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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

how movies fail girls and women (fans and filmmakers alike)


When alien archaeologists — or future human historians — look back on the films from the post-WWII era through today, and into the foreseeable future, they will surely come to the conclusion that girls and women of our time didn’t do much of anything besides marry men, mother children, and stand aside and applaud while the boys engage in all manner of exciting exploits.

Which is, of course, complete nonsense.

With my new Kickstarter, I am seeking funding for a project to detail on a very fine, nitty-gritty, film-by-film basis just how badly movies fail girls and women. (More details and links to supporting materials can be found and commented on here.)

I hope you will help support an effort that is badly needed and that has not been attempted before. A pledge of as little as $1 can help.

Why does it matter if girls and women aren’t well represented on film? I explored that in the introductory essay for movieScope magazine’s Women in Film issue (March/April 2013), which is reprinted in its entirety below.

The first step to eradicating this problem is letting everyone — including the industry – – know just how big an issue this is.

image from Pink Darth Vader Princess

Imagine you’re a little girl. You love movies! Movies are cool and exciting and take you to strange places you’ve never seen or maybe don’t even exist. Movies let you meet people you’ve never met, maybe never could meet — because they’re aliens or fairies or died hundreds of years ago — and have adventures with them. Who wouldn’t love that?

You barely even notice that there isn’t a lot of fascinating stuff for girls to do in Movieland, that mostly girls just wait around for boys to rescue them. Borrrr-ring! But you’re a smart, clever, inventive little girl. You’ve got no problem pretending to be the (boy) Jedi Knight or the (boy) soldier or the (boy) explorer or the (boy) robot toy come to life or the (boy) furry monster or any of the many other (boy) heroes whose escapades the movies ask you to share. You barely even think about the fact that you don’t get the chance to identify with girl warriors or adventurers or toys or monsters, because the movies are too much fun!

Imagine you’re a teenaged girl. You still love movies! It bothers you a little bit that in horror movies, the girls are all supersexy and half naked while the boys never are — it would be nice to see some supersexy half-naked boys! — and then the girls mostly end up murdered in ways that make it seem like getting murdered is sexy. It bothers you a little bit that in all the high-school comedies, dorky boys end up with beautiful girlfriends but dorky girls end up alone, or are even absent from the screen entirely. But it’s still nice to see that other kids have the same problems you’re dealing with as you try to grow up, even if all those other kids are boys.

Imagine you’re an adult woman. You still love movies! But now you’re pretty freakin’ pissed off that men are the only people whose stories appear to be valued by The Movies, that male characters are the only ones allowed to change and grow onscreen, to have personal journeys of physical daring or spiritual and intellectual evolution. You’re damn tired of seeing raped wives and kidnapped daughters as the motivation for men to do anything, as if girls and women were necessary sacrifices for men’s development as human beings. You’ve had it up to here with “chick flicks” being dismissed as pointless fluff… and even angrier that most “chick flicks” are, in fact, absolute garbage that reduce the sum total of a woman’s hopes and dreams and ambitions to finding a husband. You’re exhausted by Manic Pixie Dream Girls and leading men old enough to be the grandfathers of their onscreen romantic partners. You’re infuriated by the fact that Bruce Willis is still considered a vital sexy blockbuster action hero (not that he isn’t!) but that gorgeous, talented actresses a full decade younger than him — Maura Tierney, Viola Davis, Connie Nielsen, Joely Richardson, Julia Ormond, to name but a few — are considered over the hill, and are lucky to find unflattering supporting roles in low-budget films (if they haven’t decamped to more female friendly television, that is).

You still love movies. But it’s a love that gets thrown back in your face by 95 percent of films.

Half of humanity doesn’t have to imagine any of this. Half of the moviegoing audience is living this. We female fans find something great to love in plenty of those movies in which girls and women barely feature as more than spear-carriers or cannon fodder. And honestly, there are few individual films to which we can point and say, “It’s a problem that this particular movie doesn’t include more female characters.” It’s the preponderance of movies that barely acknowledge that women are real, flawed, screwed-up people who could benefit from some growth and change — you know, just like men get to be onscreen! — that is the problem. Wanting to see more women onscreen isn’t about wanting to see more women shoehorned into stories where they might not necessarily belong. It’s about wanting to see more stories about women as fully human.

