Do Hollywood Blockbusters Have a Place for Women in Primal Stories?

This summer, both Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Godzilla have stumbled in depicting One-and-Done Women while the men got to battle against nature and their primal selves. Can Hollywood do better? They can.

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Early on in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Malcolm (Jason Clarke), tasked with negotiating peace between the humans and the apes to bring power back to San Francisco, packs his bags for the trek out to Muir Woods. In the doorway, his wife Ellie (Keri Russell) worries for him and asks to come along. He says no. She protests. He kisses her. She accepts her fate.

The One-And-Done Woman has been dismissed.

In Godzilla, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) gets the call about his father’s arrest and prepares to head to Japan. In the doorway, his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) tells him she’s worried. He says everything will be okay. "It's not the end of the world," she reassures herself. He kisses her. She accepts her fate.

The One-And-Done Woman has been dismissed.

Ellie and Elle are two characters who, besides having names that literally mean “woman,” represent this summer's entries into a long line of OADWs, despite being in “smart” films about the human struggle against nature.

See, it’s like completing a mad lib: A woman named (choose a name) is a (choose an occupation, but try to stick to mother, nurse, or scientist) who belongs to a (choose a group, but try to keep it just “family”) facing (choose a disaster) before having to miss the action because (choose a cause).

Let’s play.

  • Is the disaster a zombie outbreak? Mireille Enos in World War Z stays behind on a ship while Brad Pitt takes care of the virus.
  • Is it dinosaurs? After all Laura Dern's talk in Jurassic Park about "dinosaurs eat man, woman inherits the earth," she goes and treats an ill triceratops, skipping the big T-Rex set piece altogether.
  • Is it simply climate change, without any creature stepping in to metaphorically represent humanity’s struggle against the uncontrollable power of nature? Emmy Rossum in The Day After Tomorrow gets injured as a tsunami hits New York and subsequently sits in one spot, waiting to be rescued. (In the same movie, Sela Ward plays a doctor who essentially does the same.)

All of these films are blockbusters focused on the battle between man and nature, but can't seem to figure out how to keep a woman around. The women survive, but they don't participate.

I know what you're thinking: What about Katniss? What about Ripley? What about Full Metal Bitch-ified Emily Blunt's Rita Vrataski in Edge of Tomorrow? They're all strong heroines who don't get discarded an hour into the film, true, and they should all be applauded for it. But when it comes to primal stories, man-versus-nature, these films don't quite fit the mold, and therefore, their characters aren't in the same situations as Ellie and Elle. Katniss, like many of her dystopian YA counterparts, faces a conflict larger than man vs. nature – she's man vs. man, facing against an oppressive governmentRipley and Rita come close, but their stories are more grounded in science fiction and horror (Ripley is the mother of all Final Girls, after all). Godzilla and Dawn are both decidedly earthbound and definitively stripped of anything so handily futuristic as a robot exoskeleton.

So when a film is simply about humans versus nature – be it apes, kaiju, or some other threat – filmmakers find little precedent for heroines to stick around.

That's where they're wrong.

Take Naomi Watts in The Impossible, for instance. Sure, The Impossible was never marketed as and plainly wasn't a summer blockbuster, but in it, Watts plays a heroine who displays the same primal strength as the male protagonists in less award-worthy films depicting disasters.

Watts' subsequent Oscar nomination stemmed largely from her ability to balance her character's maternal drama with the consequences of a serious injury, and her role proved how a female character can be the anchor of a primal story. (The upcoming Reese-Witherspoon vehicleWild looks like it'll do the same.)

Filmmakers could look to television as well. Game of Thrones may be a fantasy series, but Gwendoline Christie's Brienne of Tarth has a storyline that's largely about being primal. She has fought a bear, the embodiment of the Force of Nature, as well as a ruthless male character, during which she went full primal and bit off his ear. Though the show often does send her off alone, it doesn't take away her scenes or minimize the action.

The point is: It's time to eliminate the One-And-Done Woman. Honestly, it doesn't need to even be that heroic. Women can stand in for the puny power of humanity in the face of nuclear lizard monsters just as well as men. And while you're at it, maybe get started on that Wonder Woman film that's proved so frustratingly elusive. Her Amazon origins could easily dovetail into a woman-versus-nature story we could all thrill to.

Maybe it's as simple as that. Breaking free of the idea that the most primal of all conflicts have to feature men might mean fewer scenes like in Dawn when the head apes in charge send the women and the young into the woods while the good stuff happens. And more scenes like in the last Tomb Raider video game, where Lara Croft becomes shipwrecked on a mysterious island, and the player navigates her past many elemental threats, no man in sight.

"Woman-versus-nature" at last.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.