For once, a casting announcement for an iconic film has been met with little objection. Late Wednesday afternoon, Hollywood trade publications reported that Adam Driver would likely play a key role as the villain in the new Star Wars trilogy. If Driver ends up with the part, this is good news for all. Driver is a terrific actor, and it bodes well for the upcoming trilogy that the producers have chosen someone whose strength lies in his abilities, not in conventional good looks.
Obviously, it is also a big deal for Driver himself, as it marks a huge leap forward in his career. Two years ago, nobody knew his name, but after breaking out in Girls and securing small but memorable roles in prestigious fare like Lincoln and Inside Llewyn Davis, he is now on a more secure path to movie stardom.
But one question remains: Why is it that the first actor from Girls to break through to success in the movies is a man? The show is built around its exceptional female talents, but it’s hard to imagine where they would fit into the current movie landscape. Movie studios still require their female leads to be thin and model-level beautiful, even in their comedies like Bridesmaids and The Heat. Melissa McCarthy, co-star of both those films, is an exception, but she fills a very specific Hollywood need: funny overweight person. I’d hate to think Dunham would be cast in roles in which she was supposed to use her body for humor in that way.
Twenty years ago, Allison Williams could have been a hit in rom-coms, but, as has been well-documented, the genre barely exists as a commercial force anymore. Zosia Mamet may have a unique comedic presence, but she is probably too quirky to be a Hollywood leading lady. Jemima Kirke looks the part, but movie studios have yet to cast her in a major film.
Maybe these women's time will come, but Hollywood seems to have decided that a man must go first. This turn of events throws into relief just how traditional the film industry remains compared with the experimental, increasingly diverse world of TV.
Television has always been able to get away with more than the movies. I Love Lucy featured an interracial couple back in 1951, when the Production Code still forbade it in film. In the 1970s, network shows like All in the Family and M*A*S*H intentionally provoked discussion about our social and political values in the context of the counterculture. Both shows were honored with Peabody Awards.
On the more divisive social issues of our time, television has continued leading the way. For example, openly gay or bisexual characters can be found everywhere on the small screen, from network hits (Modern Family, Glee) to small cable dramas (Looking) to Netflix (Orange Is the New Black). Meanwhile, you have to go all the way down to No. 100 on the list of top-grossing films of 2013 to find an openly LGBT character in a major role (Dallas Buyers Club).
Another place where television trumps film in reflecting modern America is its use of Latino characters. A portion of anti-immigration advocates fear the dilution of American culture due to the influence of Mexican immigrants, but on television, no one seems to mind. On the networks, Modern Family features a prominent Latina (Sofia Vergara), while Eva Longoria, of Mexican descent, anchored Desperate Housewives for years. Flip on over to cable and check out The Bridge for a more serious, nuanced Latino character. George Lopez has been around seemingly forever and has a new show on FX premiering next month. But where are the Latino movie stars? Sure, we’ve got Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, and Antonio Banderas, but they are all of Spanish descent, not Mexican, which makes a difference when we’re discussing immigration issues. If you are looking for a Mexican-American movie star, the best you can do are Salma Hayek, Diego Luna, or Danny Trejo, none of who have the star power to helm a big-budget studio movie. Many talented Latino film actors out there, like the versatile and charismatic Michael Pena, have inexplicably never broken through to the mainstream (although next month’s Cesar Chavez will hopefully change that in Pena’s case).
On issues of gender equality, both film and television are making progress. In the past several years, we have seen women on the silver screen in a wide range of roles typically dominated by men. Bridesmaids and The To-Do List showed how gross-out comedies need not be male-only affairs. The Hunger Games, Snow White and the Huntsman, and Brave featured a new dynamic: female action heroes saving their weaker male counterparts. But television still has the edge here because the medium routinely features middle-aged female protagonists (Weeds, Damages, House of Cards, The Good Wife), the kind that the movies still have little use for (Sandra Bullock not withstanding).
How to explain this discrepancy? After all, due to the concentration of media ownership, movies and TV shows are made by pretty much the same people these days. Still, television can get away with a more progressive culture because it does not need to appeal to a widespread audience. True Detective, HBO’s hit show of the moment that has some gender issues of its own to deal with, may have climbed to a series-high 2.6 million viewers on Sunday night, but Girls routinely fails to break a million viewers. If Girls were a film and each of its viewers bought a $10 ticket, it would have grossed less than $10 million domestically. A film’s definition of success depends more on its gross related to its budget, but no major studio is content to routinely churn out films that gross around $10 million.
In other words, TV has the edge because it can afford to cater to niche audiences. Progressives can watch Looking; red-state viewers can tune into Duck Dynasty. To be successful, films typically aim for much broader demographics (soccer moms, 18-25 year old males, etc.) and aren't as able to risk offending swaths of the audience.
The movies will certainly catch up, and in some areas, they already have. You could argue that film has been much stronger in directly addressing racial issues than television has, at least this year (although Roots beat 12 Years a Slave by three decades). But until the women of Girls can find steady work leading Hollywood movies, television will still be the progressive place to go.