In a movie universe that was more egalitarian, for every Saving Private Ryan there’d be an adventure drama about, say, women pilots who flew cargo planes on the American homefront during World War II. For every (500) Days of Summer there’d be a rom-com about a perfect gorgeous kooky guy whose affections and attentions and manic-pixie dreaminess helps an insecure young woman discover herself and what she really wants from life. For every Iron Man, there’d be a comic book action flick about a billionaire genius mad scientist who just happens to be a woman.

In such a universe, we moviegoers — and the industry itself — would be able to tell the difference between a really good movie about women that’s a hit because it’s simply a really good movie, and really crappy movies about hideous materialistic gal pals who wear expensive shoes or a gawky teenager who lets herself be emotionally abused by a sparkly vampire that are hits because female audiences are desperate to see women actually doing something — anything — onscreen. (When a person scarfs down the plate of stale bologna with moldy lentils and rancid peanut butter sauce put before her, you don’t conclude that she must love stale bologna with moldy lentils and rancid peanut butter sauce — you conclude that she must have been starving to have eaten that. Unless you’re a Hollywood studio executive, that is.) In a fairer movie environment, we wouldn’t see attitudes such as that of Warner Bros. bigwig Jeff Robinov, who declared in 2007 that the flopping of The Brave One, starring Jodie Foster, meant he would no longer greenlight any movies starring women. Because, see, it was the fact that The Brave One was headlined by a woman than it flopped, not because it was a piece of junk. (Robinov continues to greenlight movies starring men, even after some of them flop.)

Here’s the kicker: We can’t blame any individual filmmaker, either, for the lack of women as the heroes of their own tales. Storytellers tell stories about what they know. Storytellers tell stories spun from their own fantasies and their own dreams and their own lives. It’s not a problem that so many young indie filmmakers these days make movies about awkward geeks who fall in love with — and get to have sex with! — beautiful young creatures who, wow, just really get them, you know? The problem is that so many young indie filmmakers are (straight white middle-class Western) men.

So where are the women filmmakers?

Often when the subject of women in film — or not in film — is brought up, this is how their absence is dismissed: Well, obviously, women simply don’t want to make movies. It’s the same thing that has been said about why there are so few women in the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — and it’s only a slightly less insulting version of the 19th-century “reasonable explanation” for why women could do without education: our delicate ladybrains couldn’t handle it, and anyway thinking causes our babymaking ladyparts to wither. And just as none of that nonsense was true, it’s also not the case that women don’t want to make movies. Madeline Di Nonno, executive director of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, notes that “film schools are 50 percent female. It’s what happens when they get out: there isn’t a real definite type of apprenticeship in order to pull these women all the way through.”

So we can blame the industry: Women filmmakers do not get the same support as male filmmakers, and they do not have the same access to financial resources that men do. Male filmmakers can certainly tell horror stories about trying to raise the money needed to nurture their creation from script to screen. Now imagine you’re a female filmmaker, and having the additional burden of having to convince potential backers that you’re even interested in film in the first place!

Yet even when there is support, women filmmakers struggle. The Geena Davis Institute has explored the dearth of women onscreen and behind the camera extensively, and one of its recent studies — in conjunction with the Sundance Institute and Women in Film Los Angeles — showed that while the percentage of women behind the camera at the Sundance Film Festival between 2002 and 2012 was slightly better than the overall industry percentage of 20 percent, it was still only just under 30 percent. Women at Sundance were more likely to make less lucrative documentaries over narrative films, and most disheartening, while the most prevalent behind-the-camera role for women was as producer, fewer women producers were found as the job of producer has gained prestige over the years.

Similarly, the British Film Institute recently found that women filmmakers were flourishing at the London Short Film Festival… making, of course, only short films. But if few or none of those women artists make the transition to feature films, it won’t be because they’re not interested in making movies.

The research annals of the Geena Davis Institute show that a woman behind the camera means better represention of women in front of it. “When there was the presence of a female screenwriter,” according to Di Nonno, “we would see a 10 percent increase in onscreen roles” for women.

