Despite filmmaking being an artistic medium that is liberal and emotional by nature, which is contradictory to what main stream media deems a man is “supposed” to be, the film industry has always been a male dominated field. While there have been a number of women over the last 120 years who have left their mark on cinema, the numbers are much more male than they are female.
For instance, in the 93 years of the Academy Awards, only six women have ever been nominated for Best Director, and only two have won. The problem begins when certain men are given power and they abuse it. In the last few years, Hollywood has been turned upside down as all of these abuses of power come to light, whether it be excluding women from being able to make movies, wage disparity, or straight up physical and sexual assault. With movements like Me Too and Time’s Up, women are taking back their power and making way for more equality within the film industry.
The first issue I’d like to discuss is the historical exclusion of women from holding technical positions on movie sets, whether it be screenwriting, directing, lights, sound, or even costumes. There is a great documentary called This Changes Everything that highlights the exclusion, but also zooms in on the effects that the exclusion has on the way women are depicted on screen. One story told is that of a group of women known as the Original Six, six female members of the DGA.
In 1985, they all got together to talk about how their careers were going, unbeknownst to one another, each woman was embarrassed to meet up because they had all been out of work for years. When they got together, they realized that after making their debut films, not a single one of them was able to get funding on another film project. Subsequently, they filed a civil rights lawsuit due to what they realized was the DGA’s deliberate actions to not hire women for film projects. And it wasn’t because these women weren’t trying or they had bad ideas for movies. In fact these were award winning directors. One of the original six, Lynne Littman, said it perfectly, “We had an Oscar, a Fullbright, two AFI Filmmaker Grants, two Emmys...and what we figured out we really needed was a penis.”
There are many other stories that are similar. Whether it be female actors walking on a set and not seeing any women behind the camera, or production companies getting lists of potential screenwriters without a single woman’s name, this is a barrier women have been fighting to break down for decades. The bigger issue, besides the direct impact it has on a female filmmakers’ mental health and financial circumstances, is how women are thusly portrayed in film. When you have men telling women’s stories there is often a lack of empathy as well as an ignorance to how women actually feel and actually live their lives.
For example, Meryl Streep discussed her role in Kramer vs. Kramer, and how the male writer and director was portraying a mom leaving her son, but in a way that made her the villain of the story. Rather than showing a young woman struggling to cope with life, who is complex and a beautifully flawed human, Joanna Kramer is the appalling woman who abandoned her son and husband. Of course, the writer of a piece, male or female, has the right to depict their characters however they want. That's the beauty of the craft. But the portrayal of women as one note characters can be directly attributed to the fact that more women are not telling their own stories. As more female filmmakers have emerged in the last decade or so, we can see a shift and a beautiful, new kind of voice gracing cinema.
The other big issue that follows in suit with exclusion is the wage disparity. This is a bit of a tricky subject, particularly in Hollywood when discussing individuals who are very wealthy in comparison to the rest of the population working in other sectors. However, people in Hollywood bringing the wage disparity between men and women to light, hopefully, will have far reaching effects beyond those in the film industry.
With personal stories and legitimate proof, even actresses like Jennifer Lawerence and Jessica Chastain experience wage inequality when working on projects. Jessica Chastain has mentioned a project, following her incredibly successful role in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thiry, where she was asked to play the female protagonist, but the heads of department refused to negotiate her deal until they knew who her male co-star was so they could negotiate his deal and see what was left over for her. And this is someone who has already made it in the industry, who is a well known and well respected actress. It is even worse for females trying to fill other positions on a set.
Going back to the documentary This Changes Everything, which has interviews with some of the top women in the industry, it can be said that the exclusion of women is also a substantial factor in the destructive wage gap cycle. On the agency level, agents aren’t going to put female directors or female screenwriters on a list for a film because they KNOW that the female will make less money than the male. Since agents make money based on how much their client makes, why wouldn’t the agent put forth the person who is going to make them more money? As much as we’d like to think that morals always overpower the quest for money, that's just not the case. Money is a powerful motivator, and unfortunately, it has been a primary factor that led to this cyclical inequality for women.
Obviously, sexual abuse against women is also a big issue that has plagued Hollywood and recently come to the light. With allegations of abuse on top Hollywood executives like Harvey Weinstein, the topic of female inequality in the film industry, and in general, has hit a peak, bringing with it actual change and improvement. Since around 2016 or 2017 when accusations of harassment and abuse first began, reporters have been asking any and every female in the film industry what their opinion is on the matter. A lot of women have a lot of powerful things to say, but my favorite sentiment is from Greta Gerwig.
She said, “I mean I think it’s heartbreaking, all of it. My heart breaks for all of the people who have told their stories. I think they are just tremendously brave and I think it’s starting some really important conversations that need to happen. I think for me something that I’ve loved about having a movie out this year [Lady Bird] and being able to talk to people is what an increased focus there’s been particularly on female filmmakers and the female filmmakers I’ve gotten to meet and gotten to talk to. And when I think about Dee Rees, Maggie Betts, Valerie Faris, Angelina Jolie, Patty Jenkins, Sofia Coppola, Kathryn Bigelow, and I’m probably missing a ton of other people, but I feel like there’s this other thing which is this spotlight on these women who are creators and I’m just glad I’m getting to be apart of this discussion...I’m just focused on that because to me that’s the thing that we need to keep putting our attention on.”
With focus on the amazing work that has come from female filmmakers in the last few years, it is encouraging to say that things are changing. It’s somewhat evolutionary if you think about it. What else is evolution but using the growth of generations before as stepping stools to new and better ways of living. All of the women in the Swila community, it is our turn to carry the torch and keep fighting for more equality, but also take advantage of the opportunities we have because of those who fought before us, and not waste the gift we’ve been given to tell our stories and make beautiful cinema.
And this message goes for men in the Swila community as well. Regardless of your gender, anything that may be holding you back, whether institutional barriers, or internal conflict with yourself, fight for yourself and fight for your dreams because the world needs your stories.
And of course...
Always be writing.
Follow Hannah on Instagram: @hannahwagner3932
Always be writing.
Tell better stories.
Never give up.