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.

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