. Certainly no one suggested that it might be controversial.”

Beyond overtly political storylines, ’80s moviegoers were treated to what now seems like an incredible abundance of stories about women and teenage girls in ordinary contemporary settings. “What I love about classic women’s movies,” Freeman writes, “is that they tell women that their daily lives are interesting.” The ’80s brought us stories about working women actually doing things—and even organizing!—at work, from 9 to 5 to Norma Rae. Among the top 100 films of 2015, only 44 percent of female characters were seen in their work setting doing work at all.1 As Freeman bluntly states, somewhere in the past thirty years, “Hollywood stopped giving a shit about women.”

The backlash against the movements of the ’60s happened to coincide with changes in the film industry that only magnified its effects. So-called “women’s movies,” teen dramas, and witty comedies all used to occupy a tier in the middle of the film budget range, about $10–$60 million. These films are virtually nonexistent today. While digital cameras and computer-based editing have made producing a film cheaper than ever before, studios have increasingly consolidated their product at the high-budget end of the spectrum, producing fewer movies overall, but many more blockbusters. This blockbuster arms race will reach absurd proportions in 2018, when the six major film studios are scheduled to release up to forty tentpoles (big money makers)—almost all sequels, franchise installments, or reboots.2

In 1997, the average cost of a studio film was $60 million. In 2007 it was $106.6 million, and is likely higher now.3 (The MPAA stopped keeping track in 2009.) These figures don’t include the staggering marketing costs, often as much or more than the production budget of the film, that go into advertising expensive movies in a market full of other expensive movies.

Higher budgets mean more pressure for studio films to make absurd amounts of money—which means axing anything studio executives deem controversial. It also means every movie must be what the film industry calls “four quadrant”—designed to appeal to men and women, young and old. Despite box office studies showing that movies with female leads4 and movies with racially diverse casts5 are more profitable than average, “universal appeal” often translates into “movies starring white men named Chris.”

International film economics has changed as well. As Freeman writes:

Back in the mid-eighties, the international market would make up about 20 percent of a film’s revenue. Now it’s 80 percent, because, while US audiences have gently fallen (although box-office takings have generally remained steady due to rising ticket prices), the international market has grown exponentially, led by China.

This affects the kinds of movies studios prioritize. Dialogue-heavy comedies and dramas may be lost in translation. But prat falls and explosions don’t rely on subtitles—which has led studios to push action and sci-fi blockbusters and raunch and physical comedy as presumably more valuable exports. “Wit and nuance doesn’t travel,” quips producer Lynda Obst in an interview with Freeman.

But Freeman is quick to assert that the blame shouldn’t fall on China. In a study of Chinese films aimed at children and young people released between 2010 and 2013, 30 percent featured a gender-balanced cast. In equivalent American films during that time period, the percentage was zero.

Freeman builds a compelling argument about how and why portrayals of women on film have gotten worse in the past thirty years. Outside of this particular topic, the book is less successful. A single, although thorough, chapter on Eddie Murphy’s ’80 movies seems hardly sufficient to talk about race and racism in Hollywood over an entire decade. And a few films seem to be included simply because Freeman wants to talk about them. While The Princess Bride is undoubtedly an ’80s classic, Freeman struggles a bit to shoehorn it into her overall thesis.

She is also fairly dismissive of the action genre—which happens to have delivered some of the most notable female protagonists of the past few years. Unfortunately, the book was released before 2015 brought us Rey and Furiosa, as well as the conclusion of the highly profitable Hunger Games franchise. 2016 saw a second female-fronted Star Wars movie as well as the all-female Ghostbusters reboot, from a successful director of female-led action-comedy, on which Freeman quite surely has an opinion.

Despite these limitations, Life Moves Pretty Fast provides an entertaining, political take on movies readers may never have given deep thought to (or are too young to have seen). By extracting the lessons of ’80s movies, Freeman provides a template for creating movies where women are once again treated like people.


  1. Martha Lauzen, “It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World: Portrayals of Female Characters in the Top 100 Films of 2015,” Center for the Study of Women in Film and Television, San Diego State University, http://womenintvfilm.sdsu.edu/files/2015....
  2. Luis Prada, “Why the Blockbuster Movie Bubble Will Burst in 2018,” Cracked, August 5, 2016, http://www.cracked.com/blog/why-blockbus....
  3. Jason Bailey, “How the Death of Mid-Budget Cinema Left a Generation of Iconic Filmmakers MIA,” Flavorwire, December 9, 2014, http://flavorwire.com/492985/how-the-dea....
  4. Laura Berger, “Research Shows Box-Office Hits with Female Protagonists Outearn Blockbusters with Male Leads,” Indiewire, October 27, 2015, http://www.indiewire.com/2015/10/researc....
  5. Alyssa Sage, “Diverse Films Perform Better at Global Box Office, Study Says,” Variety, March 22, 2016, http://variety.com/2016/film/news/divers....

 

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Winter 2014-15

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