Women in the Director’s Chair

*This week dear friend of the empower couple and crucial member of FRUSP (Female Readers Unite and Smash the Patriarchy), Jennie, shares a brilliant and well-researched guest post.  Enjoy!*

  I love movies.  As far back as I can remember I have loved them.  Not just popular mainstream movies, but odd avant-garde movies, silent films, documentaries, foreign language,  and so on.  It is because I love movies that I become so disheartened by the lack of diversity all throughout the industry.  There are so many examples of Hollywood sexism that could be discussed, I could be typing for days. We need less overt sexualization of women in movies, we need more movies that pass the Bechdel Test, we certainly need more women in all aspects of filmmaking, not to mention the pay gap that affects all women, not just those in entertainment. All of that is very important, but today I want to focus on the director’s chair.

    Last year when Selma was snubbed repeatedly during awards season, director Ava DuVernay’s omission stood out to me the most.  How could a movie that was widely loved, monetarily successful, AND nominated for best picture, not be acknowledged for the woman behind it all?  I of course already knew the answer.  Because this isn’t new.  The fact that she had the job in the first place was “amazing” enough. My guess is that part of it had to do with DuVernay being one of the executive producers herself.  She isn’t the first to have a critically acclaimed film that seems to leave their female director in the shadows. Over just the last few years this has happened with Lone Scherfig for An Education, Lisa Cholodenko for The Kids Are All Right, Debra Granik for Winter’s Bone, and surely others. Only four women have actually earned Oscar nominations for Best Director in the history of the ceremony: Lina Wertmüller for Seven Beauties, Jane Campion for The Piano, Sofia Coppola for Lost in Translation, and Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker. Bigelow is the only woman to win the award. Now, I know this is just the Oscars, and there are all sorts of other awards and ways to gauge success BUT, whether you like it or not, the Oscars do represent an overall thought and trend in Hollywood. They are a clear reflection of the overall lack of diversity that is present in the film industry.

    Even with Bigelow’s win, there is talk about her winning for making a “man’s” movie. It is true, that The Hurt Locker is a war movie, with all male leads, but so what? To suggest that she somehow sold out to make this movie is ridiculous to me.  To say that women can’t make (and want to make) movies about men is just as condescending as saying that women need to stick to making movies for women. There is also talk that women shouldn’t “lower” themselves to wildly popular superhero or low brow comedies. No one ever says this sort of stuff to men who make successful (and good) movies about women. Steel Magnolias, The Color Purple, Fried Green Tomatoes, Waiting to Exhale, Bridesmaids, and so many others, were all helmed by men. Men directing these movies is fine, but women should have that same freedom, without questioning their motives, or basic understanding of the subject matter. What would really be great is for women to be able to direct all types of movies and not have them be labeled “feminine movies.” Did anyone label any of the above movies directed by men as “masculine?”  Seriously I’m asking.

    Sometimes women make movies that on the surface are very sexist, misogynistic, violent, stereotypically masculine… etc etc… in an effort to  make a point about these issues, but audiences miss the point. American Psycho, based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis, might be one of the best examples of this. Ellis’s themes and director Mary Harron’s interpretation of them seemed to shed light on these issues AND their portrayal in mainstream cinema. Feminist Audiences were furious and picketed, and (like with the recent Martin Scorsese film Wolf of Wall Street) others celebrated the deplorable behavior. Neither of those are the appropriate response… Even still, the movie was successful, turned into a cult classic, and definitely proved that a woman could make a violent “man’s” movie. Over the next 10 years Harron only directed one small budget film, and several single episodes of TV shows. Her career didn’t exactly take off.

    You might be thinking, “Jennie, that movie may have been successful, but it wasn’t exactly a mainstream movie.” Fair enough. Unfortunately, I’ve got more examples.  Catherine Hardwicke directed the first Twilight movie which was very much a huge success. She did not direct any of the following Twilight movies. Now, rumor has it she declined to direct the second film. Even IF this is true (and there are conflicting reports on this), where are the other big budget movies after she “proved” herself?? Even when women directors get a few mainstream movie chances, one flop could ruin it for years. Mimi Leder who directed the very successful Deep Impact, (which is totally better than Armageddon… there I said it!) went on to direct Pay it Forward, which did not fare so well. It was a classic case of a wildly popular book not living up to the expectations. After that, she was relegated to (in her own words) “Movie Jail.”  Whereas M. Night Shamalan hit it big with The Sixth Sense, and followed it up with the just OK Signs and Unbreakable.  THEN had several huge failures, including the VERY expensive flop that was After Earth. Robert Schwentke Directed R.I.P.D. (easily one of the worst movies I’ve sat through in a while), which nearly three years later has still not made back it’s reported 130 million dollar budget. What happened next for Schwentke? He was hired to do not one BUT TWO of the Divergent series movies. Now please, don’t mishear me.  I am not saying that we should never let Shamalan make another movie or start sending Schwentke out on coffee runs. I’m also not saying that movie jail NEVER happens to men.  Of course it does. What I’m saying is that female directors over all aren’t given nearly as many chances. Certainly not that many chances with large budgets.  Now, I don’t know what happens in private conversations with the studios and the directors.  I don’t know what has been offered and declined. I am making some judgments based on interviews, documentaries, and general research, but history suggests that I am right to be suspicious.

