My latest Girls on Film column, "We Have to Stop Forgetting," has been making the rounds, and inspired Film School Rejects' Cole Abaius to write a response called "What do Women Want (From a Film)?" The following is my attempt to answer that, responding to the points he and his commenters brought up, and trying to shove a book's worth of material into the following post:

What do women want? It's certainly not the male chauvinist mind invasions from the 2000 Mel Gibson/Helen Hunt film. It's not something that can be boiled down to any single, concrete thing -- that's just not the nature of existence, especially when we're talking about billions of people. But that elusive and hard-to-peg "what women want" desire is also not some alien construct men will never understand. It's just not a one-word answer.

At the base of the issue, we must be willing to recognize the divide between sex, gender, and experience. Most people define themselves neatly with the "man" or "woman" label, but that's not an absolute, and even within those basic definitions a vast and varied world of experience exists. But even more importantly -- it's not all based in estrogen and testosterone. As much as many men act a certain way and many women act in a totally different way, this is not some inherent part of our DNA. It's not as simple as men being encoded to love violence and shun intimacy, and women being encoded to love romance and male saviors. These are experiences, social constructs that latch onto hormonal and physical differences and cling for dear life.


If a girl's only showered in pink lace, unicorns, and fairy tales, and doesn't rebel against those surroundings, chances are she'll be the quintessential romantic. If a girl plays with Barbies and toy cars, chances are she'll enjoy a wide variety of themes. It's not all sex-specific. It's learned behavior stemming mostly from the gendered stereotypes already in place. So, while this is a whole other story, we must remember that changing a girl and boy's young experiences will also help shape their moviegoing and gendered attitudes later. It's not a "girl" thing, or a "guy" thing -- it's an experience thing. The fact that I loved the Hulk as a kid, and watched Van Damme flicks, is probably why I dig a good cult film and action movie today. Doesn't make me an alien. Just makes me lucky.

And now that we recognize the large differences between sex, gender, and experience, how do we answer the big question? In his post, Cole wrote:
It's one thing to call out for better filmmaking, to call out for audiences to demand more of what they want, to call out for female movie fans to force studios to create more vivid female characters, but it's quite another to define what that means. What's a movie that women love that features a strong female lead or strong female characters? What does a movie aimed at serving women's needs look like? Is it all that different from something an intelligent, male moviegoer would enjoy?

... Basically, I see that there's a problem -- a dearth of smart films with strong female characters -- but not only do I not know the solution, I don't even know what that solution looks like.

And I wonder if anyone does.

The quick answer is that there is no answer because "women" aren't a force of solidarity. There are differing experiences, and also differing rationales. We all have motives -- die-hard fans, the youthfully ignorant, those that see crap for its cheese factor, groups that simply didn't give the matter thought, those that forgive the crap for whatever reason... There are many different M&M's in this barrel.

We need to stop thinking in binaries. When Abaius wrote his post, commenters took strength to mean The Bride and Ripley, not realizing that "strong" also means strength of the characterization, ties to reality, relatability, mind, personality, well-roundedness, and determination. One even stated: "Honestly. I am not the right kind of woman to answer this question. All I want are epic superhero or shoot 'em up movies." To me, there's no better example of just how flawed our opinions towards women and film are when a smart woman thinks she isn't the appropriate person to discuss the topic because she likes action movies. Hey, so do I, and so do many.

But we still need a real-life answer, that can be understood and implemented. Okay. In all its vague wonder: Women want a mixture of fantasy and reality. It's as simple as that. Each woman wants different ratios, which is what makes things sticky, but just like men, the basics are the same. It's about the desire to relate and to escape -- always those two things, whether it's 60-40, 50-50, 20-80, or 1-99.

Instead, however, most films give us fantasy and cliched reality. Friendships only exist as ways to discuss romantic issues and have terrible emotional fights. Women only work in a small variety of fields and want a small slice of things from life. Trust is a false construct. The Bechdel Rule is crazy talk. ...you get the hint. The bits of a film that embrace reality only pull from a small section of the female experience.

How do we fix it?

The first step is to start sliding better women into films now. If Hollywood wipes out the rampant instances of the klutzy airheads, unreasonable emotional outbursts, man-obsessions, prostitutes, school teachers, baby-obsessed, job-or-nothing one-note women, we can move forward. Make these crappy characterizations, the ones that give male moviegoers a terrible and flawed opinion of women, and teach young girls a narrow view on life, less rampant. It will start changing attitudes in general, and make future movies about strong and intelligent women seem more natural and less alien.

It's so simple, but so powerful, especially when so many cliches and habits are wholly unnecessary and easy to give up: Leslie Mann's obsessive, irrational snooping in Knocked Up, Natalie Keener having a shrieky freak-out in public in Up in the Air, or Uhura stripping for Star Trek. Simply taking out the obligatory strip or shower scene, the long freak outs, and desperate grabs for lust or laughs would leave time to follow the Bechdel Rule, and would make the characters all the more relatable, stronger, and engaging without losing anything in the stories. The same applies to rom-coms -- the more lazy cliches you take out, and fill with the littlest bit of humanity, will make a world of difference.

And it's not about perfect women. As one commenter wrote: "It has to be authentic though. I, for one, get tired of seeing supposedly strong female characters who have it all, run the world, in a seamless success." "Strong women" and "strong characters" is not about perfection just as it's not about invalidating the opinions of those who relate to the rom-coms many despise. It's about variety. Up in the Air got rave reviews, and while Natalie Keener really toed the line of cliche, Alex Goran was terribly relatable and inspiring, yet terribly flawed.

As these cliches and insults melt away, Hollywood needs to foster writers and filmmakers who want to give us more, who want female leads who are smart, fun, diverse, and still engaging. It's not impossible. There will always be the "girl" movies that most "guys" don't get, just as there are the "guy" movies that most "girls" don't get. But it's ludicrous to think that women can't lead a regular comedy (free of "rom" and "romantic"). Stop talking about boys and sex, start talking about all the other aspects of life, and make it funny like 40-Year-Old Virgin or touching like Before Sunset, and both men and women will be entertained.

If Hollywood can put the littlest bit of effort into stopping the insulting cliches and giving more true-to-life variety, and audiences start to see that there's a whole other world out there, filmmakers and studios need to leave the embarrassing cliche to Garry Marshall and Katherine Fugate, and realize that awesome cinematic women are something everyone wants, and can be some of the most entertaining, beloved, and memorable parts of cinema.

Don't agree? Tell that to Ellie and fans of Up.

I will probably talk more about this at some point on Girls on Film since it's such a heavy and complex issue for one article. But at least this is a start. Share your thoughts and ideas for change in the comments below.