Women in Hollywood (Or, The Lack Thereof…)

If I were to ask you to name a famous movie director, you might name Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese. Maybe you’d say Clint Eastwood, Stanley Kubrick, Quentin Tarantino. You could name them for a while, but eventually you’d run out. And what do all of these names have in common? None of them are women.

If I asked you to name some of the greatest movies ever made, you might say The GodfatherTaxi Driver, Pulp Fiction, or Fight Club. And behind all of these movies? Not enough women. All of these films had no female producers, designers, directors, or screenwriters. And the female characters are sparse; there are either few female characters, or only those who fit the archetypal damsel in distress role.

Women have long struggled to find their footing in the male-dominated world of Hollywood. At the 2017 Academy Awards, no women were nominated for Best Director, Best Original or Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, or Best Score. The Oscars are a step toward larger scale recognition, and the lack of nominations is disheartening.

The Hollywood Reporter‘s Directors Roundtable, 2017. Photo credit: Miller Mobley.

A director’s vision is what gives a film life; and the world of Hollywood directors has an enormous lack of females. The industry is primarily dominated by male directors, whom I typically divide into two rough categories. There are those famous male directors, critically acclaimed and widely respected, whose names alone can garner attention for their movies. These are your Spielberg and Tarantino types.

Then, there are the less experienced male directors, for whom lack of experience doesn’t seem to be much of an issue. Many blockbuster franchises are handed to male candidates with little to no previous experience. And here is where a problem arises.

Late last year, Kathleen Kennedy, a producer of the Star Wars franchise, said, “We want to make sure that when we bring a female director in to do Star Wars, they’re set up for success… You can’t come into them with essentially no experience.” That logic may make sense, but what about the many men who are given franchise movies to direct, despite lacking the same experience female candidates do? Gareth Edwards directed the 2014 remake of Godzilla having directed no well-known movies previously. Jordan Vogt-Roberts is in a similar situation, having directed this year’s Kong: Skull Island with one, mildly successful movie preceding that. Why then, are women with the same experience level looked over? So many of these blockbusters are female led: The Hunger Games, Divergent, Rogue One. Yet none of them were directed or written by females. Women are far less frequently trusted with successful franchises, and it is unclear why. Women are expected to have blockbuster experience, but they aren’t getting that experience because they don’t have it already. Why are up-and-coming male directors not being held to the same standard?

Only one woman has ever won the Academy Award for Best Director, and only two have ever been nominated. It wasn’t until 2008 that Kathryn Bigelow made history for her Iraq War film The Hurt Locker. Why, in over a half century of film awards, did it take this long for a woman to get the prize? And why, after ninety years of Academy awards, have only two women, including Bigelow, ever been nominated?

There are, of course, some notable female directors: Jodie Foster, Sarah Polley, Sofia Coppola, Penny Marshall. And there has been a major push in recent years to bring new voices to the film world; women such as Ava DuVernay or Amma Asante have been on the rise. But there is still lots of work to do. In 2015, only around 7.5% of the year’s top 800 films were directed by women. In previous years, that number was even lower. A recent study by the University of Southern California has predicted that these numbers will remain stagnant.

Image credit: Women In Film.

The screenwriting industry faces similar difficulties. As an integral part of what types of movies are made, female representation is essential. Yet, like with directing, so few female screenwriters are given the opportunities for exposure or experience. These women are put in a box; you’ll find the highest number of female screenwriters working on historical biopics or coming-of-age tales. Female voices are lost in narrative film (which leads to problems for actresses). Over half of the students at top film schools are women. They are as eager and willing to tell vivid and complex stories as their male counterparts, but producers so often turn them away.

There is an inherent lack of trust of women in powerful movie making roles; Diana Ossana, screenwriter of 2005’s award-winning Brokeback Mountain (based on a short story by Annie Proulx) often tells the story of how she and her co-writer, Larry McMurtry, had to fight the studio to get her a producing credit, while he didn’t even have to ask. The first in the Fifty Shades movie duo (also based on the published fiction of a female author, E.L. James) was written by a woman, Kelly Marcel; despite that movie’s major box office success, the sequel has a new male writer.

