Spielberg v. Banks — A Debate on Casting

On Tuesday, June 13, Elizabeth Banks ignited a firestorm of controversy when she called out Steven Spielberg in an award acceptance speech: “I went to Indiana Jones and Jaws and every movie Steven Spielberg ever made, and by the way, he’s never made a movie with a female lead. Sorry, Steven. I don’t mean to call your ass out but it’s true.”

Is she right? Is she wrong? Representing Team Spielberg, Kelly Adams will bring her vast knowledge of Steven’s work. And representing Team Banks, Andy Wilson will clutch his DVDs of Pitch Perfect and those episodes of Scrubs while re-watching Power Rangers.


Kelly: Elizabeth Banks shouldn’t be saying things about Steven Spielberg when she isn’t even aware he directed The Color Purple. She needs to go sit in the corner with Shia Labeouf.

Andy: Shia Lebeouf!!! You’re killing me!!! Love it!!

I think you’re onto something– I mean, let’s be 100% factually accurate here. Spielberg has directed female-led films. Color Purple, Sugarland Express, and later this year we get something I’m truly excited for: The Papers with Meryl Streep as publisher of The Washington Post Katharine Graham. (This movie should just be called “Gimme an Oscar!!”)  And to her credit, faster than you can tweet “Well, actually…” Banks apologized for this misstatement.

But, I gotta say. . .  Spielberg has directed over 30 films in the last four decades. . .  and only three have female protagonists? Banks is technically incorrect, but she isn’t entirely wrong, either.

And while I’m not saying he’s doing this out of misogyny or bias, he’s certainly not making space in his repertoire to tell diverse stories.

That’s fine. Not everyone has to. But if you’re up for the title of Greatest of All Time, you can handle some criticism like this. And I think the fact that he’s making The Papers is an important corner to turn, but also worth noting that this is the first time he’s taking on an adult female protagonist since The Color Purple. . . in 1985  As of 2018, Spielberg will have made as many films with Mark Rylance in a leading role as women.

Kelly: Is it really his responsibility to direct movies with female leads? I think we can all agree that men dominate the box office and the film industry, but as a writer, I fully respect that someone chooses the art they want to produce. And Spielberg is a guy. He’s obviously drawn to stories with male protagonists, drawing heavily upon stories connected to his family and their experiences (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan), his lonely childhood (E.T.) or true-life dramas (Lincoln, Bridge of Spies, Catch Me If You Can.) And a lot of his movies began as books, so someone else decided before Spielberg even got the story that the lead would be male. 

Andy: That’s also a fair point. It’s not like he could gender swap Oskar Schindler or Abraham Lincoln. And when adapting a book like Jurassic Park or Jaws, again, your options are limited. But with great filmmaking power comes great filmmaking responsibility. “Is it really his responsibility to direct movies with female leads?” When you have the gravitas that Spielberg does, it’s at least ok to ask the question. I think it’s ok to challenge our heroes to do better and be better. And while the film industry may be dominated by men, that’s something that needs to change.

The box office is just as much dominated by female leads (Rey, Jynn Erso, Wonder Woman, Katniss Everdeen) these days. As a male writer, I’m incredibly cognizant of female protagonists and their roles in my work. I’m consciously trying to break the cycle of white cis hetero christian male supremacy. With a director like Spielberg who injects a decent amount of social conscience into his work, it’s worth at least bringing up. Banks is coming at this as a fan– she saw all of those same films and said “Why not me?”

Kelly: It’s great she brought the situation to the light, but calling out a veteran film-maker in his 70’s isn’t the way to go about it. He’s not the only one doing it, and it’s not his sole responsibility to fix it. Could he be better about casting women? Of course. Just about anyone in Hollywood could. But at least the women in his films aren’t two-dimensional shrinking violets. Marion Ravenwood is a brilliant character. She’s fearless and intelligent. Ellie Sattler braves Jurassic Park (and won’t discuss sexism in survival situations!).

To dedicate a good year of your life to a film project, you have to have a connection to it. It must resonate emotionally. He picks his projects carefully and pours his heart into them. But to fill a quota or meet a ratio of females leading his films would be a disservice to his creativity. And we would all suffer for it. At the end of the day, he wants to tell a good story, and that’s what I want to see. I don’t love Indiana Jones any less for being a guy. I guess Lara Croft exists for those that do.

We need, instead, to foster a culture embracing more diverse film subjects and directors. To encourage experimentation and then go out and see these films. Because it won’t matter if there aren’t ticket sales. Hollywood is where business and artistry collide, and there must be money made to make art. With Wonder Woman we are seeing a shift. There are more female directors. There are more opportunities. But theater-goers must go see these movies. Cast our vote for diversity and inclusion.


And we’ll leave it there. Thanks to both for a reasoned and respectful, yet passionate argument. What do you, dear readers, think? Let us know in the comments if you’re #TeamSpielberg or #TeamBanks. See you in the theaters.