Australia’s missing screen heroines

03 June, 2015 by Don Groves

Hollywood is over-flowing with screen heroines in action films, dramas and comedies, but where are Australia’s?

Two of our most respected film critics/writers have pondered that question and come up with some intriguing theories.


“Is it that so many scripts draw on cinema past? Nothing wrong with that, all art is built on the back of other art, but this might perhaps limit the way writers think about stories," former ABC Radio National critic Julie Rigg posits in the latest edition of AFTRS' journal Lumina.

"Or it is it that, somehow, writers – male and female – find women’s lives uninteresting? I would have to conclude most are just not looking and listening.” 

Rigg, who now writes on film for ABC Arts Online, opines, "It does start with the writing. I do not believe that only women can write well about women…. but it is worthwhile noting that in Australia there are barely more women writing screenplays than there are directing.”

In the same issue, Sydney Morning Herald reviewer Sandra Hall observes, “Internationally we’ve seen a big boom in female action heroes- thanks to the unstoppable rise of the comic book super hero franchise and the popularity of young adult fiction- but Australian movies have remained pretty well untouched by the trend.

“We’re yet to see the re-appearance of the young heroines from novelist John Marsden’s series Tomorrow When the War Began, a sequel to Stuart Beattie’s film of the book has never materialised.”

Hall blames the dearth of Oz screen heroines partly on young actors such as Margot Robbie, who had a breakthrough role in The Wolf of Wall Street, pursuing international careers.

Of the older generation, Cate Blanchett has appeared in just two local films in the past 10 years (Little Fish and a segment of The Turning). Due for release in October via Universal Pictures, Jocelyn Moorhouse’s The Dressmaker is Judy Davis’ first Australian role since Fred Schepisi’s The Eye of the Storm in 2011.

Hall also points to a shortage of cinematic stories about women making their way in the world, unlike TV drama where there are plenty of female lawyers, doctors and detectives.

Looking at Australian films since the early 1990s, Rigg writes, “I can list on my fingers the women characters in whom I can believe. Sad this, until you realise relatively few films are written with female leads.”

Rigg proffers two suggestions to boost the low participation rates of women feature writers and directors. One is the provision of child care to compensate for the long hours in film making and in pre- and post-production.

The other, more controversial proposal: “Young women seeking to enter the industry need to toughen up. It’s as sexist as any other, and you need to learn how to deal with it assertively. Maybe the many film school courses (so many taught by women who once wanted to write or direct) should take this head on, and give women students some special training. I’d start with learning how to pitch your voice, so that your colleagues listen.”

Her article ends with a plea: “Give me, please, some women with juice. They’re out there, leading complicated messy lives. And never, ever ever write a role for a generic girlfriend. Or a generic prostitute.”