Girls on Film: How women were written out of film history
Influential filmmakers like Alice Guy-Blaché were essential to the development of cinema — but modern filmmakers and historians still overlook their accomplishments
The history taught in classrooms is a tale dominated by men. For every Cleopatra or Susan B. Anthony who gets even a cursory mention, there are countless women like Dr. Clelia Duel Mosher, who was a sex researcher well before Kinsey, or Virginia Hall, who was "one of the most dangerous Allied agents in France." But while they lived notable lives despite the sexism of their eras, they eventually fell victim to the narrow and biased focus of those who filtered history and omitted them.
The filter can be politically and socially motivated, but it can also be the unintended result of one's narrow experience or memory. Spike Lee made waves this summer when he published a list of "films that I feel you must see if you want to make films" as part of his Kickstarter campaign. It is a list he's been giving his graduate film students at NYU for the last 15 years. There are dozens of names, but only one woman — Katia Lund, the co-director of City of God.
Many commentators were galled that his list failed to include any of the notable historical accomplishments by female filmmakers. Lee heeded the outcry and updated his list to include five women (Lina Wertmuller, Euzhan Palcy, Julie Dash, Jane Campion, and Kathryn Bigelow) and eight films. It was an improvement — but a small one that still overlooks many important female filmmakers.
The problem with lists like Lee's original (and even the minimally improved update) is that Lee wasn't just relaying his personal preference. This wasn't a list that went up on the internet one day and was quickly forgotten in the cacophony of posts that came after it. Lee was helping to craft film history — to the people who will likely control the future of the industry — and continuing a dialogue that inadvertently ignores the women who have made history. For 15 years, he perpetuated the idea that cinematic history is male and that the solo filmmakers of note are all men — until he published his list publicly, was alerted to the inconsistencies, and started including notable female filmmakers he admired.
This was, obviously, an oversight and not a deliberate slight by Lee — but it's an oversight that speaks to the real problem with how film history has been (and continues to be) taught. Omissions are inevitable, whether by ignorance or preference — but one of the inherent benefits of list-making and education is that the teacher can sometimes learn as much as the recipient. It's good to share some personal, idiosyncratic preferences, but the truly worthwhile aspect of this process is finding one's holes and exploring what's missing — hunting down blind spots, breaking out of the repetitive tastes of mainstream culture, making discoveries, and sharing them. If we don't, amazing accomplishments are lost, forgotten, and marginalized.
Coincidentally, as Spike Lee's Kickstarter picked up steam, so did another: A film called Be Natural by Pamela Green and Jarik van Sluijs. The documentary, now in production, details the life and achievements of one of cinema's forgotten pioneers, Alice Guy-Blaché.
The same year that Georges Méliès was inspired by the Lumière brothers, Alice Guy-Blaché fell for the form. She was the secretary of famed inventor Léon Gaumont, and was able to gain access to a camera to shoot one of the first narrative films, La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy). She crafted numerous films and spent 10 years as the Head of Production at Gaumont Film Company before men like D.W. Griffith even flirted with the format, and created her own studio, Solax, soon after. Over her career, she helmed over 1,000 films, and was one of the first to use cutting-edge techniques like split screen, double exposure, and film linked with sound decades before the release of the "first talkie," The Jazz Singer. Unfortunately, like many women, she was forgotten and written out of history — even by Gaumont, who published a history of his company that began after her 10-year reign.
Guy-Blaché was running studios and creating the cinematic techniques that are used to this day, but it's only in the last few years that her work begun to be noticed, as people like Green and van Sliojs attempt to find and restore her forgotten films and correct those improperly attributed to the wrong people.
But Guy-Blaché isn't alone. As a graduate film history student, Jane Gaines discovered that for seven years (1916-1923), women were more powerful in cinema than any other American business — to the point that more women than men owned independent production companies in 1923. In the May 1917 issue of Photoplay magazine, it was dubbed the "her own company epidemic."
Yet all we hear about in film history classes is a system built by men, perpetuated by men — even as others fight to write women back into the history they helped create. Search "influential female directors" and you find lists of notable female directors, mostly current; search "influential directors," and you find list after list full of men, spanning from filmmakers like Orson Welles to Kevin Smith while failing to mention even one female director. But those "histories" are wrong; it's simple omission, usually the result of forgotten histories and listmakers and educators who, quite simply, haven't seen the work of cinema's notable women.
But those women exist, and they've had an indelible impact on the form. As interviewer Charlotte Chandler quoted the iconic Alfred Hitchcock: "I'd be over the moon with the Frechman Georges Méliès. I was thrilled by the movies of D.W. Griffith and the early French director Alice Guy." Guy-Blaché wasn't just one of cinema's first directors; she inspired one of the most revered filmmakers in the history of cinema.
The women who've made great films and helped craft the form deserve to be properly recognized on their own merits and for the inspiration they can provide for future generations. We need influential filmmakers like Spike Lee to recognize the women across the world who have made advancements in cinema, but are relegated to specialty lists (if mentioned at all) rather than their well-earned place in mainstream film history. Be Natural's successful Kickstarter campaign is one exciting step — but history is, as always, in the hands of those who teach it. As long as they — and we — fail to explore the holes in their knowledge and discover historic figures like Guy-Blaché, Lois Weber, and more, film history will remain a falsely attributed male domain.