Since the inception of film, seldom have women, minorities or even nonconformist males held the center of a story, serving instead as the adjunct or love interest. Rarely the subject, most often the object. Subtlety, through the years we have been indoctrinated to view the world through a patriarchal lens. In virtually every sector those who select the protagonist, choose the narrative, act as distributor and pen the review, have endorsed or subscribed to a traditional masculine value system. Cronyism and colonialism have been the order of the day in the entertainment industry for years. A change in wind direction is assuredly afoot however and the times they are a changing Bob Dylan. The time has come to remove our blue tinted glasses.
A steadfast movement to observe the world through a more diverse lens has been quietly brewing beneath the surface and recently the breeze became a gale. Jill Soloway, director of the TV series Transparent ended her Emmy acceptance speech with a loudly heartfelt “Topple the Patriarchy”. It is a sentiment which has been gaining momentum and was a quiet, stubborn undercurrent that ran below the recent Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in Toronto. Though more carefully worded by the directors at TIFF (who can’t buck the system if they still want to work) its presence was undeniable.
I have been enjoying TIFF every year since 2013 and I’m always impressed by the calibre of films presented. This year was no exception. The first week we viewed the premiere of Below Her Mouth, a passionate love story between two women. During the Q and A that followed the screening the female director remarked that the love scenes would have been very different, had they been directed by a male. In reaction, a man sitting close to the front of the theatre, jumped up and asked her to clarify the comment. She answered that characteristically, of paramount importance to the male director of a same-sex love scene would have been the sexual act itself and that the relationship would be framed from that viewpoint (read more action, less reflection). Seen through the eyes of a woman the relationship is instead about the intimacy between the women rather than consummation of the act, and so the focus of a female director is on the emotions felt and the looks that pass between the eyes of the lovers.
Moonlight was another film highlighted at TIFF. It tells the story of a sexually-conflicted boy living with his crack-addicted mother in the projects of Miami where he is mentored by her drug pusher. The entire cast of Moonlight and the director, were African-American and during the Q and A one of the actors said how much he appreciated the opportunity to work with a black director. He stated that it was a much different experience to be given the space to portray the feelings of his character with facial expression and less through words and body language. Most directors, he said instruct him to adopt a masculine action-oriented posture and value system because that is how they (suburban white males) think that a black man acts. An interesting commentary indeed.
Two encouraging examples. Two minorities, both claiming their own narrative, eschewing the singular depiction so often presented of them and expressing themselves through a diverse lens, and not the myopic view of a patriarchal one.
Yet, in spite of what appears to be this progress a newly released report by Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative at the University of Southern California shows that there are “persuasive and systematic” problems of inclusiveness both in front of, and behind the camera. After analyzing the 2015 data, USC professor Stacy L. Smith said “We’re really seeing exclusionary forces leaving out everybody that’s not a straight, white, able-bodied man. Despite all the chatter and all the activism and all the press attention, it’s another year where the status quo has been maintained”.
A female friend who has both produced and directed film said to me that men typically describe the process of film-making as going to war. Most men view it as something to be conquered, a battle to be won, whereas, women, perhaps more aptly describe it as making a cake and carefully folding in the egg whites. She was careful to clarify that the emphasis need be on the word most. She said that she has also known many brilliant male directors who shoot their films with more compassion, don’t shy away from emotion and use a multi-faceted approach.
Film helps to shape who we are and through it we can develop the empathy to free ourselves from indoctrination. Each of us can help to dilute colonialism by attending more movies that tell the stories or are directed by females, blacks, trans, and other visible minorities. Viewing life through a patriarchal lens is not necessarily determined by gender and has much to do with how we have been socialized.
When we as individuals embrace diversity, become aware of and make space for all kinds of stories to be told in all kinds of ways the established stereotypes will naturally disappear. Ultimately, not only will listening to the truths and personal journeys of others expand our horizons, it will strengthen the collective and perhaps it may not be necessary to Topple the Patriarchy, it may just fade away…