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The Most Important Feminist Film Moments of 2014

The Most Important Feminist Film Moments of 2014

Women and Hollywood’s end-of-year coverage includes our “Best Women-Directed Documentaries of 2014 (That We Managed to See),” “Best Women-Directed Films of 2014,” Best Films About Women in 2014, and “Best TV Shows and Moments of 2014,” lists, with much more to come in the next few days. 

The numbers for women behind the camera remain brutally bad. In
2013, only 6% of the top-grossing films were directed by women. 10% were written by
women. 2% were shot and composed by women. The statistics onscreen are not that much
better. A mere 30% of the characters and 15% of the protagonists were women.

But while the numbers remain dismal, the conversation seems
to have shifted. It feels like people are finally fed up and are vocally
addressing the film industry’s obvious gender disparities in a much more engaged way.

So as 2014 ends, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the most important feminist
moments of the past 12 months in the hope that these will lead to much needed change for women in film
in the not-too-distant future.

Cate Blanchett started the year off on a feminist
note when she won her Best Actress Oscar for Blue Jasmine and used her moment in front of
the world to scold Hollywood for not making more movies about women. Her quote from that evening went viral.

She spoke to “those of us in the industry who
are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films with women at the
center are niche experiences. They are not. Audiences want to see them and, in
fact, they earn money. The world is round, people.”

She continued her push for more films about women in June at the Women in Film Awards: “Often
I find with female-lead films, the budgets are smaller and the resulting box
office is extraordinary. But it would be great if there were more films led by
women that had that initial investment, because people want to see stories with
women at the center.”

It’s great to see her back after taking several years off to run the Sydney Theatre Company with her husband. We’ll see her
shortly in Carol, based on the
Patricia Highsmith story, and Truth,
about producer Mary Mapes and how the story of George W. Bush’s National Guard
service brought down anchor Dan Rather.

What’s amazing is that Blanchett’s voice empowered other
women to speak up, too. 2014 will go down as the year when women in Hollywood, particularly actresses, embraced feminism is a very visible way.  

Let’s start off with Harry Potter actress and recent Brown
graduate Emma Watson. She became a UN Women Goodwill Ambassador and made a speech for a new UN initiative called “He for She.” 

Here’s what she said:

is the word [feminist] such an uncomfortable one? I am from Britain and think it is right
that, as a woman, I am paid the same as my male counterparts. I think it is right
that I should be able to make decisions about my own body. I think it is right that
women be involved on my behalf in the policies and decision-making of my
country. I think it is right that, socially, I am afforded the same respect as
men.” A speech like this reminds me why Hermione was the most interesting
character in Harry Potter

Additionally, three top-level actresses — Hillary Swank, Keira
Knightley and Zoe Saldana — all addressed feminist issues.

Hillary Swank has two recent Oscars to her name. But she knows that she is not valued in the same way that her
male counterparts are. While speaking about her new film, The Homesman, she said:

“My male counterpart will get paid ten times more than
me — ten times. Not double, but ten times for the same job. We only
have this much left for the
female actress. I mean, there’s two genders on this earth. Both are
compelling, interesting, diverse, wonderful in all their own separate
ways. And yet there’s an influx of male roles, and there’s just not for

Keira Knightley, who co-stars in The Imitation Game, the biopic about World War II codebreaker Alan Turing, revealed her feminism when responding to a reporter’s query why there aren’t more (or any) films about female geniuses. She said, “You’re asking if I’ve ever been offered a
biopic about a female genius? … No! What is up with that! I would love to play a
genius.” Joan Clarke, the character she
plays in the film, actually was a real-life genius, but no one thinks of making a film
about her. (If you are interested in watching a story about female codebreakers of the period, I
recommend the miniseries Bletchley Park.)

Zoe Saldana, who co-starred in the top-grossing
movie of the year, Guardians of the Galaxy,
talked about the limited types of roles women are offered and how she handles

“I’d be wasting your money and your time if I played
someone who doesn’t feel to me like a realistic woman. To me, a woman is not an
incompetent, impotent, inept creature. I’ve never met a woman like that. Yet
half of the scripts you read in Hollywood have [subservient] characters. I’m
not a maid to anybody.”

Angelina Jolie‘s had a pretty remarkable year. Maleficent, a revisionist look at
Sleeping Beauty, took the box office by storm this summer. It was one of only a
few films starring women that opened this summer. It wasn’t just the most successful of the bunch, but Jolie’s biggest opening to date — and the actress’s top-grossing film ever. The most extraordinary thing about that is that Maleficent is a mainstream, big-budget, fairy-tale movie that address rape in a clearly feminist way. Angelina Jolie and writer Linda Woolverton were very deliberate in
staging the scene where Maleficent’s wings are stolen as a metaphor for
rape. The fact that it has a worldwide gross of over $757 million shows that
films with female protagonists are successful — and that feminist messages
are mainstream.

Jolie is also breaking out as a top-tier director with Unbroken, which will be released on
December 25. Based on Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling book on Louis
Zamperini’s life, the film was written by Joel and Ethan Coen and is getting a lot of
Oscar noise. It fits nicely in the Oscar wheelhouse, a male-centric
story set during WWII, and it has propelled the actress onto the directing A-list, which
includes very few women.

Belle, Amma Asante and
Gugu Mbatha-Raw

Belle might be the second film from Amma
Asante, but it was the one that introduced her — and star Gugu Mbatha-Raw — to US audiences. This period film about a mixed-race young woman who helps bring
down the British slave trade was also a box-office success, making over $10.7 million here in the US (a great number for an indie of its size). Mbatha-Raw also starred in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Beyond the Lights, for which she received
a Gotham Award nomination. Asante’s next film will be the studio thriller Unforgettable, written by Christina
Hodson, which is noteworthy because it has two female leads and one of those
leads is rumored to be Kerry Washington.