Why does it matter? is another way of shrugging off the relative absence of women onscreen. If women can enjoy stories about men, does it make any difference if there aren’t many stories about women? Yeah, it does. Di Nonno explains that the Geena Davis Institute has found that at least among American family films, female characters are portrayed in quite narrow ways. “There were no women in business, in law, in finance at the upper echelon. There were no entrepreneurs, no investors. But there were men that held these positions. We’re showing our youngest children that women don’t have careers.” Girls are getting an inaccurate idea of the opportunities that are open to them.

But we’re shortchanging boys, too. Little girls are not born knowing how to “naturally” enjoy stories about boys and men. It’s something little girls learn — are forced to learn — in order to be full participants in our culture. There’s no reason why little boys can’t learn to enjoy and appreciate stories about girls and women, and to identify with female characters as fellow human beings with similar needs and desires to them. We’re denying them the chance to develop a particular kind of empathy that the world on the whole could use a helluva lot more of.

  • Nathan C.

    I’d say that video games do a bit better, but the industry is still dominated by the gun-slinging, rebel with/without-a-cause, masculine, white, man. I loved playing as the silently brilliant, female, “Chell” as she outsmarts Hal 9000’s much more interesting “daughter” GLaDOS in Valve’s “Portal” However, I’m tired of boneheaded gunslingers with a tragic past dominating the mainstream market. Look up Bioschock Infinite, in that game you’re expected to sympathize with the kidnapper/murderer/drunk/amnesiac Booker Dewitt. The game does somewhat redeem it’self by letting you play as the clever/infinitely more likable Elizabeth in the expansion dlc, but it could have given us a whole game with her. It has a lot to do with lazy developers/directors who know that the lazy consumer will play/watch the same game/movie every year.

    I know many guys who prefer to play as women in games simply because it’s more interesting to them. We look at our friends, mothers, sisters, teachers, and then up at the screen. Excluding moronic bigots, we’ve known that there is something wrong with these “women” on the big screen since we learned to read. Who are these mannequins claiming to be women in our favorite movies?

    Avatar Rant, avoid if you are thoroughly sick of opinionated fan rants.
    (I know you didn’t think much of the animated Avatar: the Last Airbender show, but as the series’s writing and plot developed in the second season so did the characters. As a kid I remember being more interested in the shows female characters than the main protagonist. There was Katara, who was mother/sister/bodyguard to her accident prone brother Sokka, who resented her for being gifted with bending, magic, and thus taking his “place” as the warrior he thought he needed to be. She was often the voice of reason/mentor/motherly figure to the group of major characters. Then there was Toph, the blind/sheltered/rich only child who was actually the most independent and powerful character in the group. She played the role most often occupied by a man in most movies, and did it better than many of her similar male counterparts. She played the headstrong prodigy with no patience for fools. Then there was Azula, the princess of the Fire Nation, who resented her less talented brother Zuko for his birthright to the throne. She was shunned by her mother who found her sociopathic tendencies frightening. She was a perfectionist who wanted the approval of a psychopath of a father who viewed her as a weapon. When her mental condition and violent tendencies drove her friends away she cracked and became unstable, lashing out at those who had done her no harm.)

    Did the show have problems? sure. But at least it tried to portray interesting female characters and succeeded to some degree. The show brought a vast viewership to Nickelodeon, who had been having trouble drawing interest in their programming (because one can stomach only so much sponge-bob). Then the movie butchered everything that made the series enjoyable.

    Guess what happened when the creators of the Avatar series wanted to cast a female lead with a dark skin-tone for their sequel series? The network cut their funding to a 12 episode mini-series and “suggested” they introduce a tall-dark-and-handsome asap. They did, no one enjoyed it, they introduced a much more realistic relationship in the final 2 seasons. They even hinted at a romantic relationship between two major female characters in the last season.

  • Tonio Kruger

    That’s quite a unique Day of the Dead costume that little girl is wearing in the above photo…

  • David C-D

    Hear, hear!! I am grateful that Disney has improved while my daughters are still children (not that I enjoyed Brave and Frozen any less for being an adult, but it’s nice that they didn’t have to wait 30 years). Maybe they will see their way to producing movies about women for a grown-up audience as well?

