Should Steven Spielberg Have Cast More Female Leads?

Spielberg ET kiss

Recently, Elizabeth Banks, actress and director of such films as Pitch Perfect 2, criticized Steven Spielberg (and Martin Scorsese) for not casting women as the leads in their films during their decades-long careers. Whether or not you agree with her assessment, today we’re going to use science to break down each of Mr. Spielberg’s films and see if casting a female lead would have even been feasible (with a YES if one or more of the leads could have had their gender switched, and a NO if that just wouldn’t have worked). I’m not here to defend or pile on, I just want to look at this analytically and critically out of curiosity of an interesting subject that was brought up:

The Sugarland Express (1974)
Goldie Hawn is the lead in this.
Verdict: N/A

Jaws (1975)
I can’t really see a female Quint. Brody could have possibly been female, as could Hooper, but they all take a hell of a beating during the movie.
Verdict: YES

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
There’s no real reason Roy couldn’t have been female, although Melinda Dillon and Teri Garr are both very strong co-starring women in this, so I don’t think the gender issue is that major. But it may have been harder to accept a mother abandoning her children at the end to go space truckin’ like Roy does.
Verdict: YES

1941 (1979)
Being that this is set during World War II, casting women in the lead military roles wouldn’t have been that reasonable.
Verdict: NO

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981); Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984); Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Indy spends 70% of this trilogy getting tortured. It would have been very tough to see a women go through getting repeatedly punch by Nazis, but that doesn’t mean a woman couldn’t have pulled it off, it’s just difficult to imagine it working as well, especially since the movies and Harrison Ford as Indy are so iconic. But it would be awesome to see a woman in an Indiana Jones-type role today. Maybe Alicia Vikander will bring it in the new Tomb Raider.
Verdict: YES-ish

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
E.T. is asexual, as far as I can tell. E.T. is also voiced by a woman, so there’s that. But there isn’t really any reason that the genders of all the children couldn’t have been switched.
Verdict: YES

The Color Purple (1985)
Whoopi Goldberg is the unquestioned lead in this.
Verdict: N/A

Empire of the Sun (1987)
Another WWII movie where male leads make sense, although Christian Bale’s role could have been played by a girl.
Verdict: YES

Always (1989)
This is a remake of a film called A Guy Named Joe, which cast a guy named Joe as the lead. But the Richard Dreyfuss and Holly Hunter roles probably could have been swapped, since they were both pilots anyway.
Verdict: YES

Hook (1991)
This is a movie about Peter Pan and Captain Hook, so gender switching wouldn’t have worked. But I most definitely would have been all for the roles of the two kids being reversed if it meant recasting the son with a girl who wasn’t nearly as irritating.
Verdict: NO

Jurassic Park (1993)
All the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park are female (except the handful that switch genders do to their tree frog DNA). But if we’re just talking about humans, I really see Ellie and Alan as co-leads. Although John Hammond could have just as easily been Joan Hammond, and Ian Malcolm could have been Iana Malcolm.
Verdict: YES-ish

Schindler’s List (1993)
Based on the real life story of Oskar Schindler.
Verdict: NO

The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
Malcolm is the lead, but this is a sequel and he was a previously established character. And Sarah Harding is the co-lead. I suppose the bad guys could have been women, but they all die horribly, and we’re just talking about leads here.
Verdict: NO

Amistad (1997)
Female leads definitely would not have worked in this slave ship film.
Verdict: NO

Saving Private Ryan (1998)
See previous World War II entries.
Verdict: NO

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
David could have easily been female. Gigolo Joe as a female is the opposite of what you want, though.
Verdict: YES

Minority Report (2002)
Although it’s an adaptation, Anderton could have been switched to a woman and it wouldn’t have made a huge difference.
Verdict: YES

Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Based on the real life of Frank Abagnale.
Verdict: NO

The Terminal (2004)
Viktor could have been Viktoria, but would anyone have cared?
Verdict: YES

War of the Worlds (2005)
Tom Cruise’s deadbeat dad trying to get his kids to their mom during an alien invasion so he doesn’t have to deal with them could have been a deadbeat mom trying to get her kids to their dad during an alien invasion so she doesn’t have to deal with them but that wouldn’t have been well-received.
Verdict: YES

Munich (2005)
Based on true events.
Verdict: NO

The Adventures of Tintin (2011)
An adaptation of a well-known property, possibly based on true events.
Verdict: NO

War Horse (2011)
An adaptation set in World War I.
Verdict: NO

Lincoln (2012)
Spielberg decided to go the cowardly route here and cast a man as Abraham Lincoln.
Verdict: NO

Bridge of Spies (2015)
Based on true events and the life of Tom Hanks.
Verdict: NO

The BFG (2016)
Ruby Barnhill is the lead in this.
Verdict: N/A


The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara (TBA)
Based on true events.
Verdict: NO

The Papers (2017)
Based on the true events of the first female newspaper publisher, Kay Graham.
Verdict: N/A

Ready Player One (2018)
An adaptation. While the lead role is male a female, Art3mis, is a major role.
Verdict: NO

Untitled Indiana Jones Project (2020)
Obviously starring Harrison Ford, and everything else is unknown. Indy could be training a woman to replace him as far as we know. Not likely, but we’ll just have to see.
Verdict: Incomplete


So breaking down what we’ve learned:
Movies with a female lead: 4
YES movies: 11 (with 2 being borderline)
NO movies: 14

So that’s 18 movies out of 29 where a female was either cast in the lead or casting a female in the lead just wouldn’t have made sense. So while 11 movies are a good amount in which he could have given lead roles to women, I’m not really sure you could call Steven Spielberg out as some misogynistic monster. Save that for Brett Ratner.

UPDATE: Banks has apologized for apparently forgetting about The Color Purple, saying, “When I made the comments, I was thinking of recent films Steven directed…” which, as you’ll see above, all got NOs or N/As since 2005.

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