Hollywood still struggles with finding the perfect fit for summer's leading ladies

Although summer proper is only about a month old, the 2012 Hollywood summer season essentially ends today. With "The Dark Knight Rises" -- the final and almost certain biggest-earning tentpole title of the year -- the major studios have exhausted their supply of A-list fare. Although there will likely be a few pleasant surprises, mostly everything coming out between July 27 and Aug. 31 will be lackluster also-rans.

With all but "The Dark Knight Rises" in the rearview mirror, it's probably a safe time to play Monday morning quarterback with at least one facet of the summer roster.

You can go back as far as you want; the women's liberation movement of the '60s, the DAR voter rights issue of the early 20th century or even Adam and Eve if you wish. No matter what political or religious slant or perception of history you might subscribe to, you have to come to a single certain conclusion: women have always been on the short end of the stick and summer 2012 is no different.

There's a huge catch-22 with the movie industry regarding women. For the most part, you can't make a feature without including a significant female character, but for the entirety of the history of movies, filmmakers -- whether from pressure applied by studios or because of their own personal convictions -- have regulated them to secondary supportive roles.

Even when a female character has the lead role, she must also have the support, input or validating approval of a male character (usually her intellectual inferior). This mindset was somewhat dismantled with the two excellent, serious-minded, non-psycho/stalker, '90s-era films "Thelma & Louise" and "The Joy Luck Club" but has rarely been broached with any regularity since.

Like the two guys currently running for president of the United States, Hollywood has maybe not finally, but at least somewhat conceded that women who vote and buy movie tickets and make the majority of financial decisions play a large part in the success or failure of their respective enterprises. The summer 2012 roster of movies makes a strong argument that Hollywood is paying attention, but is it in a good or bad way and are they just merely pandering?

Let's start with the most obvious seasonal genre: action/adventures. Long the industry's bread-and-butter rainmaker, the roughly 80-day stretch between May and mid-July represents about 80 percent of the entire yearly take. This year it started a tad early with "The Hunger Games" which gave us Katniss, a dystopian teen female who, although wildly proficient with a bow and arrow, only achieved a wider audience (both in the movie and offscreen) because she looked great in a tight-fitting evening dress on reality TV.

The archery theme continued with "Brave," an animated Pixar production that did quite well while also painting men as clueless goofs, dimwits or nimrods. In between those releases was "The Avengers" which included a strong female character (Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts), who was not a superhero and existed solely to offer moral support to Iron Man while sporting short-short daisy dukes. In the same film we had Scarlett Johansson showing up in latex and while her character took no guff and actually butted heads with Eastern European Mafiosi, she was still not given much to do other than to play into multiple fetish fantasies.

Based only on the trailers, Anne Hathaway seems to outdo Johansson in almost every way in "The Dark Knight Rises" where she co-stars as the umpteenth version of Catwoman. A perennial fantasy object since the heyday of the camp '60s TV series, Catwoman has always been depicted as an angry sex-kitten with dominatrix undertones that will fight tooth and nail but also eventually succumbs to the charms of a schizophrenic and equally mentally unstable leading man.

The early word from a few who have already seen it indicates that Hathaway's Catwoman is a Robin Hood, "redistribution of wealth" type of character who is her own woman and whose relationship to Batman/Bruce Wayne is less confrontational/romantic and something more along the lines of respect and professional admiration. That would be a huge welcome change.

In "Dark Shadows," the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp vehicle that essentially tanked at the box office, there were five principal female characters that all made strong impressions, four of them in a mostly negative way. It was only Michelle Pfeiffer (who played Catwoman in another "Batman" film) as a middle-aged woman that was written "normal" (read: proper and staid).

In the art-house category -- one that has generally been mostly favorable to women -- there's more bad news. In "My Sister's Sister," two half-siblings (one of whom is a lesbian) almost come to blows over a man that neither is actually dating nor attached. In Woody Allen's "To Rome with Love," no less than three women engage in willful adultery and are painted as opportunistic tarts while their male counterparts are portrayed as dim, slightly-duped co-conspirators.

It's probably going to take most mainstream filmmakers and studios executives a long, long time to fully embrace female characters as standalone, non-dependent leads in non-subservient ways, especially in summer action flicks. Shifting social expectations, even in the most subliminal manner, will be a tough road to hoe.

If you're looking for a bright light (or even a faint one) at the other end of this shortsighted tunnel, you need search no further than "Beasts of the Southern Wild." In it you have a 6-year-old female lead character who stands toe-to-toe with her male counterpart (her father) and at once shows unwavering respect for him while never giving up her own ideals. Her name is Hush Puppy and she is a cinematic female role model for the ages. In this overblown, largely vacuous season of female faux-empowerment, she is the only one fully worthy of your (or your daughters') attention, time, money and respect.