Teenage boys and the tyranny of film

Of all the stupid, ridiculous, mindless films I've ever seen (and, yes, I did catch Hannibal, and Swept Away, and Dumb and Dumberer), the first X-Men movie would without doubt make the top of my top ten. To say that I found it a bit forgettable is like saying I find that "punk rocker" song quite annoying: a definite understatement. The fact is, all I can recall from those two lost hours is a huge pair of mutton-chop sideburns marauding across the screen.

Anyhow, it turns out that the character beneath the facial hair is rather more popular with the general public than he was with me. In a slightly different top ten - this time of the most powerful fictional characters in Hollywood, as chosen by the US magazine Entertainment Weekly - the X-Men character Wolverine came in at first place.

He is expected to get his own spin-off movie, which may spawn sequels. Yowzers! A product placement deal with Gillette seems unlikely.

Wolverine is followed on the list by Harry Potter, Spider-Man, Shrek, Robert Langdon (from The Da Vinci Code) and four other male characters. At number ten comes the only female role, Madea, an African-American "trash-talking senior citizen" who is highly popular with evangelical Christian audiences. Madea is, crucially, played by Tyler Perry: a man in drag.

So then, no actresses to speak of. It would be tempting, of course, to accuse Entertainment Weekly of sexism but, given the apparent parameters of this list (characters from ongoing franchises that bring in bumper box-office receipts), that is not necessarily fair. It does raise the question, however: why are there so few blockbusting female characters?

This is especially strange when you consi- der that two of the biggest-grossing films of all time remain Gone With the Wind and Titanic, both of them ostensibly "women's films".

Made almost 60 years apart, they show that there has always been a market for more emotional, female-led epics: in fact, the biggest market of all. And yet, weirdly, film producers don't seem to be chasing it.

The key target audience for films is still always described as teenage boys. Agewise, I can understand this: barred from pubs and clubs, teenagers have few legal entertainment options and are therefore always likely to be fairly en-thusiastic cinema-goers, while the rest of us are out getting bladdered. This applies to teenage girls just as much as boys, though. So why the gender distinction?

The answer seems to be that age-old truth: that while girls are happy to read or watch stories with either a male or a female protagonist, boys tend towards "male" stories and characters. And so, on a date, or in a mixed group, it tends to be the boy's choice that wins out. If there's a toss-up between your average female-led film and your average male-led pic, a boy's abject refusal to go to the former will set the tills ringing for the latter.

A "women's" film usually has to be extraordinarily epic if it's to buck this trend, and epic involves money and risk - both in intimidating quantities. (Remember Pearl Harbor? You don't? Exactly . . .)

It seems likely the only way this will change is if boys and girls are acculturated differently from birth. You gotta get 'em young.

Recent research found that the 101 top-grossing G-rated films (the American equivalent of our British "U" rating) released between 1990 and 2005 featured, on average, three male characters for every female character.

In addition, only 28 per cent of the speaking parts in these films were female and, in crowd scenes, women and girls represented only 17 per cent of the people on screen.

This research was commissioned by an organisation called See Jane, set up by the actress Geena Davis when she became aware of the gender disparity in the films that her young daughter was watching.

From a very early age, Davis realised that the female perspective is, at best, an adjunct to the male one. (The writer Katha Pollitt memorably dubbed this "the Smurfette Principle".)

See Jane is apparently dedicated to "working with writers and producers, directors and actors, animators and sponsors to encourage projects that more accurately reflect the real world our kids live in - a world shared by boys and girls".

This is extremely worthy. The trouble is that, in Hollywood, the bottom line rules, and if films featuring males sell, then it is films featuring males that the producers will continue to make.

Not that all is lost. Aside from Davis's project, there are other, rather less admirable but possi-bly more influential, forces at work that may change the film world: namely, video games. Their influence became obvious last summer when a string of ultra-macho films - Cinderella Man, Stealth and Doom - all assumed to be sure-fire hits pre-release, crashed and burned. Where were all the boys? Apparently at home playing Halo.

Box-office receipts are unlikely to be so bad this year, but the effect has been noted. As the top producer Lynda Obst has said, the film industry "has to kill our singular addiction to teenage boys".

With boys ensconced in their bedrooms, battling bad guys, perhaps girls will finally get a look-in at the multiplexes.

Kira Cochrane is women's editor of the Guardian