  • What are you, some sort of feminist?!

  • Danielm80

    And for the two or three people on the planet who haven’t read this news story:


  • David C-D

    Hey, careful! you’re gonna blow my cover…

  • Tonio Kruger

    Wait! Barbie has been dethroned before?

  • Constable

    I didn’t like either of those movies, not that they were bad. Brave was good, but it didn’t make much sense. My favorite animated movie with a strong female lead is Coraline. She’s like Ripley, scared yet determined. I never felt like she was a sock-puppet for some lofty message about gender equality, she was just a brilliant character.

    Oh how I wish we could have gotten a spin-off Hogwarts series with
    Hermione Granger as the lead. I never did find the “Deus Ex Machina” who lived very interesting.

  • David

    “there’d be an adventure drama about, say, women pilots who flew cargo planes on the American homefront during World War II.” Better idea: make a movie about the female combat pilots in the Soviet Union, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soviet_women_in_World_War_II#Pilots. They actually got to blow shit up.

    Or how about some of the female snipers: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soviet_women_in_World_War_II#Land_forces

  • Okay, I’ll bite:

    I never felt like she was a sock-puppet for some lofty message about gender equality

    Can you give us a list of movies for which this has been a problem?

  • My point is, There are many many many many many many many many many many many many many many many many exciting stories about women we could be telling.

  • Constable

    Hmm, good point. I just don’t want movies to try so hard that I can see right through the characters. It pulls me away from the movie, it makes me see the “strings.” I like that there are enough movies of a similar type for me to see this trend, but there are no rules against subtlety. To be fair though, other animated movies can be just as bad with different messages. I guess I’m being nit-picky, but that’s how I watch movies.

  • Sam

    I agree with your points, MaryAnn. I think the problem is that we live in a patriarchal culture…it’s everywhere. Women have to contort themselves in a way that men don’t if women are going to be involved in certain things…gov’t in this country, religion in general, and yeah, movies. All you have to do is watch most all the commercials on TV, for example…they are talking to men most of the time. It’s awful, I agree, totally unbalanced and actually puts our species and really our planet at risk.

  • I think the problem is that we live in a patriarchal culture…it’s everywhere.

    Er, yes. That’s what I’m raging against!

  • Spurdog1

    Sounds like you should put your energies into writing some screenplays. I’m up for a buxom heroine weilding a sword or a semi automatic.

  • LaSargenta

    Way to not get the point! Yea!

  • Spurdog1

    Get on and write them then!

  • Spurdog1

    I have just seen The Edge of Tomorrow. Emily blunt’s character is just the kick ass heroine that this article says doesn’t exist in Movieland. If you look hard enough there are movies already out there with strong female characters. It is up to the women to get out there and write the screenplays, not sit blogging about how downtrodden they are… that achieves very little.

  • Spurdog1

    She doesn’t have to be that buxom if that is what you are worried about!

  • Danielm80

    I know I shouldn’t feed the troll, but your arguments are so bad I can’t help myself.

    About two minutes of research would tell you that MayAnn has written several screenplays and won prizes for them. But you were more interested in making every trite argument on the Bingo card (N1, I4, and G4 so far).

    There’s no reason people can’t write screenplays and point out how badly women are represented in movies. But only 12% of movies have female leads, so most people aren’t doing either.

  • Bluejay

    You really didn’t read or understand this article. It addresses all of your points.

  • Okay, I write a screenplay. And then what? Do you think it would somehow automatically get snapped up by a studio that would produce it as is? Without suggesting shit like, “Make the protagonist male”? Do you know how much more of an uphill battle it is for even well-known and powerful women in Hollywood to get movies about women made? (And I am not well-known or powerful.)

    Are you a producer ready to puts tens of millions of dollars behind a screenplay about a buxom heroine weilding a sword or a semi automatic?

  • The industry is inherently sexist. Women do not get funding to make movies — and do not get the other sorts of necessary support, such as networking and mentoring — on anywhere near the same level that male filmmakers do.

