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Girls on Film: How Hollywood changed for the better in 2014

New feminist discourse and new African-American talent are a hopeful sign for a more inclusive, diverse Hollywood in the years to come

"I always like to look on the optimistic side of life, but I am realistic enough to know that life is a complex matter." –Walt Disney

Each year, before we head into the maw of the big awards season, we get to ease into a short period of cinematic reflection. When looking at female advancement in the industry, or lack thereof, we tend to focus on a single epic event: Kathryn Bigelow’s history-making Oscar win, Bridesmaids' massive box office success, Sandra Bullock leading the space adventure Gravity almost entirely on her own, or Melissa McCarthy becoming Hollywood’s go-to comedienne.

But time and time again, we've seen that advancement is more complex than these one-note storylines. Jennifer Lawrence reached super-stardom as the star of The Hunger Games franchise — and became director David O. Russell's muse — but the Sony hack revealed that she and co-female lead Amy Adams made less than their male co-stars in his American Hustle. This year had more femme-centric films in the top 25 at the box office — but in the top ten, one less than last year (and the year before). What started as a 4-percent year became one with many female directors — but mainly in smaller indies with minimal distribution.

The important thing isn't the outliers. It's whether those outliers inspire real, consistent change, or get touted as "proof" of advancement while the old ways continue.

There are moments in 2014 that suggest change is on the horizon — not because they are epic, boundary-breaking moments, but because they are parts of a growing movement.

The rise of open feminist discourse

Director Lexi Alexander gave the year an explosive start when she wrote an incendiary blog post about female directors in Hollywood, describing the struggles she'd seen fellow filmmakers face in Hollywood studios and the rigid structures of the Directors' Guild. Shortly after, Cate Blanchett used the Academy's stage to challenge Hollywood when she won the Best Actress Oscar for Blue Jasmine. Blanchett called out those "who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films with women at the center are niche experiences. They are not. Audiences want to see them, and in fact, they earn money. The world is round, people."

In May, director Jane Campion took the movement to cinema's biggest festival stage: Cannes. The only woman to ever win the Palme d'Or, Campion was tapped to preside over the jury this year, and used her position to speak out about women's treatment in the industry. "There is some inherent sexism in the industry," she said. "Time and time again we don't get our share of representation."

A few months later, actress Emma Watson (who was named UN Women Goodwill Ambassador at the beginning of the year) began advocating for UN Women's HeForShe campaign, to "mobilize as many men and boys as possible to be advocates for change." Her speech became a rallying call to take back the word that's become unfairly "synonymous with man-hating."

"You might be thinking, 'Who is this Harry Potter girl, and what is she doing speaking at the UN?' And, it's a really good question. I've been asking myself the same thing," she said. "All I know is that I care about this problem, and I want to make it better. And, having seen what I've seen, and given the chance, I feel it is my responsibility to say something."

In 2014, women challenged the norm while embracing the responsibility to speak out about the injustices they see as professionals in one of the world's most powerful industries. By voicing their experiences, women are revealing the systemic nature of the problem, while creating a community of strength that inspires fellow women to do the same.

The rise of black female filmmakers

Amma Asante hadn't planned to become a director; she only became one after the British Film Institute pushed her talent, insisting she direct her debut (A Way of Life), and sending her to film school. The film earned her many British accolades, but it wasn't until the release of Belle, nine years later, that her skill as a director was embraced stateside. Belle eventually expanded to 525 theaters and earned over $10 million at the domestic box office.

Star Gugu Mbatha-Raw went straight from Belle to a starring role Gina Prince-Bythewood's return to the director's chair with Beyond the Lights. The film showed the rising star's ability to jump between period pieces and modern musical dramas, and her talents earned her a slew of nominations and wins for both films.

As 2014 ends, Ava DuVernay has leapt even further with the season's most highly regarded film (100% fresh after the first 33 reviews), Selma. The film has already won her numerous accolades (including four Golden Globes nominations), and if she isn't snubbed by the Academy next year, she's a clear front-runner to win the Best Director Oscar, which would make her the second woman to do so and the first African-American to win.

These films speak to a rising trend. After Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave showed the power that can come when black directors helm their own historical narratives, 2014 sees two such films — one of which is receiving as much praise as the man who started the trend. (The same man who, only 3 years ago, was asked where the minorities and women were in the Best Director awards discussions.)

These type of achievements are often followed by disappointing droughts, but there are promising signs that this change is here to stay. Asante has already been hired for a big studio picture: Warner Bros.' upcoming drama Unforgettable, starring Kate Hudson and Kerry Washington. DuVernay is still working on the release of Selma, but she has already been named one of South by Southwest's keynote speakers in 2015. Lupita Nyong'o, meanwhile, who became a breakout sensation after McQueen's 12 Years a Slave, quickly leveraged her stunning debut to become one of the actors in Star Wars and a leader of her own fate as producer and star in an adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah. Gugu Mbatha-Raw has become an overnight sensation, and Kerry Washington is heading straight from Shonda Rhimes' explosive television hit Scandal to Asante's next feature. These actresses are part of a world offering not only better roles, but multiple opportunities to collaborate with female directors of color in short succession.

If there's anything we've learned in 2014, it's the power that lies in numbers. As more women speak out, more women feel the courage and support to do the same. And as Hollywood embraces more diversity, the screens fill with more compelling characters and narratives.

Girls on Film is a weekly column focusing on women and cinema. It can be found at TheWeek.com every Friday morning. And be sure to follow the Girls on Film Twitter feed for additional femme-con.

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