Anyone who’s studied the film industry and auteur history, or just kept track of major filmmakers, can testify that women are sadly underrepresented in the director’s chair. Women directors have certainly created a hefty share of masterpieces (see below), but they tend to be infrequent staples within the Hollwood mainstream and, to an extent, even in the European cinema spheres. Careers as long and varied as, say, Alfred Hitchcock or John Huston are even rarer still.
I’m not entirely sure why this is, other than that the heavily male-dominated industry is reluctant to cede many opportunities even when female talent is available. But is it entirely a production issue, manifested by sexism amongst producers and investors? Are there, for whatever reason, fewer women interested in directing? Are audiences somehow less interested in films made by women? Is popular cinema’s reliance on male gaze too fundamental to marketing and sales to be excised, or even counterbalanced? I’m curious rather someone better qualified than I can take a stab at these issues.
In more ways than one, the minority of female directors has led to a self-perpetuating cycle that’s carried over from long before the feminist movement. It likely discourages some would-be and up-and-coming women directors who knew they have to fight against the tide. It may also fool producers into believing that female talent is riskier than it really is.
Even in film criticism, the battlefield is rarely level, with films made by women often interrogated excessively for feminist readings. Once found, this layer of the film is inevitably given disproportionate attention, often overlooking both personal themes and broader achievements. All too often mainstream film reviewers (not to mention those with particular interest in feminism or its backlash) fail to ask whether gender themes even apply. Consider, for example, films like the Shakespeare adaptation “Titus,” the submarine thriller “K-19: The Widowmaker” or the slacker comedy "Wayne's World." If half of all films were made by women, would we really be hunting out gender issue undertones in these films?
But at the same time, from the perspective of a female filmmaker, I can see how the underrepresentation of the feminine voice, perspective and means of production would only increase the interest in tackling these issues head on, or at least addressing them. Members of a minority are obviously more sensitive to the danger of blindly accepting the status quo (like male action leads or throwaway romantic interests), but consciously rejecting the male-oriented system draws attention and risks focusing consideration away from other themes you’re dealing with. Do it enough times and suddenly you’re no longer making a “mainstream” film, but a “feminist” one. Even if you’d done nothing more than made a female-centric version of a traditionally male-centric scenario, investors, the media and the public will doubtlessly see it, first and foremost, as a feminist work. (I don’t mean to suggest here that making an intentionally “feminist work” is in any way a bad thing, merely that it can become a very limiting label.)
It’s a bit of a catch 22 with certainly no easy solution. For anyone actually versed in gender studies, I’m doubtlessly making a very naïve and amateurish retread of the topic, but I’m endeavoring to think through the issue plainly and for myself, without a complicated theoretical framework to get snarled up in. I find this useful not just in my desire to be more understanding of multiple perspectives, but because males (yes, even lowly ticket-buying and movie-blogging males who are not directly part of the power nexus of the industry) have a responsibility to be part of the solution and not just the problem.
I’m acutely aware that even if I came up with any insightful conclusions, it would be hypocritical of me to try and set guidelines or even advice for female directors. It would just be another male voice (however enlightened I might imagine it to be) telling female talent what to do. Other than to say that I think female directors should just make whatever films they feel driven to make (towards whatever commercial, artistic or social goals they choose) and wear down the male-dominant industry until gender representation is more level, I really don’t have any profound plan for how a change might be affected.
I can, however, offer some advice to men making films, by reflecting on how I’d go about it. Let’s say I’m making a film that isn’t specifically dealing with gender. I’d first write the script entirely in line with my vision, just focusing on what comes naturally even if I know that I’m inflecting it with gender bias and whatnot. Then afterwards I’d flip a coin (or write a computer randomizer) to assign/reassign the genders of all the characters. Then I’d rework the script as needed (hopefully as little as possible) to make sure the story still made sense.
There might be some compromises (like for historical settings or plot points involving pregnancy and birth), but I’d even consider changing important elements of the story if need be. The same thing could be done to assign race, sexual orientation, age and so on. Since these things are usually and often necessarily important to a character’s heritage, personality and circumstances, I’d have to be flexible with reworking the screenplay, but it would be a challenge that could ultimately improve it and weed out lazy clichés and assumptions in the original writing. This system has its own share of problems, but I think it has promise. I understand that it’s similar to how “Alien” (1979) was made.