    And why would anyone give me money to make a film? I am not a filmmaker, and I have no desire to direct or produce a film.

    You are really not helping.

  • Spurdog1

    I’m not talking about producing or directing a movie, I’m saying raise the money to start a production company and then employ some women producers and directors to make the movies you want to see. If there are lots of women out there prepared to back this kind of action it shouldn’t be a problem raising the funds. I will throw in 5 bucks to start up a production company… how helpful am I! And I’m not even a woman!

    Now I have to love you and leave you, as I have important work to do swinging my big chopper around.

  • Bluejay

    Oh, good. You don’t want her to make a film, you just want her to come up with the entire financing infrastructure behind it. MUCH easier.

    Look, some women do this (e.g. Reese Witherspoon). But to demand “all women should do this particular thing, OR NOTHING” is bullshit. Writing articles to raise public awareness about a problem is just as valid and necessary a step towards solving it.

    Now I have to love you and leave you

    *snort* Whatever makes your ego feel better, big dog.

  • Danielm80

    Spurdog1 doesn’t mean for his comments to be taken seriously. He’s just practicing for his night job heckling comedians.

  • Spurdog1

    I’m not DEMANDING anything, I’m just making a suggestion. So aggressive! But I like that.

  • LaSargenta

    Hey, if you’re planning on donating to the cause, these people would be happy to accept your money: http://wmm.com/ They started out as a production cooperative way back in the 60’s and gradually decided to concentrate on distribution. Everything I’ve seen through their network is a documentary; but, there might be fiction as well.

    Don’t cut yourself.

  • Spurdog1

    So there are people out there doing it then? Good for them.

  • Bluejay

    And you’ll be giving them the 5 bucks you said you were willing to contribute, right?

  • Spurdog1

    Feed me, feed me!

  • Spurdog1

    No. That was destined for the company that MaryAnn forms from kickstarter. These sisters are already doing it for themselves.

  • Spurdog1

    You could be right!

  • Bluejay

    Yeah, but they still need public contributions to make their projects happen.

    So, you know, you can be a good guy and contribute to a cause you say you support. Or you can just be a dick and promise an imaginary $5 to a production company that you know full well MaryAnn isn’t interested in starting. Up to you.

  • Are you deliberately being a jerk? If so, please stop it. If it’s accidental, you need to look into that.

  • Spurdog1

    Yes it is.

  • Spurdog1

    You are right I’m being a jerk. Bored of this now. Ta ta.

  • I’m saying raise the money to start a production company

    That’s producing a movie.

    Please stop giving me advice about an industry you clearly know nothing about.

  • Stop being like that around here.

  • Someone132

    Check out actual Soviet and Russian films for that. Just this year, there was one about a female WW2-era sniper that opened country-wide two months ago, and a remake of Soviet war drama about a squad of 4 women & their male officer. In fact, female-driven war films are more frequent than male ones in some years.

  • Peter Radcliff

    Such excellent points. I actually had an opportunity to speak with Geena Davis at Clinton’s Global Initiative and I applaud her study.

  • “There’s no reason why little boys can’t learn to enjoy and appreciate stories about girls and women, and to identify with female characters as fellow human beings with similar needs and desires to them.”

    *cough* My Little Pony *cough*

  • You mean the male fans who are objects of ridicule because they like a girly thing?

    Yeah, that’s a positive example of how the world could treat women better.

  • You said that boys don’t identify with female characters as fellow human beings with similar needs. MLP fans are proof that some do. Don’t put all the eggs in one basket.

  • Bluejay

    No, she said there’s no reason boys can’t identify with female characters. Obviously they can, or can learn how to. The point is that the culture at large is so boy-centric in its stories that there are much fewer opportunities for boys to empathize with characters who aren’t male. You can always say “But what about…”, but any examples you can come up with (even prominent ones like Hunger Games) are just drops in a bucket compared to the amount of male-centered stories in general.

    And if boys enjoy My Little Pony, that’s great for the boys, but the ridicule they endure speaks to the problem with the larger culture, which is MaryAnn’s point.

  • I have never said any such thing.

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