When I started blogging about the "boys' club" that is the film industry in late 2011 I was quickly and loudly criticized - primarily by my male colleagues. Some argued that gender bias was impossible because box office numbers accurately reflect what the people want. Some insisted that women aren't pursuing careers in film, and that those that are aren't interested in writing/directing high concept movies. I was shocked by their outrage at the very suggestion of gender bias, and they in turn demanded to see cold hard facts.
Well, ladies and gentlemen, the facts are here.
Over the last year I have seen more and more people writing about the lack of women onscreen and behind the scenes. The Cannes Film Festival, arguably the most highly regarded festival in the world, has been taking heat for consistently under-representing women directors in their competition line-up. In 2012, zero women directors competed for the Palme D'Or. In 2009 Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win Best Director at the Academy Awards. The celebration soon became an increasingly murmured question across the internet "Why did it take 82 years for a woman to earn this honor?" (followed in 2013 by "Why was Kathryn Bigelow snubbed for 'Zero Dark Thirty'?").
In 2013 the Sundance Film Festival released a landmark report examining the careers of independent filmmakers who screened at Sundance between 2002-2012. While Sundance in particular - and independent film in general - is known to be less gender-biased, the news was not all good: "Almost 40%of the women said that "Male-dominated industry networking" is a barrier." And while Sundance's celebrated men go on to high profile careers, the women still struggle to realize future projects. Christopher Nolan went from "Memento" to the Batman franchise; Colin Trevorrow went from "Safety Not Guaranteed" to Jurassic Park IV. Debra Granik put Jennifer Lawrence on the map with "Winter's Bone" - and yet IMDb has no future projects listed for her.
Most recently, a statistically-backed blog about gender disparity in the spec screenplay market has been making the rounds. And a few days later, Women & Hollywood posted an in-depth follow-up piece.
The facts are out there for anyone to look at. Women are invisible onscreen, especially during the summer blockbuster movie months. And women are still struggling with a relatively low celluloid ceiling, revealed in yearly reports.
While women may not be pursing careers in film at the same rate as men, that is no excuse for the appalling numbers. Women are natural storytellers - it is the way we process and share our daily experiences. And yet, historically it has been difficult for women to have full inclusion in the documentation of humanity's stories. The remembered works of Ancient Greece are dominated by male playwrights. The beloved Brontë sisters Anne, Charlotte and Emily all wrote - and published - under male pennames: Acton, Currer and Ellis Bell. While we see better gender parity (if not always respect) in modern literature, nothing quite represents contemporary storytelling the way films do. Movies are a shared experience, tapping into the zeitgeist and allowing us to reflect on our past, our future, and our fantasies. Women's lack of representation is nothing short of a disservice to humanity.
Women need a chance to tell their own stories - and imagine themselves in new ways. The standard film depictions of women in a patriarchal society are as less-important characters who are not listened to. Women's characters often serve as victims (of violence, rape, or injustice) which launch male heroes into action. It is almost an accepted screenplay structure that male characters "do things" and female characters "have things done to them." And increasingly, the female image is so fetishized that young girls and older women are expected to be uniformly sexy, and woe is she who does not conform to the accepted standard. (I see little difference between Disney princesses and porn stars - they are both cartoon versions of women who should not be asked to exist.)
Sometimes women have a hard time imagining themselves beyond the stereotypes that patriarchy has created for them. Women have a legacy of "people pleasing," of wanting to be liked - but women need the safety of onscreen personas to explore their darker sides: imperfections, selfishness, rage. Men seem to live vicariously through the films they love, the characters they connect to (many of which function as wish fulfillment). Women need these opportunities too. We need to create and see ourselves as the doers, the adventurers, the flawed-but-well-meaning protagonists whose blunders and victories inspire an audience. We need the opportunity not only to tell our stories, but to re-imagine the possibilities of what our stories could be. And we need equal access to the medium that speaks to the world: movies.
Many men are sensitive to this idea of pervasive sexism in the film industry - and we should be cognizant of their sensitivity. The men we know have girls and women in their lives whom they love and want to see thrive and succeed. To really acknowledge a patriarchal society means to admit they've benefited from a biased system that won't quite give half the population fair access and due respect. You can't blame men for wishing and/or denying patriarchy and sexism out of existence. But it can't be wished away.
Men are our allies in this battle. As women have supported every venture of humankind, men need to see this as an opportunity not dissimilar to the civil rights movement, or the gay rights movement that is gaining traction every day. Men are in a tremendous position to help - once they become fully aware of the problem. For starters, we need to agree that images and language that minimize women are a problem. And if every man in the film industry mentors ONE woman filmmaker during his lifetime it would help pave the way toward inclusion. Some more extreme measures have been suggested - like targeting producers and studios who are in violation of Title VII and getting the ACLU to sue the Directors Guild. But individual efforts can go a long way.
Women in film need to continue supporting and mentoring other women - this has proven to be helpful. And I think the growing conversation is equally as important. After all, you can't fix a problem until you're aware of the problem - and this issue is gradually trickling down from filmmakers to the general public. It is trickier when we are asked and/or expected to watch every film that is written or directed by a woman - or simply about women - because gender-involvement or perspective alone is not what draws anyone to a movie. But the effort may prove well-rewarded. I recently watched "Lore" (directed by Cate Shortland) about German children confronting the aftermath of the Second World War, and "The Bletchley Circle" about a group of WWII code breakers who apply their skills to the tracking of a serial killer. Both were remarkable and original.
Women are interesting people with broad abilities and a lot to say. It is humanity's loss when their voices are repressed and their talents underutilized. Correcting gender imbalance - in film and beyond - is an imperative, and should be the next great social revolution.