Oceans 8 and Other Feminist Caper Films

Oceans 8 beats Solo: A Star Wars Story this week, garnering $41.5 million in domestic box office, capturing the number one slot. It scored particularly well with audiences of millennials, especially young women. “Ocean's 8 received a ‘B+’ CinemaScore from opening day audiences with exits showing the audience make up as 69% female and 69% aged 25 years or older,” writes BoxOfficeMojo. “That said, the film played quite well to younger audiences, of which 11% were 18 years or younger, and gave the film an ‘A’ CinemaScore.”

But is Oceans 8 a feminist heist film? This is how it has been described, in various media platforms. Let’s look at 2008’s Mad Money, another pioneer of the genre, directed and written by Callie Khourri and starring Diane Keaton, Queen Latifah, and Katie Holmes. Mad Moneywhich grossed $20.6 million domestically, was most certainly a feminist crime comedy, but it was not very successful. Oceans 8, written by Olivia Milch and Gary Ross, and starring Sandra Bullock and Rihanna, among others, has already doubled the domestic box office of Mad Money. Further, it has thus far avoided the trolls that killed Ghostbusters. “So far, there hasn't been a prominent ‘downvoting’ campaign on Rotten Tomatoes or IMDB to lower the audience score of the film and 4Chan message boards — where many of these causes gain steam — have been mostly indifferent to the title,” Katie Kilkenny for The Hollywood Reporter.

The victory of Oceans 8 is heartening in that it avenges the godawful Ghostbuster remake. That reboot cost about $150 million due to special effects and marketing needs, and ended up losing Sony tens of millions. It was a spectacular failure and a minor setback in the advancement of women leads in Hollywood tent pole productions. It was, we cannot fail to note, also a critical failure. “But if it’s discouraging that some people are so powerfully threatened by minor changes to minor movie franchises, and by four movie roles out of the thousands that are cast every year going to a quartet of very talented women, I’m even more dismayed by the idea that the uproar around ‘Ghostbusters’ has pushed feminists into championing Paul Feig’s remake, an intermittently funny movie that largely wastes a good cast and what ought to have been a much sharper set of concepts,” wrote Alyssa Rosenberg in the Washington Post. The 2016 remake was a particularly sad moment in feminist film history in that alt right trolls had bashed the film online for months before its release and, when it finally came out, it disappeared almost as quickly. Anticlimactic to say the least.

Enter: Oceans 8. Aside from box office success, the feminist caper is getting good online reviews. “Bullock may be Danny Ocean’s sister but she is clearly capable of hatching a plot of her own,” writes Steve Rhodes in The Guardian. “And her team have the skills – forgery, hacking, deception, manipulation – to pull it off. What’s more, their plot is not just about the money; it’s about revenge and the love of the scheme. Oh, and a chance to dress up and go to the Met Gala.” It builds upon Set It Off, another Queen Latifah feminist caper flic that was a moderate success (production budget: $9, domestic total gross $36 million).

The original Oceans 11 film was the ultimate Old Boy’s Club film, lightweight and self-centered, which makes the success of Ocean 8 particularly curious. Oceans 8 was about war buddies teaming up to rob a Las Vegas casino; Oceans 11 is about the newly paroled sister of George Clooney’s character in the Soderberg films lifting diamonds from the Met Gala. How could a feminist remake of a macho 1960s film win the domestic box office race? The 1960 film presented men in the foreground, dressed to the nines, and women only at the periphery, as window dressing. Suave arrogance is the prevailing mood. It starred Frank Sinatra in the lead and his “rat pack” as backup with Angie Dickinson occasionally thrown in for eye candy. Sammy Davis Junior suffers a racial slur. And the banter among the men was loose, and on-screen chemistry was crisp (they were all drinking buddies in real life).

Finally, the fact that Oceans 8 did so well with millennials – not just women -- begs the question: Is the twentysomething demographic the most feminist ever? Generation Y – those born between 1980 and the 1990s – have been saddled with debt and unemployment. There is not much love for the previous Establishment and the way the patriarchy has managed the economy. “Sexual harassment laws are on the books,” notes San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge to USA Today. “Women outnumber men in colleges. Women are accustomed to seeing female doctors and lawyers or, even more formative, seeing women playing doctors and lawyers on TV.”

We’ve come a long way, baby. 

Cover photo via USA Today