Girls on Film: The danger of the 'female filmmaker' label
Calling on Hollywood to improve the roles of women carries a significant risk for female filmmakers. But someone must step up and do it.
Those who make strides against social injustice tend to offer a common refrain: "I hoped someone else would do it." When NBA center Jason Collins came out in this week's Sports Illustrated, he wrote:
I didn't set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport. But since I am, I'm happy to start the conversation. I wish I wasn't the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, "I'm different." If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I'm raising my hand. [Sports Illustrated]
Collins has been roundly (and rightly) praised for risking backlash from fans and players by making his announcement. It's a difficult position; as a man in the spotlight, Collins has to reconcile his honesty with his public image and career, and his desire for equality with his desire for success.
Of course, the tension between a public figure's need to break down barriers and their need to have a career outside of those barriers isn't only limited to the NBA. Consider film. There is a fundamental difference that we don't often speak about when discussing the gender imbalance in cinema, which separates activists from the women in the industry. The activist or critic investigates the film and its environment outside the system — how a piece resonates, how it reflects society, and how tradition/imbalance impacts the films we see. The woman in the industry, however, is responding to the imbalance based on her position within the system. Her position is impacted by the system the activist is trying to fix, and working to change the system while inside it carries its own significant risks.
In a previous "Girls on Film" column titled "Of course we need more female directors!" I wrote about the invisibility of female filmmakers, whose output often creates more diverse filmmaking not because of their gender, but because of their experience. In response to the article, filmmaker Beth Schacter (Normal Adolescent Behavior, the upcoming Virgin Mary) wrote: "In my opinion we're looking at the whole thing as if women need to be heard from *because* they are women. [...] I will admit that I bristle at being called a female filmmaker because I fear it implies an easier threshold. … But… if women are going to get equal consideration, is shedding the female filmmaker moniker a hindrance?"
It's easy for an activist to see things in black-and-white terms: "Female" is just a section of the creative population that is currently struggling for equal footing, and the female experience can offer a different perspective. It's no different than the reason an American filmmaker can offer a different perspective than a European one. But as an actual creator, Schacter is familiar with the stigma or implications that can be associated with being labeled "female" in the Hollywood studio system. To someone fighting every day for a meritocracy, any division can suggest an inherent difference in capability and knowledge — including "female," which divides them from fellow (male) filmmakers. As Anne Fletcher (The Proposal) once noted when she was asked what would happen if women ran Hollywood: "This is a hard question for me to answer. I don't really love this subject because it immediately pits men against women and perpetuates the comparisons in our capabilities."
It's a creative Catch-22: Improvement will require sacrifice. There's no way to expand the discourse and inspire change without talking about the lack of female filmmakers, and how film is damaged as a result. But speaking out on the subject forces female creators to risk their own advancement, and differentiates them from colleagues they want to be on equal footing with.
In the trailer for the 2011 documentary Miss Representation, which explores how mainstream media contributes to the lack of women in influential positions, Jane Fonda says that "media creates consciousness.” In film, men not only control the studio output, but also the discussion around it – a 2008 study revealed that men dominate the conversation about cinema (70 percent to 30 percent) – and the discussion skews toward their interests. The problem is evident when looking at end-of-year "best" lists, which rarely include notable female filmmakers; opinions from heavyweights like The Hollywood Reporter; and even the head of Cannes himself, Thierry Fremaux, who recently stated that "nobody's actually done anything to tackle the issue" of female directors in major film festivals in the last year — apparently unaware of countless op-eds, filmmakers taking the risk to speak out, festivals and awards designed to celebrate female talent, and international panels assembled to discuss this very issue.
When it comes to Hollywood, exposure fights ignorance and creates opportunity — something even Kathryn Bigelow has recently proven. Bigelow firmly rejects anything that labels her as a "female" director. She refused to be involved with the Women in Cinema Film Festival because, in organizer Vivian Norris de Montaigu's words, "she was a filmmaker, period. Not a female filmmaker, but a filmmaker full stop." But despite her reluctance to be labeled a "female filmmaker," Bigelow experienced the result of avoiding this conversation about women when researching last year's Zero Dark Thirty. "Women in defense, I think, are sort of the unsung heroes," said Bigelow in an interview. "I was first of all surprised to learn that women were at the center of this hunt. And I was sort of surprised that I was surprised. You don't think of a young woman being a terrorist hunter." Before seeing proof herself, the simple idea of a woman being a "terrorist hunter" never occurred to her — even as a woman who was in the middle of bucking trends herself. But now, thanks to the exposure given by Bigelow, many people will.
In a March 2013 panel discussion between various women in Hollywood, Robin Swicord (The Jane Austen Book Club) said: "It is our responsibility to speak out," and director Penelope Spheeris (Wayne's World) added: "We need a 'Rosa Parks' character to rally around." But the question remains: Are there powerful women in Hollywood willing to step up as a Rosa Parks, or a Jason Collins — risking her own career path in hopes of creating a greater good by setting themselves apart as "different"? Until then, change will be slower and harder to come by.