The dearth of women directors in the mainstream and arthouse film worlds was addressed by Jane Campion, who held Cannes accountable for its years-long pattern of excluding female filmmakers from the festival. (Over the last decade, the number of women directors in the main competition stands at 8.8%, just 18 films out of 204.)

Campion is still the only woman to have won the Palme d’Or, Cannes’ biggest prize (she shared the honor; no woman has won on her own), as well as one of only four women to be nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards.

This past May, she served as jury president at Cannes and addressed
the perennial question that plagues that festival, as well as the film industry at large. Here’s what she said at the festival’s opening press

“There is some inherent sexism in the industry.
Thierry Frémaux told us that only seven percent, out of the 1,800 films
submitted to the Cannes Film Festival, were directed by women. He was proud to
say that we had 20 percent [female representation] in all of the programs. Nevertheless, it feels very
undemocratic, and women do notice.
Time and time again, we don’t get our share of representation. Excuse me, gentlemen, but the guys seem to eat all the cake.”

It’s not just the festivals that have a woman-director
problem. Women have also by and large been shut out of making big-budget films. One producer
this year tweeted about a conversation he had with a Hollywood agent, who told him
point blank that he “doesn’t do women directors” because they don’t
make money. It’s a vicious circle: women directors don’t make money because they don’t have the right agents fighting for their chance at the big-budget project, and agents don’t take on women directors because the latter aren’t known for working at the big-budget project (which of course have the greatest potential for high returns).

But this year, women cracked one open. Michelle MacLaren, the Emmy-winning director of episodes on Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad, has been tapped to direct a superheroine movie – the big-screen adaptation of DC’s Wonder Woman. Even the fact that we’ll see a Wonder Woman film is a big deal, because almost every single superhero
movie in the past twenty years has had a male lead. Even better news is that Wonder Woman
won’t be the only superheroine to hit theaters in the next few years. Marvel has announced that their upcoming Captain
Marvel movie will also have a female lead.

In the documentary world, no one is having a better year than Laura Poitras.

From the moment her film Citizenfour, a portrait of Edward Snowden, premiered at the NY Film Festival, it became the frontrunner of this year’s best documentary race at the Academy Awards. Citizenfour is one of the most important stories of our time,
and Poitras has been acknowledged as one of the masters of the nonfiction field. The film is also one
of the few documentaries to crack a million dollars at the box office.

And speaking of the box office, Jennifer Lawrence and the cast of Mockingjay – Part 1 had the top-grossing
opening weekend of the year. Last year, its predecessor, Catching
, was the top-grossing film of the year — the first film
starring a woman to top the annual box office in 40 years. Currently, the
worldwide box-office gross for Mockingjay – Part 1 is $614 million.

Another box office honorable mention is Obvious Child, led by a breakout performance from comedian Jenny
Slate. The Gillian Robespierre-directed film is worth noting because it is a
comedy about abortion, was made for about $500,000, and grossed over $3 million.
It is also nominated for multiple year-end awards.

I want to give a big shout-out to NY Times critic Manohla Dargis for her persistent outing
of institutional sexism in the paper of record. Over the last year, she has used her reviews and commentary pieces to criticize the lack of opportunities for women directors, as well as adamantly declare that women are not a box-office niche.

Here’s what she said, for example, in her review for the box-office
sensation Divergent:

“Women warriors are on the rise again in American
movies, and so, too, are hopes that they’ll be able to strike where it counts:
in the industry’s executive suites. Some of this faith can be traced,
irrationally or exuberantly, to The Hunger Games. Its second installment,
Catching Fire, wasn’t only the highest-grossing movie of 2013, it also pulled
in a lot of guys, and not just, you know, women, that 52 percent of North
American moviegoers who are deemed a limited demographic, a niche and a
seemingly unsolvable problem. That no one would ever frame male-driven
franchises like Iron Man, Spider-Man and The Dark Knight as niche
attractions helps explain that problem.”

But her piece two weeks ago on director Ava Duvernaytitled “Making History,” is an important moment in and of itself. The piece is above the fold in the Arts and Leisure section — a newspaper region rarely dedicated to women directors. 

And DuVernay’s story is so exciting because it is virtually impossible for women directors to break through into the “prestige” film world, especially the Oscars. There are a lot of reasons for this, not limited to the size of women directors’ stories, the topics of their stories, and this little thing like the fact that, in the Academy’s directing branch, there are 388 members and only 36 are women.

But Selma is a movie — and DuVernay a director — that cannot be ignored. The film is produced by two Hollywood heavyweights: Oprah and Brad Pitt. It is being released by Paramount Pictures, a giant studio. It is about an incredibly relevant topic to our current times: the racially motivated barriers to the ballot box. The film includes protest marches reminiscent of what we are seeing on the news today. And DuVernay has the opportunity to make history by become the first African-American woman to receive a best director nomination. 

One last quick bit: Julie Taymor’s The Lion King became the top-earning
work of any media in history this year. The musical has had 75
million viewers and $6.2 billion in ticket sales over its 17-year existence.

Here’s to a successful 2015. 

A version of this post first aired as my Entertainment
Correspondent’s report on the December 13 episode of “Women’s
Media Center Live with Robin Morgan,” the nationally syndicated radio show
also available internationally on iTunes and on as a podcast. Visit the Women’s Media Center site

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