A female Robin isn’t just awesome—it might save Hollywood

When the casting was announced, it ignited a potential backlash the likes of which was rarely seen: travesty that a woman should be cast in a traditionally male role. I speak, of course, of Lucy Liu in Elementary, the CBS show that has become an unexpected smash hit with Liu’s female Watson to Jonny Lee Miller’s Holmes—the venerable A.V. Club even argued it’s better than rival Sherlock.

Now, the genderflip strikes again, this time with the rumored casting of Jena Malone in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. There’s no reason not to genderflip traditionally male roles, and, in fact, there’s a strong argument for it: Female-driven film and television is doing better than ever before, and women are making up roughly 50 percent of ticket buyers, so they have a bigger say in what breaks box office records than ever before. 

One might expect 85 percent of ticket buyers in the opening weekend of Sex and the City to be women, given notions about “women’s media,” but 40 percent of Avengers tickets were bought by women. Meanwhile, female-driven hits like Maleficent, Gone Girl, The Other Woman, Frozen, Gravity, Brave, and Lucy made it big at the box office, many overperforming while their male-driven counterparts underwhelmed. Maleficent, Divergent, Lucy, The Fault in Our Stars, Gone Girl, The Other Woman, and Annabelle are all in the top 50 grossing films of 2014.

The time for women in film and television, in other words, is the 2010s. So it makes sense to rebalance the sausagefest of traditional superhero films by bringing on more female leads, and by flipping canon. In this case, by turning Batman’s historic sidekick, Robin, into a woman, and hopefully giving her more of an active role in the drama along the way. If the creators were hoping to keep it a surprise, they were sadly mistaken: An extra couldn’t resist leaking the news.

Responding to the backlash over her casting in 2012, Liu said that:

Everyone seems really excited about it, I think. It is shocking—not for me because I like things to be turned on their head—but for some people, it’s sort of like making 007 a woman, you know what I mean? They’re like, ‘Wait a minute … this is what it’s supposed to be. Ham and cheese is ham and cheese—you don’t suddenly make it gruyere.’ Then they taste it and they like it. Brie, swiss, cheddar… People hate change, but suddenly it’ll become normal.

Liu sharply and intelligently noted that when working with an old, male-dominated franchise, sometimes it’s necessary to shake up the dynamic to make it feel fresh and interesting to viewers, and to draw in new audiences. While the hunger for Sherlock Holmes is still burning strong, bringing on a new angle in the form of a female Watson changed the stakes radically, and created a new dynamic between the two characters. Despite the complaints of stuffy culture critics, Lucy Liu’s Watson has been generating positive reviews and a dedicated fandom, and the show is popular enough that CBS inked an unprecedented syndication deal for it earlier this year.

The same transformational process is likely to take place with a female Robin, who won’t just draw in female viewers: She’ll upend the mythology of traditional canon. After all, if Barbara Gordon’s paralysis can be reversed, Robin can be a woman. If the success of Elementary is any indicator, it could drive box office for the superhero blockbuster up even further than expected by taking advantage of the percentage of the moviegoing audience that might otherwise tune out or turn to something more appealing—like a movie with actual female characters.

As demonstrated by their success at the box office, films with women in them, including those with women at the helm behind the camera, are not just “for women.” This reflects a key shift in the way we approach film on a social level, creating an environment in which the movies we watch are changing dramatically.

While the world of books may lag behind, with women relegated to romance and other niche dramas while men dominate literary fiction, in Hollywood, studios are paying attention to what sells, and what doesn’t. In 2013, films meeting the Bechdel test, a simplistic but useful measure for assessing woman-friendliness (must include two women characters who talk to each other about something other than a man) brought it home at the box office, setting up for an already strong 2014.

Furthermore, Inkoo Kang noted, they didn’t just do well at the box office: They beat out films with male leads. Times are changing and in an industry where bottom line typically rules out over social ideals, women happen to be riding the cusp of change. As Liu predicted, audiences are getting used to seeing women in leading roles, and moreover, they’re paying more for it.

Don’t just trust Kang. Walt Hickey at FiveThirtyEightLife took an exhaustive look at the numbers on women in Hollywood and came to the same conclusion: Female-driven films do better at the box office, as do those with prominent female cast members. Bluntly, adding ladies to the mix is a better return on investment:

The total median gross return on investment for a film that passed the Bechdel test was $2.68 for each dollar spent. The total median gross return on investment for films that failed was only $2.45 for each dollar spent. And while this might be a side effect of films with lower budgets tending to have higher returns on investment than films with higher budgets, it’s still a strong indicator that films with women in somewhat prominent roles are performing well.

While Hollywood might not care about social progressivism, it does care about cold, hard cash. That makes the decision to cast a female Robin not just one of social innovation and daring: It’s basic common sense for an industry fueled by massive box office. Integrating more women into screenplays and film results in higher profits, especially when paired with lower budgets (although the sexism reflected in lower budgets for female-driven films is frustrating).

With a growing number of female stars anchoring their own films and bringing in significant box office numbers, studios have more and more incentives to increase the representation of women in film The Internet, which has become a driving force behind the success of film and television, is also playing a prominent and increasingly vocal role in Hollywood culture. Thanks to instant feedback on casting leaks, individual television episodes, and films, studios have fewer excuses to keep benching women, and more reasons to bring them into the game. 

Women play an extremely active role in film and television criticism, the production of fanworks that attract new fans, and the promotion of favorite works. Smart studios are moving to take advantage of this, while those that lag behind are doomed to start paying the price. 

Photo via Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY S.A.-2.0)

S.E. Smith

S.E. Smith

s.e. smith is a Northern California-based journalist and writer focusing on social justice issues. smith's work has appeared in publications like Esquire, the Guardian, Rolling Stone, In These Times, Bitch Magazine, and Pacific Standard.