Feminising the Film Industry

28 February 2016

I’ve worked as a director on film sets and I’ve assisted male directors too. I never really noticed the gender issue in the film industry until people started to ask me what it’s like to be a woman working in a male-dominated field. In my experience, cast and crew members, no matter their gender, have always listened to my ideas and followed my direction. Never have people tried to overrule me for my gender and never have I felt disadvantaged by it. But maybe that’s just independent filmmaking in Melbourne.

Hollywood still seems to be stuck in a patriarchal time warp. When I realised that some people thought being a woman in the film industry was like being a rhinoceros in a conga line, I started to notice the lack of women everywhere. I stayed back in movie theatres till the end of the credits, just to find the occasional female name amongst all the male grips, gaffers and SFX dudes. I performed the Bechdel test on all my favourite films and tried to justify still liking them when they failed. When people asked for my favourite directors I always felt a bit of feminist guilt: Wes Anderson, Tim Burton and Stanley Kubrick. When I feel particularly guilty I’d swap out Kubrick for Jane Campion – because one out of three ain’t bad.

I have had to keep reminding myself that there’s nothing wrong with having men as inspirations. Sure, The Darjeeling Limited has three male protagonists and only a mother as a female figure.  Yes, maybe the only women in The Grand Budapest Hotel are love/lust interests. But to suggest that these inspirations may cause me to make similarly male-dominated films is to suggest that I can’t think for myself. There is nothing wrong with women preferring male directors if we’re aware of the implications of gender in filmmaking. When creating films, we can take inspiration from the colour palettes of Anderson, the fairy tale qualities of Burton and the symmetrical shots of Kubrick. We can intertwine them with stories of our mothers and sisters and girlfriends, and ourselves.

Some critics theorise that directors create protagonists that are more interesting versions of themselves. As such, the abundance of male directors in the industry leads to an abundance of male characters on the movie screen. Of the top 100 films of 2011, only 11 featured female protagonists. When I was writing my last short film I originally wrote the protagonist to be an 11-year-old boy before realising the character was me. I had pulled him directly from a strange childhood habit of mine.  I would sit outside my house and play spy, noting down the number plate of any car that went past or how many times the dog across the road barked. I even had him borrowing his dad’s trench coat to dress up in, exactly as I had done ten years earlier. I looked at this character on the page and thought why the fuck did I make him a boy? The answer, I think, is because I always thought male characters had more potential to be interesting. In my mind, men in films were funnier, less predictable and could be taken more seriously.

When I realised that this interesting character was actually a girl, I also realised that men weren’t the only characters capable of entertainment. In fact, why couldn’t the James Bond, Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter of my youth have been women?

Fundamentally, fictional characters should be genderless. Characters are composed of traits; they can be heroic, intelligent, sensitive, vulgar, or anything else that’s typical of the human race. Any gender can represent these traits. Any character can be genderless, at least until they’re cast.

This categorisation of masculine and feminine traits also seems to affect the gendering of film crews. Even films that have a fair amount of women in their crew fall into the pattern of dividing the technical and the pretty. Female names can often be seen in the art department section of the credits, especially in hair and make up.

Men almost always fill roles such as cinematographer, sound mixer and editor. In my own experience when working on other people’s films I usually work on costumes and props. I use my mother’s sewing machine and ask my dad for help with any serious prop construction. I don’t know if this is my reluctant submission to the Hollywood patriarchy, or if I’m just doing something I enjoy.

Women should be able to fulfil whichever crew role they want, regardless if they are the first or the millionth woman to do so. I have occasionally worked with women as cinematographers and editors, however I have not yet met a female sound recordist. Apparently they need big strong arms to hold the boom pole during long takes. And it helps if they’re tall. And have a penis.

In the United States, approximately half of all film graduates are women. Male and female graduates from Sundance’s film labs produce films at a similar rate and have similar success on the festival circuit. Yet time and again, this is where the equality ends. Hollywood’s big film studios select male directors from the festival winners. None of the eight films nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars were directed by women. The female names fade to black.

As a young female film student, who knows what my future might hold? Maybe I’ll be cursed with over-sensitivity, period pain or that plague of motherhood that seems so fatal, and I’ll stop making films altogether. What I do know is that as long as I want to, I can make films and I will make films. And any man or woman may inspire me.

Image credit to F. Sigorski via Flickr

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