On Wednesday, The Force Awakens passed Avatar as the highest grossing movie in the North American box office, just twenty days after its release.
For comparison, Avatar set its record of $760.5 million after being in theaters for seven months and then later re-released. And Star Wars is probably going to take a whole lot more money before it’s done.
Obviously, The Force Awakens set this record because it’s a Star Wars movie. An excellent Star Wars movie, after a very long break. First people didn’t expect it to ever exist, then people didn’t expect it to ever be good, and now Star Wars fever has taken over, and most people are seeing it at least twice.
But that doesn’t change the fact that this is a Star Wars movie with a female protagonist. An awesome female protagonist. And a lead trio of one white girl, a black guy, and a Hispanic guy. And a low-key brewing interracial romance between that girl and the black guy (or between the two guys, depending on who you ask).
Since we don’t have access to alternate universes, it’s impossible to say for certain whether these factors helped it to make more money, if it made no difference, or if, as conventional Hollywood wisdom would suggest, it made less money as a result. But Disney distribution president Dave Hollis did attribute the speed of its earnings to “the audience broadening out” and “extraordinary repeat business.” Exit surveys showed that audiences shifted from 68% male on the opening weekend to 62% the following weekend, suggesting either that a lot more women decided to see it after waiting and hearing good things about it, or that significantly more women than men are returning for repeat viewings. Or both. And although we can’t know why that’s the case, the presence of a great female character like Rey seems like a good guess.
The same surveys suggest that the audience has also grown more diverse, changing from 63% Caucasian, 12% Hispanic and 10% African American on the first weekend to 57% Caucasian, 15% Hispanic and 11% African American the following week, a shift that might again be due to its more diverse cast.
It should be noted that these viewing figures still skew more male and more white than the average, at least as it was in 2014, possibly because of the way Star Wars is perceived and has been advertised in the past. But Disney designed a lot of their marketing to appeal to female viewers and to families, on the assumption that they were a valuable untapped audience, and that male viewers would come either way. And although it hasn’t created a 50/50 split, the marketing efforts seem to have worked.
There’s no doubt that female viewers will attend genre movies. Looking at the figures from 2014 again, women made up 41% of the audience for Guardians of the Galaxy, 42% of the audience for The Winter Soldier, and 57% of the audience for Mockingjay — interestingly, a number that rises in relation to the importance of the main female character in the story. The Mockingjay figures may suggest that guys see a female protagonist and think the movie isn’t for them, but if that’s the case, movies like The Force Awakens can only help to break that unconscious bias — after all, it was about Rey, and it was still enjoyable for everybody, wasn’t it?
Of course, not all “fans” would agree. In possibly the most hilarious news ever, an MRA group declared their boycott of The Force Awakens for being “SJW propaganda” a success, calculating (through rather faulty math, but let’s just go with it) that they denied the movie $4.2 million in box office revenue. I’m sure Disney is off crying in a corner.
So, despite this (kind of hilarious) organized effort to boycott it, The Force Awakens still became the biggest box office hit of all time in the US, in just twenty days, and continues to steamroll on to greater heights. And it did so with a diverse cast, with a woman at the center, because more diverse people are seeing it, and people are seeing it again and again and again.
Of course, this’ll all be quickly forgotten. If toy sets and Monopoly games are managing to leave Rey out now, when she’s the protagonist of a movie that’s still in theaters, then I have no doubt that she’ll be forgotten later too. That this will be dismissed as a fluke, because it’s Star Wars, because no other female-led genre movie have EVER been successful, because women don’t really like sci-fi and fantasy, because because because.
But still. It’s pretty cool. And it adds even more arsenal to the argument that, yes, actually, movies can have non-straight white male protagonists and still have mass appeal.
Over $760 million of appeal, in fact.