Forging a Way for Feminism in Film

Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto: Iris Ng | Michael Barker Studio
Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto: Iris Ng | Michael Barker Studio

By Megan Graham

Keeping issues like feminism neatly contained to the theoretical or academic world makes it easier for those who don’t care about the cause, or who don’t want such bothersome terms weighing down their worldview. But no matter which side of the fence you’re on, it’s very likely you consume TV and film — our favorite modern-day collective storytelling devices.

A great film can leave an indelible mark on us, can add something to our individual and collective psyches. Stories captured on camera have the capacity to communicate so much — not just explicit messages but the minutiae of story communicated through countless artistic and style choices. From binge-watching a TV series to heading to the movies to catch a new release, most Westerners spend significant hours in front of the big and little screen. So these stories get absorbed, discussed, praised, and criticized and, subtlety or dramatically, become part of who we are.

Knowing the power of these mediums, it’s no wonder more of us are taking issue with the underrepresentation of women both in front of and behind the camera. Like it or not, most of us are getting huge doses of men’s perspectives even in our downtime (as if we don’t get enough of it in the workplace). At a Women at Sundance (film festival) brunch in January, Jane Fonda put it this way:

“The studios are run by men and they have the bottom line to meet and they give jobs to people like them. It’s a matter of gender, not that we don’t have the experience. We have to shame the studios for being so gender-biased.”

It seems the film industry is yet another men’s club where women are only given a pass in when convenient (often because they’re the type men like to look at). Thankfully, there is a growing push for this to change, from the new all-women production company “The Dollhouse Collective” — launched by Australian actor Rose Byrne and four fellow female filmmakers — to the newly created Tumblr site “Shit People Say To Women Directors (& Other Women in Film),” which has taken off since it launched last month. The latter is a sobering collection of anonymous contributions from women in the industry, and it’s as enraging to read as it is empowering. It gives voice to the experiences of all women who have to contend with sexism, misogyny and glass ceilings.

In a recent piece about the blog in The Vine, Clem Bastow wrote: “The ‘early-30s-white-male-screenwriter’ scourge means scant roles of any import for women, and those that do exist are typically one-dimensional.” What’s even scarier is the impact this has on how girls see themselves, as they increasingly grow up with a skewed sense of self based on how (heterosexual) males might assess them. The constant stream of messages communicated not just in film but through pervasive advertising, magazines, and fashion all condition girls to view themselves not through an internal lens of self-exploration and self-appraisal, but from an outside perspective that relies on men’s approval of their outward appearance — and “sex appeal.” The proliferation of the “male gaze” in all of these mediums perpetuates this unhealthy fixation — and this gaze is never more effectively used than in film and TV.

According to a 2014 study sponsored by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, women fill only 23 percent of directing positions and 26 percent of key behind-the-scenes roles. An earlier study of the top 100 domestic US grossing films in 2013 found that women comprised 15 percent of protagonists and 30 percent of all speaking characters. And for those 20–30 percent of women who find themselves in these roles, how safe do they feel in their work? Reading through the Tumblr posts, it’s clear many of these women have been made to feel deeply uncomfortable expressing any opinion, let alone a dissenting one — especially when it could cost them their career.

One anonymous poster wrote:

“An editor on a project I was producing would not make the changes I asked for until I brought a male colleague (not connected to the project) into the room to vouch for me.”

Another said:

“I work as an editor in India … When I was an assistant, one of my co-workers let me know my boss was telling the guys, ‘I only hired her because I heard her American accent and thought she was white. We could have had something to look at.’”

Treating women this way is not only stupid from an economic point of view of wasted talent, it’s also deeply unethical and, when it crosses over to sexual discrimination, illegal. It can also be utterly impractical in a professional environment. “A sales agent emailed my male director of photography to inquire about the rights to my feature film because he couldn’t get his head around the all-female producing team,” wrote another contributor on the Tumblr site. What is actually entirely unnecessary — and plainly irrational — behavior has huge potential costs. The time costs of operating around women rather than with them. The financial and reputational costs of sexual discrimination / harassment lawsuits. And, perhaps most salient and most overlooked, the forfeited gains from prohibiting talented women from working at their best.

The idea that women should be kept in positions of subordination, or at least kept in the kitchen, is sadly not as much a depressing relic of the past as we tend to think. “I was recently part of the creation of a film production group making its first attempt at a feature film,” another of the Tumblr posts explained. “I came on as a screenwriter, but with literally no budget and a small (all-male) crew, I eventually took on challenging roles from co-producer, casting director, and location scout (to much, much more). When production ended and a new film was being discussed, I was asked by the director to come back as the cook. I respectfully declined.”

Even if we know it’s “shit” that these people say, there’s no doubt we need the burgeoning movement of strong women in film speaking up and proving it. From Rose Byrne’s new production company to Academy Award-winning actor Geena Davis’ Institute on Gender in Media — a research-based organization who are “changing media to empower girls!” — there is hope for greater awareness and opportunities for change. Rather than waiting for the men’s clubs to get on board, women are taking matters into their own hands and discovering that empowerment is contagious.

There are good signs around, such as as the new Mad Max: Fury Road which released recently in Australia. Audiences will see a strong woman at the front and centre of arguably one of the year’s best action films. Or they can revisit Guardians of the Galaxy, released in August last year, and enjoy the first Marvel blockbuster to be written by a woman — screenwriter Nicole Perlman.

Either way, there are growing opportunities to both support feminism in film and initiate new projects that address the issue as women start to take their place in the story of film. So, if you’re keen to see change, watch this space — literally.


Megan Graham is a freelance writer, journalist, and occasional blogger based in Melbourne, Australia. She is passionate about writing that humanizes and empowers people, particularly women. Megan tweets (sporadically) at @secondhandstori and is a regular contributor at Eureka Street.

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