Still from ‘Birds of Prey’ — Image via IMDb

Debunking the Myth of “Get Woke, Go Broke”

No, female-led films are not failing at the box office because of their progressive themes. Not at all.

Another female led film underperforming, another relentless barrage of white men on social media decrying “woke” cinema. “Get woke, go broke,” they say. Good lord, I can’t believe I have to say this, but what a stupid f**king statement. For one thing, the use of the word “woke” should be reserved for twelve year olds, not fat white men with neckbeards living in basements (although they seem to have the same mental capacity). For another, there are plenty of reasons that certain female-led films have flopped at the box office, and their progressive themes are certainly not among them. Let’s take a look at the past few years and the films that have inspired this moronic phrase.

First of all, “woke” cinema has actually been making bank at the box office recently. People of color such as Jordan Peele (Us, Get Out), Ryan Coogler (Creed, Black Panther), and Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok, Jojo Rabbit) all have all made critically and commercially successful films that also explore their cultures and perspectives. Patty Jenkins (Wonder Woman), Anna Boden (co-director of Captain Marvel), and Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird, Little Women) have all made successful films with a decidedly female POV. It stands to reason that for every box office failure like The Kitchen or Charlie’s Angels, there’s a success like Hustlers or Birds of Prey.

‘Birds of Prey’ Poster featuring the clever but baffling title — Image via IMDb

Yes, Birds of Prey is a success, maybe not a runaway success on par with other DCEU openings, but a success nonetheless. Given comparisons to films with similar budgets and openings (Ford v Ferrari, Kingsman: The Secret Service), Cathy Yan and Margot Robbie’s film is actually on par to at least make its money back with a little extra. Hell, it’s already made its budget back in worldwide gross. While it may have came in under studio expectations, it’s far from the box office bomb that Twitter has labeled it.

However, if you want to talk about why Birds of Prey fell below expectations, look no further than the title, the rating, and its predecessor. The clever but lengthy full title — Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) — fits the film rather well, but is an unmarketable disaster. The Birds of Prey are not a superhero team well known to the general public, and the film’s main character, Harley Quinn, isn’t actually a member of the team. General audiences saw the title and didn’t know what the hell the movie was about, thus failed to show up.

Furthermore, Birds of Prey is a spin-off for the poorly received Suicide Squad. Most people older than thirteen didn’t care for the film (seriously, that movie was a hit with preteens), and the kids that loved it and would watch a Harley Quinn film couldn’t because of the R-rating. Apparently, the poor taste of Suicide Squad hadn’t left the collective mouths of the general public, resulting in a poor showing at the box office.

This isn’t to say that the title and the rating aren’t wonderful. The lengthy title is as clever and cheeky as the film itself, and the rating allows Robbie to go unhinged in her performance. It wouldn’t be the same film without those two factors, and I would bet that the R-rating is part of the reason the film is such a hit with those who have seen it. But in no way is the film’s feminist attitude the reason for its box office woes.

Still from ‘Charlie’s Angels (2019)’ — Image via IMDb

This can also be said for Charlie’s Angels (2019), which angered a lot of men by simply existing and daring to say that women could be action heroes too. Of course, the neckbeards that stayed in their basements didn’t damage the film as much as a lackluster marketing campaign and the fact that it was a reboot to a franchise for which no one was chomping at the bit. Terminator: Dark Fate? I mean, after three awful sequels, did the general public really want to run the risk of getting burned again? The critical response to both of these films wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t positive enough to convince people to buy a ticket.

If we look at one of the biggest bombs of 2019, The Kitchen, we can largely blame the fact that Warner Bros. has done some awful marketing recently, resulting in Doctor Sleep, The Goldfinch, and other films from the studio all bombing hard. The poor reviews didn’t help Andrea Berloff’s female-led mob film either, but did it do poorly because it had three female leads in a typically male-driven genre? Nope. If anything, that was its biggest selling point.

If female-directed films with female leads and strong feminist themes automatically amount to box office failure, then explain to me Hustlers. Explain to me Wonder Woman. Explain to me Captain Marvel. If anything, good films that have served under-represented demographics have been thriving. Crazy Rich Asians. Black Panther. Get Out. This idea that progressive films are box office poison is not only racist and/or sexist, but also undeniably false. Poorly marketed films in franchises that have run their course will continue to underperform or bomb at the box office, not because of the genders or races involved, but because audiences just aren’t going to the movies as much anymore.

And that’s the truth. With the rise of streaming and VOD, the general public is less likely to take chances on films. People aren’t going to the theater on a whim to “see what they have.” The majority of the movie-going public now waits for streaming to see most releases, if they see them at all. Maybe this means that Hollywood needs to downsize the budgets on these tentpole and franchise films. Maybe this means that streaming services have the right idea. What this doesn’t mean — for anyone who needs to hear it — is that progressive themes can kill a film. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest otherwise.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Sam Lenz

Sam Lenz

A film critic with a taste for genre fare, living in Sioux Falls, SD. If you love movies, we’ll get along just fine.