Women have faced, and still face at an alarming level, barriers in the film and television industry. In 87 years of Academy Awards history, as few as four women have been nominated for the Best Director Oscar, and only one – Kathryn Bigelow – has successfully won it. While industry professionals would like filmmakers, and the general public, to believe that Hollywood has progressed at the same rate of most other companies and work sectors in terms of gender equality and nondiscriminatory employment practices, they are actually embarrassingly far behind. Whether they be directors, producers, cinematographers, or writers, female filmmakers aren’t simply nominated for less awards, they are also hired less, given less credibility, and suffer frequent harassment and disrespect on set. And the worst part? Like a house owner stubbornly ignoring crumbling infrastructure, no one in the film industry wants to talk about sexism.
In their essay, “Unmanageable Inequalities: Sexism in the Film Industry,” Deborah Jones and Judith K. Pringle report a “reluctance on the part of those in the industry to explore the issue” and bring attention to the various inequalities for fear of bad publicity (39). Thankfully, many are still taking notice. In Kelly Hankin’s essay, “And Introducing…The Female Director: Documentaries about Women Filmmakers as Feminist Activism,” Hankin states how ample “statistical and anecdotal evidence suggest that, in both the Hollywood and commercial independent film industries, female directors are not given the same support and opportunities as their male counterparts” (59). The New York Film Academy recently investigated gender inequality in film, discovering that there is a 5:1 ratio of men working on films in comparison to women, with women representing only 17% of executive producers, 15% of writers, 9% of directors, and a measly 2% of cinematographers.
Deborah Jones and Judith K. Pringle describe how statistics like these legitimize present inequalities and make them “visible and speakable,” a tool which is “especially important in the ﬁlm industry, where talk of inequality is frequently silenced or marginalized” (39). In 2008, a UK Skillset study of women “who have succeeded in film and television” was conducted which yielded the conclusion that women were typically “more highly qualified” than their male co-workers, and though they consistently worked “longer hours” they were widely reported to “earn less than men” (Jones and Pringle 40). Often women themselves are blamed for these statistics and told that “they must change their own characteristics” to solve these problems of systemic inequality through “more training and education” (Jones and Pringle 40). However, the Skillset study showed that most of these women “already have more training and education than their male colleagues” proving that the only thing standing in the way of women’s collective success in the film and television industry is widespread and largely unchecked misogyny (Jones and Pringle 40).
The push back against female directors stems from the larger issue of the way women leaders are perceived in almost every executive sphere. In 1992, Barbra Streisand received the Women in Film Crystal Award and used her platform as an opportunity to address the way women of authority are unfairly viewed by describing how when a “man is commanding – a woman is demanding. A man is forceful – a woman is pushy. A man is uncompromising – a woman is a ball breaker. He strategizes – she manipulates. If a man wants to get, he’s looked up to and respected, [while] if a woman wants to get it right, she’s difficult and impossible” (Seger 55).
Essentially, it comes down to respect. Men in governing directorate positions are assumed to be deserving of respect while women must continue to prove themselves worthy of that respect long after it is due. In their article, “Women And Men In Film: Gender Inequality Among Writers in a Culture Industry,” Denise D. Bielby and William T. Bielby describe how “unstructured labor market arrangements in the television industry” have generated a process of “continuous disadvantage whereby women television writers are disadvantaged relative to men throughout their careers, regardless of their previous accomplishments in the industry” (248).
For example, in Lynne Jackson’s “Eavesdropping on Female Voices: A Who’s Who of Contemporary Women Filmmakers,” they cite how drastically women’s experiences in the industry differ from men’s, quoting Ruby Rich as saying that for women today, film is a “dialectical experience in a way that it never was and never will be for a man under patriarchy” because when directing a film “you are faced with a context that is coded wholly for your invisibility” (38). Women are criticized for missteps which are often used to invalidate their whole career, while their achievements go unnoticed. Kathryn Bigelow, the only female director to have won the Academy Award for Best Director as mentioned previously, once directed a film called K-19: The Widowmaker which became a box-office bomb when it only made $60.5 in gross global returns after a production budget of $100 million. Though this film was made in 2002, the failure of the picture followed her for years afterward. She had to make three more films, including the Oscar winning The Hurt Locker, before she was deemed a relevant director again in the eyes of the industry.