    According to the Directors Guild of America, of the 376 directors of features released in 2013 and 2014, just 6.4% (5.1% Caucasian, 1.3% Minority) were women. I won’t go into all the nitty gritty of this report, but (after you’re done reading this) take a few moments and look at it.  It goes into quite a bit of detail including the percent of women directors hired by the major studios during this period of time.  Some of them are zero percent. Let me say that again… ZERO PERCENT!! There is no excuse for this.

    The most frustrating part about all of this is that this is not how the movie industry started. In the late 1800’s into the early 1900’s women were prominent in all aspects of movie making, including directing. Without having clear records and having lost many, many films over the years, it is impossible to know the numbers exactly, but estimates start at around 25% of directors were women, but this figure could be much higher. The film industry was open to everyone and women thrived behind the camera and at all aspects of filmmaking. Sometime in the 1920’s this all changed.  Once movies became big business and not a passing fad, filmmaking became a “real” profession and therefore no longer suitable for women. At Universal Pictures, for example, other than Lois Weber (whose last credit was in 1927), not a single woman was credited for directing a film from 1920 until 1982. NO WOMEN!… NOT ONE… UNTIL 1982. 1982. Perhaps not coincidentally, the first Academy Awards were held in 1929…

    …of course they were.

    According to Karen Ward Maher, author of “Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood,” it wasn’t until the 1980’s that women had more than 1% of Directing credits again. This is appalling. Not only did women lose ground, there wasn’t even an incremental increase over the years. Now we’re at 6.4%, which isn’t even an acceptable increase from the 1980s let alone over the entire 100+ year history of film.

    OK, so what am I getting at with all this rambling?

    I could talk about this until I’m blue in the face, but I, like many others, also need to be better about backing up my words with my dollars. The reality of this (and many other issues like it) are that most of the big wigs are not going to really change how they do things or their policies and procedures out of the goodness of their heart.  They care about how this stuff affects their bank accounts. History has shown us that our money speaks volumes.

    So what can we do? Get to know female directors and see their movies!! Most of the women I have named specifically so far are women you might already be familiar with because at some point they we given the reigns to a movie that did well at the box office and/or was critically acclaimed. This leaves out all the amazing women who are making amazing films that have yet to break through to any sort of mainstream “success.” Women like Ana Lily Amirpour, Haifaa Al-Mansour, Marjane Satrapi, Andrea Arnold, Sarah Polley and so, so many more. Also if you can handle silent movies and those made shortly thereafter, get to know some of the old school ladies that were rocking it out in the early days. You’d be amazed at the topics and storylines that were being done when women had full control of their stories and before the Motion Picture Production Code was in effect. Women like Dorothy Arzner, Lois Weber, Germaine Dulac, and Alice Guy-Blaché who is thought to be the first female film director.

    I recently took the Women in Film pledge to watch 52 Films by Women over 52 Weeks. This is totally manageable and it will really broaden your movie watching experience.  If you want to take the pledge too, go to womeninfilm.org/52-films. There are also some great resources to help you figure out what to watch at GoWatchIt and at Cinema Fanatic. Also, keep an eye out at your local theaters for Money Monster directed by Jodi Foster, and Our Kind of Traitor, directed by Susanna White.

    It is important that we don’t just take to the internet with our shouts of #OscarsSoMale. We need to back up our words by supporting these amazing women, intentionally seeking them out, and sharing our love for their films by also shouting #SeeHerNow. I can do better at supporting female directors. Won’t you join me?
(All of the movies and directors are linked to make it easier to find out more information.  You may also be interested in checking out Women In Film & Women and Hollywood and then following them on Facebook and/or Twitter for consistent updates and information about all aspects of Women in Film.)

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