As a recently decided film major midway through the fall of my sophomore year, I was sitting in the back of 511 Dodge Hall at Columbia University, idly doodling in the minutes before my Script Analysis class, when our professor cut through the ambient murmur with an announcement. He wanted to apologize, he said, for an unfairness he now perceived in his choice of films to screen. To us women specifically, he wanted to explain that, “as a heterosexual male,” he was naturally drawn toward Westerns and action films—what he called “Boys With Toys”—leaving out romantic comedies and, with them, he seemed to think, his female students. And he wanted to apologize for that. To me—the girl who was writing her final project on Quentin Tarantino.
A few weeks later, I was sitting in the same auditorium, this time for an elective on American Independent Cinema. That day, we were to examine the “Cinema of Women”—specifically, how female filmmakers had turned to independent modes of production as an alternative to male- dominated Hollywood. And, as an example of this phenomenon, our professor had chosen to screen Allison Anders’ Gas, Food, Lodging. For those who haven’t had the pleasure, the film begins with its young female protagonist proclaiming, in jubilant voiceover, “I knew what was missing from my life: a man!”—a sentiment that proceeds to echo throughout. When the lights came up and a few of us mumbled that the film didn’t seem particularly feminist, our professor countered by insisting that he had never meant to call Anders’ movie “feminist,” just “feminine”—that is, replete with a “feminine sensibility.” We had just watched a woman’s work unfold before us, a film that clearly had a concrete set of qualities different from a male-directed picture, and could we list them, please?
My intention in recounting these stories is not to smear these professors—not in the least. Looking back, I can see how, on some level, it was responsible for the first professor to acknowledge the ways in which his personal taste may have biased his screening choices, and the second was ultimately doing some real good by pointing out women as a minority group in Hollywood. Still, these anecdotes have stuck with me, if only because, in all my study of film, I’ve been unable to shake their common misconception—that is: “BOYS, GUNS; GIRLS, FEELINGS.” By applying gender stereotypes to cinema, my professors essentially put forth that “women’s film”—whether “made for,” “made about,” or “made by,” and especially if all three—was a fundamentally frilly affair, fit for emotional dramas and sappy scoring and arguments over who used the last tampon. (Note: This is an actual scene in Gas, Food, Lodging.)
Something in my gut tells me, as a female filmgoer and aspiring filmmaker, that this isn’t right. It’s the same something that twinges when I read studies like Martha M. Lauzen’s recently released “The Celluloid Ceiling,” which examines “behind the scenes employment of women on the top 250 films of 2012,” only to find that their participation in major creative positions comprised a measly 18 percent—directors, 5 percent. It’s the same something that gets piqued at news of the third annual Athena Film Festival, which took place at Barnard this past weekend—a four-day series of “feature films, documentaries and shorts that highlight women’s leadership in real life and the fictional world,” according to its website. And it’s the same something that ultimately leaves me asking: Just what constitutes a “woman’s film,” anyhow? And why is it that, even today, it’s still so hard to get them made?
On-Screen and In Real Life
If you’d like a snapshot of women’s on-screen presence in narrative film, I suggest you click over to BechdelTest.com. There, you’ll find the now infamous tripartite standard put forward by Alison Bechdel’s 1985 comic strip, “Dykes to Watch Out For”: Are there 1) more than two named women who 2) talk to each other about 3) something other than a man? This test is applied in detail to a list of almost 3,500 films, spanning from 1900 to today. Even a quick glimpse at the site’s stats page is sobering: Though it’s true that a majority of the films profiled pass all three tests, that majority is impressively slim. A whopping 46.08 percent fail to present female characters who meet these simple, humanizing criteria—including an alarming number of my favorites. Forget Tarantino, I’m talking The Princess Bride, Clerks, Trainspotting, Newsies, Groundhog Day, The Dark Knight, Citizen Kane.
If you’re interested in a more concentrated, current data set, you could also check out the research conducted by Stacy L. Smith of USC Annenberg. For example, in 2011, along with Marc Choueiti and Stephanie Gall, Smith found that, in the highest-grossing films of 2007, 2008, and 2009, “women represented only one-third of speaking characters”—29.9 percent, 32.8 percent, and 32.8 percent, respectively—and moreover, “only about one in six (16.8%) films depicted ‘gender balance’ (women in 45 to 54.9% of speaking roles).”
