It’s Academy Awards time and in keeping with my usual practice, I have been busy seeing all the shows before the big televised gala announcing the winners. While I was delighted with the prominent role Jessica Chastain played in Zero Dark Thirty of a strong, determined woman who perseveres to achieve her goal, it is an anomaly in Hollywood. Women are underrepresented in the movies and typically are portrayed as neurotic, pregnant or completely consumed with domestic chores. The movies are a mirror for our reality and it’s time we did our part to create the necessary change.
The first issue is that there are fewer parts for women. According to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, females comprised about a third of the characters in the 100 top-grossing films in 2011. Of course we all know this doesn’t fairly represent their percentage of the population, which is slightly more than fifty percent.
The second issue is content. Well-known film critic Roger Ebert says that studio executives consistently approve projects based on the tastes of adolescent boys and young men. This audience tends to favor violent action films or light comedies consumed with bathroom humour. Neither of these film categories offers substantial opportunities for female roles, nor does it represent the interests of women viewers.
The third issue is the director, or CEO of the film. A new San Diego State University study found that women made up a meager 9 per cent of the directors on 2012’s top-grossing films. When the envelope is opened at awards ceremonies a woman is hardly ever named the winner for a behind the scenes role. The Oscars started in 1929, but it took more than eighty years for the first woman, Kathryn Bigelow, to be recognized as best director for The Hurt Locker. Interestingly, another of her films, Zero Dark Thirty was nominated for best movie this year but she was snubbed as a best director nominee in spite of the innovative techniques she used in creating this compelling film.
In the best director category women and men compete against one another while they are separated in the acting categories. A recent article in The Associated Press LOS ANGELES, suggested this practice is archaic. Acting is artistic which is genderless and the awards categories should be updated accordingly the article said. When asked about her thoughts on this, Gloria Steinem replied tongue-in-cheek, “It’s not like it’s upper body strength”. However, she went on to say that the lack of roles for women is a legitimate reason to retain separate acting awards. When two unequal groups are combined it’s the less-powerful one that loses, she said. In this case that would clearly be women who already face a celluloid ceiling in Hollywood.
Sally Field, an Oscar best supporting actress nominee for Lincoln concurred saying that if you made the best acting awards genderless you wouldn’t see any actresses up on the stage at the Academy Awards at all. Fields went on to say that the awards mask the lack of parity for women in the movies. In spite of the reduced number of roles for women the awards are artificial making it appear equal. Five women compete and five men compete with two winners, one of each gender crowned.
Clearly things aren’t much different in Hollywood than in the real world. This was confirmed by a Los Angeles Times article interviewing female directors at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. At a round table discussion five women reiterated experiences well-known to women everywhere. For example, tough women in Hollywood are “considered shrill rather than determined” and women are considered “bitches” for doing what every single man doing the same job does.
Then they went on to say that women in film face also systemic sexism. At this year’s Sundance the powerful Creative Artists Talent Agency threw an off-colour party where festival guests mingled with scantily-clad women, erotic dancers carried porn props and an Alice in Wonderland look-alike humped a man in a rabbit costume. Kind of makes it tough to be taken seriously as a woman doesn’t it?
Liz W. Gracia, a producer and writer of films, recently directed her first movie. She was quoted in Forbes saying that women don’t fare any better in Hollywood than they do in the corporate world, where women are less than ten percent of Fortune 500 CEO’s. One is an offshoot of the other. Big movies are funded by studios that are part of large global conglomerates that are run by men. Not only are they uncomfortable financing movies about women’s stories but they are unnerved putting a woman at the helm in the director role she said.
In the public workforce, women’s participation has steadily risen and they now outnumber their male counterparts. It is time for Hollywood to follow suit and increase the number of roles for women. It’s the new reality. However, women still haven’t cracked the top echelons of management in either world, so we have some more work to do there. Garcia suggests legislation, government incentives, female studio execs who consider themselves allies and last but not least a public that changes it’s perception of what a leader looks like.
There are no easy answers but there is hope. At the 2013 Sundance Festival half the directors were female and they are committed to dissociating themselves from looking at the world through the lens of a man. Even though they grew up identifying with men in the movies they want to change their product for the next generation and don’t believe for a second that they can’t make that happen.
What can you do as a woman? Watch for movies that are produced and directed by women, those that have female content, and support them. Start with the LUNAFEST Women’s Film Festival sponsored by the Betty-Ann Heggie Womentorship Foundation and the Edwards School of Business on March 6 at the Broadway Theatre in Saskatoon. Wouldn’t you like to come out and discuss this in person?