Lili Loofbourow on Pixar's Brave, in The New Inquiry (warning: spoilers included):
I suppose most girls remember when they became aware of themselves as specifically female viewers. Growing up in the eighties, I watched movies about boys and girls with equal relish, empathizing with the protagonists and getting totally absorbed in story without my parts getting consciously in the way. When I realized the boys in my classes didn’t do the same thing — they refused to see themselves in female protagonists and found the prospect humiliating to contemplate — I felt I had overstepped my bounds. Feeling simultaneously embarrassed at being so profligate with my sympathy and spiteful towards those who weren’t, I started watching movies the way I was supposed to: as a girl, specifically.
Boy, was it bleak.
If you don’t get to be Indiana Jones and have to think about how he is with girls, if you have to wonder, while watching Treasure Island, whether any of the characters you loved would even talk to you, movies become kind of painful. You do find ways around it. For one thing, you start actively seeking out stories where people don’t rule you out quite so much. You look for “girl movies.” Barring some truly wonderful exceptions, you get used to eating the same three meals over and over, forever. Without thinking about it too hard I’ll approximate them as spunkiness, pathos, and transformation. Working Girl, He’s Just Not That Into You, Grease. Again, some of these are great. Most are derivative.
Given the sameness of the flavors on offer, you become a sort of expert at spotting slight variations. You watch not so much for the arc (that’s almost always disappointing) but for certain arresting moments. When you find these, you treasure them. You dissect their context away and relish them — sometimes for themselves, sometimes for the endings they didn’t have.
I don’t claim this is universal, but many female viewers I’ve had conversations with over the years have expressed similar, if not identical, practices. We have watered-down expectations when it comes to women in film. Most movies, even the great ones, we watch for their perfect middles. Sometimes we edit the films post post-production and pretend the end never happened at all.