According to Melissa Silverstein, founder of the blog Women and Hollywood and co-founder of the Athena Film Festival, this dearth of fully realized females on-screen was part of what inspired her and co-founder Kathryn Kolbert to create the festival in the first place. While at an event to celebrate director Jane Campion, “she [Kathryn] and I had this conversation, based on the fact that a lot of the women at the event felt that they couldn’t get movies made that had strong female protagonists. After that, we just put our heads together and this is what we came up with.” Of course, Silverstein’s explanation of Athena’s origin also indicates the other side of its mission: to foster a strong female presence behind the camera, as well as in front of it. These two separate but parallel goals dovetail in the festival’s overall commitment to showcasing “women’s leadership.”
Despite Nemo’s inclement backdrop, the third annual installment of Silverstein and Kolbert’s brainchild went ahead as planned this past weekend. From Thursday, Feb. 7, to Sunday, Feb. 10, Barnard’s campus was host to a total of 21 feature-length films, 15 shorts, and six works in progress, in a mix of documentaries and narrative films—as well as director Q&As, panels, workshops for young filmmakers, and an award ceremony honoring, among others, accomplished producer Gale Anne Hurd. This year’s program featured an array of subjects, styles, and even languages—including Granny’s Got Game, a documentary about a North Carolina women’s basketball team for senior citizens; Hannah Arendt, a German biopic about the woman who introduced us to the “banality of evil”; Brave Miss World, a documentary about a former Miss World who, after experiencing sexual assault, took it upon herself to empower survivors across the globe; and Brave, last year’s Disney-Pixar release about a canny Scottish princess-cum-master archer.
Though Athena certainly foregrounds women’s accomplishments, that doesn’t mean it’s an all-woman affair; the diversity of its content extends behind the camera as well, implicitly busting the myth that it takes a woman to craft an empowering female narrative. For example, writer-director David Riker describes his film, The Girl, which focuses on the plight of a young mother helping illegal immigrants across the Texas border, as “the story of a woman’s journey towards a new sense of self-awareness and strength.” He adds, “I can’t think of a better place to have this preview screening before it opens. I love that it’s playing at a festival that is highlighting the lives and the struggles of women.”
For some, inclusion in Athena constitutes an even bigger ideological coup. “The LGBT film festivals always pick us up, but we love that this is a woman’s film festival that is about women and empowering women,” says Andrea Meyerson, director of I Stand Corrected, a documentary about acclaimed jazz bassist Jennifer Leitham. “I made a film about an extraordinary musician who happens to be transgender, not a film about a transgender person who happens to be a musician. And there’s a really big difference there.”
Festivals like Athena offer the opportunity for this kind of discourse away from the competitive Hollywood grind. “It’s not so much about opening weekend at the box office; it’s not about getting the next gig,” says Silverstein. “It’s really about trying to have a larger cultural conversation.” This mission resonates with the ever-expanding International Women’s Film Festival Network—including, for example, “You Cannot be Serious: A Discussion of the Status of Women Directors,” a panel that will take place in Berlin on Feb. 15 as part of the Berlin Film Festival. “Our objective for this meeting is to really plant the flag and let them know this is something we’re going to be paying attention to from now on,” says Silverstein. “This is a battle for gender equity. It is a feminist conversation.”
Carving out the space for dialogue is key—if only because so often, and especially in the film business, it’s money that does the talking.
“If you, for instance, have a vagina,” remarked Mark Harris in his Feb. 2011 GQ article, then in the eyes of film studios and their marketing departments, you “are considered a niche audience that … generally isn’t worth taking the time to figure out.” And evidently, gender aside, once you turn 30, you become “such an exhausting proposition in terms of selling a movie that, well, you might as well have a vagina.” Indeed, according to Harris, this hasty demographic shucking “leaves one quadrant—men under 25—at whom the majority of studio movies are aimed, the thinking being that they’ll eat just about anything that’s put in front of them as long as it’s spiked with the proper set of stimulants.” (Think “Boys With Toys.”)