Women are not only ignored but also marginalized through a common belief that they are only suited to work in certain genres of the field. In Meri Danquah’s article “Crashing the Glass Ceiling,” Academy Awarding winner writer Callie Khouri is referenced as saying that there is a “certain stigma” to the type of films women write; they are often discouraged from writing action, horrors, and thrillers because there is “a set of expectations that women write a certain type of picture…if it has a female audience then there is always a somewhat derogatory connotation to a so-called woman’s picture” (13).
This pigeon holing of women’s abilities is not only harmful to female creators because it bars them from pursuing a large majority of genres, but also because it dismissively lessens the value of films that are often targeted towards women. Films that are seemingly made for women are frequently viewed as trivial in the eyes of the industry, audiences, and critics, which points to further evidence of pervasive sexism. If female directors are told that they are only good for making romantic comedies and dramas and other “woman’s pictures,” how can they be taken seriously in a business that largely looks down upon such genres?
Unfortunately, just as sexism is perpetrated by men, it is also often quietly accepted by women. There tends to be a resigned “ignorance of gender inequalities” as if it were “written into the psychological contract” of women’s career opportunities (Jones and Pringle 43). Because the ladder of opportunity is so difficult to climb, women have little reason to make waves and risk losing their jobs after they’ve fought their way to the top. Many male film directors like David Fincher, David O. Russell, and Francis Ford Coppola are known as notoriously difficult to work with and yet are still lauded as geniuses and are given regular work, while women are told to never complain and to retain a likability factor, blending in as one of the guys in “a male dominated industry” (Jones and Pringle 43).
In her book When Women Call the Shots: The Developing Power and Influence of Women in Television and Film, Linda Seger insists that once women reach positions of power, it is imperative that they “speak out about what they see around them” (268). This may seem like a simple solution, but the reality is more complex, because it “manifests itself at every level of the business” no matter how high your position may be (Seger 54). Some women may be scared to lose their power, but it’s “important to let the woman’s point of view be expressed, [which] means speaking up about subjects that people don’t want to talk about” (Seger 268).
The film industry is also about who you know, which means relying heavily on inside contacts to give you a helping hand up the higher rungs of the corporate ladder. Often this comes in the form of a mentor, someone with more experience who is willing to help up-and-comers learn the trade. The trouble with this is that if there are few women in power, then “there are few women to mentor other women” (Seger 54). Men are much less likely to help young women in the business than young men, so if there are few women able to mentor them, there is a slim chance they will be mentored at all.
In her article “If We Don’t Tell Our Own Stories, Nobody Will,” Kristin Palitza interviews two influential African directors, Zulfah Otto-Sallies and Dorothy Meck, about sexism in the industry. Otto-Sallies says that while “change has occurred, a lot still needs to be done to get women to see themselves move beyond the self-image of being a victim,” while Meck found a silver lining in the oppressive inequalities of the “cold, male-dominated business world” in that they have taught her to be “independent, strong, and to stand up for [herself]” (56).
Men are generally allowed to let their talent speak for themselves, while women must prove themselves through their talent, credibility, and congeniality. Even after a female filmmaker manages to jump these hurdles in the film business, they are still constantly overlooked. Archaic views on gender roles are holding the industry back from its full potential. Let women film, let them write, let them pursue their talents without unwarranted aggression or condescension. Unless you’re scared of a little healthy competition?
Danquah, Meri Nana-Ama. “Crashing the Glass Ceiling.” Writers Guild Journal 7:12-7 (1994): 13. Print.
“Gender Inequality in Film – An Infographic.” New York Film Academy. N.p., 25 Nov. 2013. Web. 09 July 2015.
Hankin, Kelly. “And Introducing…The Female Director: Documentaries about Women Filmmakers as Feminist Activism.” NWSA Journal 19.1 (2007): 59-88. Print.
Jackson, Lynne. “Eavesdropping On Female Voices: A Who’s Who of Contemporary Women Filmmakers.” Cinéaste 16.1/2 (1987): 38-43. Print.
Jones, Deborah, and Judith K. Pringle. “Unmanageable Inequalities: Sexism in the Film Industry.” The Sociological Review 63.S1 (2015): 37-49. Print.
Palitza, Kristin. “If We Don’t Tell Our Own Stories, Nobody Will.” Agenda 69 (2006): 152. Print.
Seger, Linda. When Women Call the Shots: The Developing Power and Influence of Women in Television and Film. New York: Henry Holt, 1996. Print.