Even as we note progress in the way contemporary mainstream and independent cinema are treating their female characters and actresses, there's still no denying that most of the really good roles go to men. For some reason, studios, screenwriters, and audiences all have trouble emancipating the male figure from certain kinds of characters. We view our most gallant heroes, our funniest comic leads, our most threatening villains, and almost all of our genre archetypes as male, despite the fact that there is no reason why we shouldn't be dividing up these parts along the gender spectrum.
In fact, there'd be something duly rewarding in seeing veteran and blossoming actresses take on parts traditionally reserved for male performers. Beyond just a shakeup of the old trope, the switch could very well offer an inviting new perspective on a trope we've thought we'd seen inside and out.
Here are a few choice character types that so often stick to male embodiments, but which could really use a female take. And while we're at it, included are some suggestions for which modern actresses would best handle these parts. Check below to realize just how much you've been longing for a female-led detective drama (that is, one outside of the Murder She Wrote canon).
1. The Overgrown Slacker
Over the years, the slacker genre has involved variants from the clueless mayhem of Cheech and Chong, to the Zen façade of Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski, to the somewhat nebbishy broetry of Seth Rogen and company. These past few years have indeed seen female characters undertake the usual heavy indulgence and cavalier glee of the Belushis, Murrays, and Rogens of yore. Last year, Jenny Slate took on the archetype in Gillian Robespierre’s stellar comedy Obvious Child. More recently, Amy Schumer carried the torch as the star and writer of Trainwreck. As for the future? The rightful heirs to this throne are no doubt Broad City stars Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson.
2. The Awkward Intellectual
Not only have geeks taken charge of the movie industry’s most cherished demographic, but neurotic beta males have accrued a new candidacy for peak comic, and often romantic, heroism. Kingpins of the variety are Michael Cera and Jesse Eisenberg, though we’ve seen plenty of other actors, including Clark Duke and Anton Yelchin, vie for this shtick. Like Cera, some of our finest sources of comic neurotica have spawned from the Judd Apatow pool: Knocked Up and This Is 40 star Charlyne Yi, who can handle an awkward verbal tussle like nobody’s business, and Girls star Zosia Mamet, practically the patron saint of high-strung self-decimation. Either one could play the zany A type against a calm and collected romantic foil in the Bananas reversal this generation craves.
3. The Strong, Silent Action Hero
Here’s one concept that studios seem unwilling to grasp: There is a big difference between a strong female character and a physically strong female character. The fact alone that a woman is handy with her fists or skilled with a weapon isn’t enough to label her a feminist figure. That said, you don’t need an overload of dialogue or exposition to flesh out a character properly. Some of the best franchise headliners—such as John McClane, Indiana Jones, or Max Rockatansky—can sell a whole story without saying more than a few words at a time.
Mention of the titular Mad Max hero leads directly to a reminder of this year’s best action star: Charlize Theron, as Fury Road’s Imperator Furiosa. While she stole the show (and the wealth of the post-film conversation) from her screen partner Tom Hardy, another well-rounded, duly badass action heroine is something the world is truly wanting for. When will Zoe Saldana and Katee Sackhoff get big screen projects worthy of their moxie? We’re long in waiting for someone to inherit the Ripley crown.
4. The Theatrical Villain
While the Wicked Witch of the West can be credited with kicking off this trend, it’s quite a rarity to see a heightened thriller or action-packed blockbuster leave its villainy in the hands of a lady. For a task that demands that delicate balance of the ostentatious and the intense, the mind immediately travels to one name: Tilda Swinton. Could there be a better choice for an old school movie bad guy, armed with superhuman powers or some harebrained world-domination plot?
5. The Amblin Adventurer
Young girls have always known a place in Amblin adventure films — Drew Barrymore in E.T. The Extraterrestrial, Kerri Green and Martha Plimpton in The Goonies — as well as in Amblin throwbacks—Elle Fanning in Super 8, Ella Wahlestedt in Earth to Echo. But said adventures are most often led by boys, with latter day (and grimmer) endeavors like Mud and this month’s Cop Car proving no exception. Ranking elite among Hollywood’s 15-and-under crowd is Mad Men star Kiernan Shipka. While she’s no doubt destined for darker fare than the whimsical adventures of Steven Spielberg’s 1980s cloth, Shipka could do quite well leading a ragtag team of young ladies — Quvenzhane Wallis and the We Are the Best! girls in tow — on some otherworldly quest.
6. The Bumbling Detective
Perhaps my favorite character model in cinematic history is the private eye undone by his own broken heart, reliance on the bottle, haunted past, corroded surroundings, or any other incarnation of psychological demons. Humphrey Bogart, Peter Falk, Elliot Gould, Bob Hoskins, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jason Schwartzman, Joaquin Phoenix, and every actor to portray Sherlock Holmes have all handled the magnifying glass with aplomb. But today, we’re in dire need of a big screen Jessica Fletcher.
The best thing about the archetype is how permitting it is to varied interpretation. Drawing from the well of the stony Sam Spade, we’d yield today the likewise stoic and sharp Tessa Thompson. On the other end of the spectrum is the variety of Doc Sportello, boneheaded hero of last year’s wonderful Inherent Vice, whom we might replace with Greta Gerwig: the right combination of pluck and zaniness, and a balance of self-consciousness and self-unawareness that makes for wonderful screen magic.
Images: Overture Films; Universal Pictures; Columbia Pictures; 20th Century Fox; Disney; Warner Bros (2)