Harris’s assertion seems not only to confirm every movie buff’s worst fears—that Transformers 12: Even More Explosions is, in fact, the future of cinema—but also to explain why directors who want to tell stories about women may have a hard time getting their feet in Hollywood’s door. “When we first started developing the script and taking it out and pitching, where we actually had access to people in Hollywood, we would constantly get this comment of, ‘Oh, it sounds really great, but you know how hard it is to get a drama with women made,’” says writer-director Jenny Deller, whose debut feature, Future Weather, chronicles a young environmental science enthusiast’s strained relationship with her grandmother after her mother skips town.
Deller isn’t alone. In fact, her experience fits with Smith’s most recent study, “Exploring Barriers and Opportunities for Independent Women Filmmakers.” Commissioned by the Sundance Institute, the report combines data from 2002 to 2012 with qualitative testimonials from 51 female filmmakers and executives about their experiences in the world of independent cinema. (The Athena Film Festival featured a panel discussion on the study with Smith and Sundance Institute Executive Director Keri Putnam, a full recording of which is available on the Athena website.) According to Smith’s findings, 43.1 percent of the interviewees “spontaneously mentioned” bumping up against “gendered financial barriers”—including, specifically, the fact that “female-helmed projects are perceived to lack commercial viability.”
Of course, this exclusion of women from marketing considerations seems fundamentally misguided, even in a purely pragmatic context: According to the Nielsen National Research Group’s 2012 American Moviegoing report, women have constituted almost exactly half of the American film audience for the past three years—51 percent, in fact, in 2012.
Meanwhile, there’s a way in which the “one quadrant” marketing model is equally bleak for the young men it supposedly prizes. Considered little more than an “ADD-addled, short-term-memory-lacking, easily excitable testosterone junkie,” according to Harris, the average teenage boy’s taste for drivel essentially becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. “There are an enormous number of men who do not feel that the kind of role models of the patriarchy are of any value to them—who feel as oppressed by it as anyone else, and their voices also, I think, are underrepresented,” Riker says. “It is limiting, and it’s destructive.”
Riker goes on to describe an experience he had at a special preview screening of The Girl on the Tuesday before it went up at Athena: “At the end, a man, who was probably 60 years old, came up to me. And he said, ‘These women dragged me here, because, you probably know— I mean, you read about this film, as a man, you’re not really going to want to go. But I’m so happy I came to see it, because, you know, I’m a wannabe.’ I think what he meant is, ‘I want to be sensitive. I want to be someone who is interested in the emotional journey of life.’ He asked me to think about how I can speak about the film so men might be interested in going to see it.”
Riker’s story seems to exemplify the ways in which demographic branding can ultimately become predictive— how terms like “chick flick” and the marketing strategies behind them close off not only the production but also the reception of women’s stories, as the feedback loop of gendered film analysis spins us ever further away from the basic truth that one’s taste isn’t encoded in one’s chromosomes.
For one of the more graceful phrasings of this argument I’ve heard, I’ll turn to the Sept. 17, 2009, episode of The Onion’s “Hater Podcast” with Amelie Gillette. In response to Michelle Orange’s Sept. 3, 2009, New York Times piece, “Taking Back the Knife: Girls Gone Gory,” which notes an apparent surge in popularity of scarier fare among the fairer sex, Gillette and her guest, Kelly Shea, wrack their brains as to why women could possibly enjoy horror movies. Do they sympathize with the traditional last-girl-standing? Are they just masochists? Or do they just want to snuggle closer to their dates when scared? Finally Gillette shows her hand: “I think I have this solved for them. Maybe women go see horror movies because they’re people. And people like horror movies.”
Of the myriad data points presented by Smith’s recent Sundance study, there’s one I keep coming back to: that 15.7 percent of the female filmmakers reported “stereotyping on set” as a barrier to their success. As such stereotypes seem to be at the heart of my inquiry, I ask Silverstein what exactly she thinks these 15.7 percent are referring to: “I think they mean ‘sexism,’” she says, matter-of-factly. “People need to think a woman can direct a big budget movie, that she can control a crew. I mean, there’s all this crazy stuff about, like, [how] guys on the set won’t listen to her.”