The statistics can be daunting and discouraging for women looking to pursue these careers. But women in the industry have been working to call attention to this issue. Organizations such as Women in Film are dedicated to creating opportunities for female filmmakers and promoting their work. At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, one third of the movies were directed by women. Women in Film and the Sundance Institute have launched a new program called ReFrame to promote female participation in movie making.

Hollywood actresses have their own separate set of challenges. Plenty of girls head to Hollywood, counting on a “big break.” But, before long, there is a realization—parts for women aren’t as plentiful or as well written as parts for men. So they sometimes become discouraged. Perhaps by the lack of roles for women, or perhaps by the content of those roles. Perhaps by the treatment of women behind the scenes or the staggering pay difference between actors and actresses. These issues have been garnering media attention in past years, as many famous actresses have spoken out about them. Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence wrote a heartfelt open letter in Lena Dunham’s feminist online newsletter, Lenny, about the difference in pay between her and her male co stars on American Hustle. Amy Adams has opened up about David O’Russell’s verbal abuse of her on set, and Shelley Duvall has claimed that her mental illness was intensified by Stanley Kubrick’s deliberate attempts to affect her mental health during filming of The Shining. Some of this year’s Oscar nominees discussed the importance of portraying “wonderfully complex, true, female roles,” in film in a roundtable interview for the Hollywood Reporter.

As far as complex female roles though, options are limited. As Hollywood first began to grow in the early 20th century, women were frequently the archetypal damsel in distress. These characters were not as complex, vivid, or well-developed as their male counterparts. And as these female characters were the first on Hollywood’s screen, they became standard. Today, women are still working hard to debunk these female archetypes. The Bechdel Test had become a foundational part of this. In one of famous cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s comics from her syndicated comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For, she develops a set of questions each movie should have to pass. Does the movie have two female characters? Do they talk to each other? And, is the conversation about something other than a man?

“The Bechdel Test” – A 1985 comic from Bechdel’s strip Dykes to Watch Out For.

Other such tests have developed. Anita Sarkeesian added a fourth question to Bechdel’s original: Does the female characters’ conversation last for more than 60 seconds?  The Mako Mori test takes the Bechdel test even further. Does the film have at least one female character? Does this female character get her own narrative arc? Is this narrative arc not about supporting a man’s story? So many female characters have such potential to develop and pursue their own stories, yet they are often written to cater to the male narrative. There are all sorts of film tropes: The manic pixie dream girl (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, 500 Days of Summer), the disposable woman (The Bond girls, Lois Lane, Mary Jane), the psycho ex-girlfriend (Wayne’s World, Fatal Attraction). These iconic characters have such potential to stand on their own yet are often written to cater to the more central male narrative.

Many movies don’t pass the Bechdel Test and its variants. Some of my favorite movies don’t make the cut (I expected better from the last Harry Potter movie).  The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Avatar, The Social Network, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Citizen Kane; all of these critically acclaimed films fail all three tests. Herein lies a problem. If some of the greatest movies of all time don’t even have two female characters, why should other movies?

The cast of Orange is the New Black accepts the 2015 SAG Award for Best Ensemble in a Comedy Series. Photo credit: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images.

It seems that a pattern has formed. Lack of female screenwriters leads to lack of female directors leads to lack of strong female characters leads to lack of female representation in film. Filmmaking leads to one, cohesive result, and understanding this issue becomes more and more difficult.

There has been significant movement in the right direction; TV shows like Orange Is the New Black and Girls have made it their mission to accurately represent women on camera. Celebrity women have shed light on this issue, a prime example being Patricia Arquette’s 2015 Oscar acceptance speech. As integral of a role that movies play in our society, representation is essential. It’s time to change the way we treat women in film.

Featured image from The Hollywood Reporter.

About the author

Bobbie Edmunds is a senior at Collegiate School