Emma Watson and Daisy Ridley starred in films that topped the box office in the UK and North America, while Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman took third place in the US and Canada.
By any measure, 2017 was a tumultuous year for women in Hollywood. The allegations against Harvey Weinstein, one of the most powerful producers in the world, sparked an avalanche of sexual misconduct claims against many other prominent men. The stories of sexual assault, discrimination and harassment were dark, but the ongoing fightback – as women working both behind and in front of the camera found the courage to speak out about abuse – has brought in the light.
It seems fitting, then, that the three most popular films of 2017 in North America all starred female actors in lead roles. Star Wars: The Last Jedi, starring Daisy Ridley as Rey, took the top spot, with Disney’s live-action Beauty and the Beast (featuring Emma Watson as Belle) coming in at second place. The Gal Gadot-fronted Wonder Woman was the third-highest grossing film in the US and Canada.
In the UK, Beauty and the Beast and The Last Jedi were the first and third most popular films of the year respectively (the extremely man-heavy Dunkirk came second). Wonder Women did less well in the UK than it did in North America, coming in at 19th place.
The Guardian reports that the top three films in the US and Canada have not been led by female actors for almost 60 years. The last time it happened was in 1958, when South Pacific, Auntie Mame and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof were the highest-grossing films.
The news comes as hundreds of women in Hollywood including Shonda Rhimes, America Ferrera and Reese Witherspoon announced their plans to deal with sexual harassment in the film industry and beyond.
The Last Jedi, Beauty and the Beast and Wonder Woman all prompted discussions about the portrayal of women on screen. The latest instalment in the Star Wars franchise has been widely praised for its well-rounded female characters, with the New Statesman describing it as “the first properly feminist Star Wars” and The Washington Post applauding the film’s “top-line women leaders”.
Beauty and the Beast was less unanimously well-received by critics than The Last Jedi (it has a positive score of 71% on review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, compared to The Last Jedi’s 91%). However, the fairytale adaptation also carried an overtly feminist sheen, thanks largely to Watson’s behind-the-scenes efforts.
Speaking in 2017, Watson described how she had pushed Disney to portray Belle as an empowered, active and relatable heroine – a drive that included changing Belle’s wardrobe. The actor insisted that her character “wore proper boots”, “had big pockets so that she could carry around her books”, and wore trousers when riding “so that she could get on and off a horse in a way that wasn’t ridiculous”.
She also refused to change her body shape for the role, requested that Belle’s iconic yellow dress not be corseted, and demanded that Belle be given a proper backstory and concrete ambition (something the character lacked in the 1991 Beauty and the Beast).
“In the animated movie, it’s her father who is the inventor, and we actually co-opted that for Belle,” she said in 2016.
“We created a backstory for her, which was that she had invented a kind of washing machine, so that, instead of doing laundry, she could sit and use that time to read instead… We made Belle an inventor.”
Wonder Woman, meanwhile, smashed box office records to become the highest-grossing superhero origin film of all time, and was also the world’s most successful live-action film ever directed by a woman (Patty Jenkins). The tale of a female superhero raised by a mythical race of warrior women (on a man-free island, no less) struck a chord with audiences around the world and made a global star of Gadot.
After the release of Wonder Woman, Gadot revealed that she had had a very clear idea of how the film should push its feminist message.
“It was important to me that my character would never come and preach about how men should treat women – or how women should perceive themselves,” she said.
Instead, she used the fact that Wonder Woman (aka Diana) was raised away from patriarchal society to highlight the ridiculousness of oppressive social norms. Diana simply does what all the men do, because she has never been taught that she shouldn’t.
“It was more about playing oblivious to society’s rules,” said Gadot. “It’s just reminding everyone how things should be.”
Here’s to another year of seeing vibrant, believable and nuanced female characters on screen – and to the continuing empowerment of women working in the film industry and beyond.
Images: Rex Features