All that being said, I’ve yet to actually make a film or even write a script. Hopefully, that will one day change, but in the meantime, I need something else to do my own small bit. The most obvious is the vote-with-your-wallet method, to seek out more films created by women directors (or with female writers, cinematographers, etc.) and avoid exceedingly chauvinistic male-directed films. I have to admit the former is easier for me than the latter, since I don’t like to rule out watching any film that might have some redeeming value and, if I’m completely honest, my hormones occasionally chime up. Plus, you'd more or less have to pull gialli from my cold, dead DVD player.
I also try to give a fair amount of coverage to female-directed works on my blog, though in retrospect there are fairly long dry patches on it.
Anyway, after all my complaining about the film-and-gender situation, I’d like to end on something more positive. The fact that a great number of brilliant films by women from around the world are already out there offering a huge variety of perspectives needs to be acknowledged. So I’d like to finish with a list of some favorite films directed by women. The fact that so many are quite recent seems to bode well for future growth.
Across the Universe (2007) by Julie Taymor
The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) by Lotte Reiniger
After the Wedding (2006) by Susanne Bier
Ascent (1977) by Larisa Shepitko
American Psycho (2000) by Mary Harron
Big (1988) by Penny Marshall
The Bigamist (1953) by Ida Lupino
Broken English (2007) by Zoe Cassavetes
Celia (1989) by Ann Turner
Children of a Lesser God (1986) by Randa Haines
Cleo from 5 to 7 (1961) by Agnes Varda
Clueless (1995) by Amy Heckerling
Craig’s Wife (1936) by Dorothy Arzner
Daisies (1966) by Vera Chytilova
Fat Girl (2001) by Catherine Breillat
Germany Pale Mother (1980) by Helma Sanders-Brahms
The Gleaners and I (2000) by Agnes Varda
Good Work / Beau Travail (1999) by Claire Denis
Grace of My Heart (1996) by Allison Anders
Harlan County USA (1976) by Barbara Kopple
The Hitch-Hiker (1953) by Ida Lupino
I Am (2005) by Dorota Kedzierzawska
Innocence (2004) by Lucile Hadzihalilovic
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) by Chantal Akerman
Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance (1993) by Alanis Obomsawin
Lost in Translation (2003) by Sofia Coppola
The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1975) by Margarethe von Trotta (and Volker Schlondorff)
Lovely and Amazing (2002) by Nicole Holofcener
Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) and At Land (1944) by Maya Deren
Microcosmos (1996) by Marie Pérennou (and Claude Nuridsany)
Monster (2003) by Patty Jenkins
My Twentieth Century (1989) by Ildiko Enyedi
North Country (2005) by Niki Caro
Olivier, Olivier (1992) by Agnieszka Holland
Orlando (1992) by Sally Potter (written by the great Virginia Woolf)
Persepolis (2007) by Marjane Satrapi (and Vincent Paronnaud)
The Piano (1993) by Jane Campion
Ratcatcher (1999) by Lynne Ramsay
Salaam Bombay! (1988) by Mira Nair
Sita Sings the Blues (2008) by Nina Paley
The Smiling Madame Beudet (1923) by Germaine Dulac
Take Care of My Cat (2001) by Jae-eun Jeong
Titus (1999) by Julie Taymor
Vagabond (1985) by Agnes Varda
Waitress (2007) by Adrienne Shelley
Walking and Talking (1996) by Nicole Holofcener
Wanda (1971) by Barbara Loden
Working Girls (1986) by Lizzie Borden
Other famous female directors who don’t make my personal list (but might after I get to know more of their work): Gillian Armstrong, Gurinder Chadha, Marguerite Duras, Nora Ephron, Lesli Linka Glatter, Catherine Hardwicke, Emily Hubley, Daniele Huillet, Vicky Jenson, Agnes Kocsis, Caroline Link, Samira Makhmalbaf, Nancy Meyers, Leni Riefenstahl, Susan Seidelman, Penelope Spheeris, Betty Thomas and Lina Wertmuller.
I still hope to do reviews on some of the films listed and I’ll try to keep it updated as I remember more and see new ones. I’d also love to see your own lists, hear your thoughts on the subject and get some recommendations.