Indeed, perhaps some of the perceived “lack of commercial viability” Smith reported may stem from this fear that women can’t keep their crew disciplined enough to deliver on time and on budget. “To make a movie, you have to deal with other people’s money and a lot of it,” says comedian and filmmaker Bonnie McFarlane, director of Women Aren’t Funny, a documentary that examines that age-old entertainment stereotype. “People have to be aggressive—like, ‘I’m going to do this, I’m confident.’ And I think for women, once you are that person, people are a little scared of you. You can’t win either way. If you’re as confident and ballsy as a guy, you’re crazy, but if you’re not as confident and ballsy as a guy, they can’t trust you with doing the job.” It’s a classic female catch-22, of course: damned if you do, resigned to a Victorian fainting couch if you don’t.
“I definitely experienced what I thought was discrimination based on being a woman—but nothing that ever stopped me,” Deller says. “The film set is a culture that has been predominantly male for so long, guys can get used to that. Then, when a woman comes along, I think it can be a little—not so much threatening as different.”
“We’re still fighting for equal pay and equal opportunity,” Meyerson points out, speaking of women in every industry. “It’s certainly better than it’s ever been, but I think we have to prove ourselves maybe a little bit more.”
McFarlane picks up on another subtle indicator that we may not be able to tack a “post-” onto our feminism just yet. “I find it interesting that people are allowed to say ‘women aren’t funny,’” she reflects on the title of her film. “People have no problem saying it to my face. People are allowed to say, ‘Oh, here’s a woman trying to do a guy’s thing.’ But they wouldn’t say that about race. Shit would hit the fan.”
She’s right, I think, and I tell her so. I add that I think this is because—at least when it comes to what people will say out loud—essentialist, biological definitions of race have, mostly, gone the way of phrenology. Today, if you publicly claim that certain behaviors are hard-wired according to race, you’ll get called out on it—and rightly so. However, essentialist definitions of gender seem to persist, at least subtly, even in the most liberal of minds, without being tagged as fundamentally sexist. Notions of a “maternal instinct,” a “woman’s intuition”—the lurking, latent sense that, though it’s all well and good that modern convenience has allowed women to develop careers outside the home, were we to strip life down to base animal necessity, the female’s place is, fundamentally, to nurture. It’s encoded in her DNA. Prescribed to her by evolution. Sugar and spice, stretching back to the dawn of time.
A Female Quentin Tarantino
On the Oct. 3, 2011 episode of “How Did This Get Made,” a podcast hosted by actor Paul Scheer (aka Donnie, the head page from 30 Rock), director Lexi Alexander described exactly why she agreed to take on Punisher: War Zone, the third sequel to Marvel’s notoriously gore-steeped “Punisher” franchise. She recalled her agents goading her, saying, “‘Look, Lexi. No woman has ever directed an R-rated comic book film. This could really break through the glass ceiling, and there’s a lot of little girls who will thank you for it.’”
Apparently, that was the ticket: in her words, “I want girls to grow up and think that they can be film directors, and it doesn’t have to be Lifetime movies. I want girls to grow up and know they can do anything. And to be honest, it’s not like that in the film industry yet. We don’t have enough examples. There needs to be a female Quentin Tarantino, in my opinion.”
It’s an inspiring message, to be sure—and it would be a logical next step for women’s equality in the film industry. Indeed, one might imagine that the entrance of a prominent female gun-and-gore-slinger onto the cultural main stage would dissolve, once and for all, the myth of the “feminine essence,” at least when it comes to filmmaking.
