Women in Film

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Jessica Birch

Jessica Birch
Year 2, BA (Hons) Digital Film Production, 2014

Pulp Fiction, The Star Wars Trilogy, Avatar, The Social Network and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy; all Oscar nominated films with one thing in common: they fail the Bechdel test.

Based on a storyline from Alison Bechdel’s comic strip, Dykes to Watch out for (1985), the Bechdel test assesses the level of sexism in a film. To pass the test the film must have two named female characters who talk to one another about something other than a man. Cinemas in Sweden are now using this method to rate the gender equality of the films they are playing in attempts to cut down sexism in film. And it seems that the lack of female presence is not only in front of the camera but also exists behind the scenes. One might have thought that the opportunities for women are increasing in time, but The Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University reported that ‘just 16% of behind the scenes personnel – directors, writers, executive producers, producers, editors and cinematographers – staffing the top 250 grossing films of 2013 are women'(2014) , proving that opportunities have in fact decreased as this figure is lower than it was in 1998. BFI reported that there is also decay in female representation in the UK Independent film industry, with only 11.4% of directors and 16.1% of writers being women in 2010 – 2012.

We once lived in a time where people went to see films to see their favorite actresses latest performance: Elizabeth Taylor, Meryl Streep, Audrey Hepburn, Katharine Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe, to name a few. But this culture no longer exists and we no longer have actresses that hold such an honorable title and it is more likely to be the latest action trilogy to be selling out at the cinema. One might wonder if something in our culture and society has changed to create this outcome, which then raises the question: does society affect film, or does film effect society?

Melissa Silverstein from CNN said ‘When we don’t see women, and we don’t see women’s stories, we get the message that women don’t matter as much, that our stories don’t count, that our experiences are less valid’ (2013). This becomes an even bigger issue when in the small amount of female roles; women aren’t actually portraying women but are in fact representing the man’s account of what they think a woman is. This leaves us with a vast amount of female roles being based on scopophilia (pleasure in looking) and effectively, this means that women in film are to some extent non-existent. The woman in a sense is only there to affect the protagonist (and the audience) so the woman in herself has no importance. Kate Gerova, the director of the Bird’s Eye film festival, which screens work by women filmmakers, said, ‘We make sense of ourselves through cinema. Its first principle is one of identification. How you make sense of who you are, where you are in the world – we do this through cinema'(2013). Silverstein goes on to say, ‘Because there are so few movies about women, the ones that are released are held up to absurd scrutiny. If you fail the entire gender is blamed and we take two steps back, but on the other hand, if you are a success you can’t get a sequel made because women’s successes are still seen as flukes. We are stuck in a catch 22’ (ibid.). This level of scrutiny seems to also exist in the judgement of female directors. In a debate in a Digital Film Production lecture at Ravensbourne, one student’s argument concerned the reliability of a woman working in film, declaring that his experiences had left him feeling sceptical. The young man declared that the only female director he had worked with was going through her menstrual cycle at the time, which explained why when she couldn’t be found on set, she was found behind a bin crying. His point being that there wouldn’t be such risk with a male director.

The New York Film Academy has reported that women in the film industry also earn less than men. Angelina Jolie, the highest earning actress in 2013 made $33m, which was only around as much as the lowest paid actors, Denzel Washington and Liam Neeson made, and under half as much as the highest paid actor, Robert Downey, who made $75m. Their research also revealed that actresses strip down in film remarkably more than men, with 28.8% of women wearing sexually revealing clothes as opposed to men at 7.0% and 26.2% of actresses getting partially naked to 9.4% men who did.

The attitude towards women in film is by no means a secret. In 2012, Kathryn Bigelow’s critically acclaimed and Oscar winning Zero Dark Thirty was released (and passed the Bechdel test). The film’s popularity was much to Bret Easton Ellis’ dismay who tweeted: ‘Kathryn Bigelow would be considered a mildly interesting filmmaker if she was a man, but since she’s a very hot woman she’s really overrated’. But surprisingly, Bigelow’s previous war film, Hurtlocker did not pass the Bechdel test, which raises the question: is she critically acclaimed for being a woman who is capable of mimicking the male filmmaking style?

Beyond cold statistical objectivity, what are the actual experiences of women working in the industry? My own experience suggests that the facts and figures are the contours of a world dominated by a tribe of men who have never quite found an exit from adolescence. On a shoot of a film, which was ultimately the director’s entrance into the prestigious film school NFTS, I was working as production manager and I accidentally intruded on a private joke amongst the male producer, the assistant director and gaffer. When I probed the young men about what was so humorous, none of them were willing to reveal the joke. I later discovered that they had been laughing over some intimate pictures of the female costume designer, which had been privately sent to the producer and then shared amongst the crew. That same producer would often attempt to advise me on getting my foot in the door of the industry with stories of female runners who had shown up on set in short skirts and flirted with the director. On another shoot where he was directing he would constantly make inappropriate comments; for instance on one occasion following me up the stairs he uttered that my ‘bum was a sight’. On a music video shoot where I was working as a runner, when collecting equipment from the van outside and asking ‘Is there anything else I can take?’, one of the crew replied, ‘You can take me home!’. At the end of that job I was offered another runner job for the following week, but was later told that I would no longer be required as they only wanted male runners.

‘You can take me home.’ Do you hear the Oedipal anguish in this comment? Women can take men home. Women are home. This is the idealisation of women, this is the exclusion of women, for with idealisation comes purification, and with purification comes violence, that is to say, exclusion. It is perhaps hardly surprising that film – our society’s most popular exhibition of public fantasy – should be predicated on an industry that cannot shake the fantasy that women exist for men’s salvation. This idea of women demands their silence because it is endangered by female desire, the realisation that women, just as much as men, are in the search for satisfaction, that they are not simply the cure to male frustration, that men and women are equally desirous, and equally overwhelmed, confused and uncertain by their life in desire. Women must not speak; they must be living stone (like Pygmalion’s fuckable statue), for if they speak, the fact of their desire will become apparent. As such, women must not be given the freedom to film, to participate in a medium of public fantasy and desire.

In Homer’s cinematic Odyssey – the origins of recorded Western culture – Odysseus’ wife Penelope loyally waits twenty years for him to return home. She is home. And in the first book, when in the great hall of her house she asks the performing bard to change his poem, she is told by her son, Telemachus, ‘go back up into your quarters, and take up your own work, the loom and the distaff … speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all; for mine is the power in this household.’ At the expression of a wish, she is told to shut up. Women must not wish, they must wait. Telemachus gives her the freedom to weave but not speak; she can participate in art but not politics. But for us now, living in a democracy, art and politics are intertwined (since we now all have a voice, everything is speech), and as such, women are now, as we have seen, excluded from art too.

So here is my manifesto:

  1. Women in film are a projection of male fantasy  (Why in the past four years – presuming Blanchett takes it – has the Oscar for best actress gone to a woman playing a mentally ill character? If women are mad, it would be mad to listen to them).
  2. As such, there are no women in film.
  3. And, as such, film is male masturbation (this is unwittingly demonstrated in Her – a film whose central love scene is actually just Joaquin Phoenix whacking off).
  4. This should change.
  5. Because it is boring.

I’ll finish with a reference to J.W. Waterhouse’s Ovidian painting, ‘Echo and Narcissus’. The voiceless Echo sits overwhelmed by boredom while Narcissus stares admiringly at his reflection in the water.

This is the film industry today.


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