Of course, there are already some examples working in Hollywood today—chief among them, perhaps, Kathryn Bigelow, whose résumé includes such “man’s man” fare as K-19: The Widowmaker and 2008’s Oscar-winner The Hurt Locker. In fact, Alexander was quick to name Bigelow as an example—even though that podcast predated the recent groundswell of controversy over Zero Dark Thirty that put Bigelow’s name on the front of nearly every entertainment section. Though most of the discourse surrounding Bigelow’s latest film revolves around its depictions of torture, her status as a female filmmaker has also come under fire. Even author Bret Easton Ellis jumped into the fray, calling Bigelow “overrated,” asserting via Twitter that the industry gives her special treatment because she’s “a hot woman.” It seems that, no matter how dude-friendly their product, women directors are still subject to gendered criticism.
Meanwhile, it’s hard not to interpret the fact that so few women are trusted with non-Lifetime fare as a reflection on studios’ overall lack of confidence in women’s stories to be anything but flower-scented—as if women directors are assigned to projects primarily as female sensibility consultants. “When they do give a woman a movie to make, they want it to be a ‘woman’s movie,’” McFarlane says. “I really think that they think, ‘Well, we want a woman to come in here and give it a woman’s touch.’ Because they know guys who can take care of the other stuff.” (At this point, I find myself tempted to remind Mr. Ellis and his ilk that his most famous novel, American Psycho, was brought blood-splatteringly to the screen by director Mary Harron.)
Indeed, though Bigelow’s career is doubtlessly inspiring, there’s always a danger of letting tokenism take the place of real progress. “‘Kathryn Bigelow’ is like what the dumb people say to show, ‘Oh, I know about female directors!’” complained comedian Patton Oswalt, a guest on Scheer’s podcast and an avid Punisher fan. “She’s great, but there’s other people.” The problem, it seems, is getting those other people heard.
If You Can See It, You Can Be It
Silverstein clocks our snap judgment of the word “director”: “young, male, baseball cap backwards.” Immediately, images jump to mind: Jason Reitman, Bryan Singer, Zack Snyder, on and on. “And white, of course,” she adds. “These stereotypes have been perpetuated over the years because all we see is pictures of guys looking like this.” Silverstein recently published her e-book, In Her Voice: Women Directors Talk Directing, which seeks to combat this trend by presenting a series of interviews with female filmmakers, supplementing them with links to external resources. “I just wanted to put women’s voices out there, so they become a normal part of the conversation,” she says.
So long as women’s voices represent an exception, our fuss over them risks becoming patronizing, even alienating—as if we’re congratulating monkeys for typing Shakespeare. “I feel like at some point we can stop being surprised by women in entertainment,” McFarlane says. “I mean, you can still write about us, but maybe stop being surprised.”
“It all comes down to trusting women,” says Silverstein. “If you are a behind-the-scenes person, you have to be able to trust women’s vision to create a world—whether it’s about men or women—that you want to see. If it’s in front of the scenes, you are putting out a vision of women on-screen that people have to buy into. So, people have to be welcome to seeing women—strong women.”
“In our digital age, ideas and culture are increasingly shaped by the stories told with moving images,” begins the case statement of Smith’s Sundance report. “This context elevates film artists to an enormously influential role in determining how we see ourselves, one another, and the world around us.” Silverstein sums up this idea with reference to the aphorism, “If you can see it, you can be it.” Because if young girls can see Future Weather protagonist Lauduree pursuing her passion for science, they might be inspired to speak up in chemistry class—just as, if they can see Deller’s name roll on-screen at the end credits, they might feel empowered to take up a camera.
The reason those gendered remarks from my sophomore year film classes have bothered me for so long—why they merit more than an eye roll—is that, ultimately, there is an important distinction to be made between the irksome notion of “a woman’s touch” and the vital promise of “women’s stories.” Because, as it turns out, we want to hear from women—we need to hear from them, in fact, to have a cultural dialogue that even pretends to reflect the diverse makeup of those asked to engage in it. Because, as festivals like Athena help remind us, women can tell all kinds of stories—about scientists and terrorism and bass-playing and basketball and, indeed, fighting over tampons. We just have to let them.
With any luck, we may even find a female Tarantino in the process.
Anneliese Cooper is a senior at Columbia University, majoring in Film Studies. She was the managing editor of The Eye, the weekly features and arts magazine of the Columbia Daily Spectator, for 2012. She blogs about popular culture at A Sane Basic Particle.