Women in Film

An ongoing endeavor to increase awareness & enact change, by Hillary Good.

As we begin our careers in the film industry as filmmakers, producers, writers, or theorists, it’s important to consider the systems of privilege in which we all participate. Cinema is inherently political. An incredibly unique storytelling medium, the power of cinema to create, explore, and navigate the world, either real or imagined, carries with it the weight of systematic oppression and exclusion. The privilege to join the film world does not end upon entrance. The work we make must reflect and include all of society. The spectatorial process relies on this.   

Positions of gender power within Hollywood and the media industry continue to deny inclusion to marginalized and underrepresented groups. Straight, white upper-class cis-gender men rule. In shirking the identity of women, people of color, those outside the gender binary, the disabled, etc., the filmic art denies forward motion. Entertainment must move towards a space of inclusion, diversity, and equality. When President Obama feels the need to pipe in on the issue of diversity in entertainment, we must recognize that there is a deep, systemic issue that to be addressed: “[diversity] makes for better entertainment, it makes everyone feel part of one American family, so as a whole the industry should do what every other industry should do which is to look for talent, provide opportunity for everybody.”  

While the issue of inclusion and equality within Hollywood has been getting a fair amount of attention within the past few years, and the zeitgeist is concerned with creating better opportunities, data has yet to reflect a changing world. Certain women’s accomplishments within the last decade (DuVernay, Bigelow, etc etc) do not indicate wider change. All women, all races, all sexualities, all classes, all bodies attempt, and are denied, the access to a closed patriarchal system.

My goal for this post is to reveal and explore a) that closed system, b)history with feminist film, and c)current industry challenges.

So here are some questions: what real steps can we take in order to elicit change? How do we change what’s happening on- and off-screen? What responsibility do we have in creating diversity in the industry? How do I, as a cisgender, straight, white woman, stand up for different races/genders/sexualities? How can the current industry-standard artists (ie, white men) create more inclusive stories without appropriating the radical causes?

I’ve decided to write about feminism in film because, while our theoretical education on the topic has been great, we as students have yet to be given the platform to discuss it more practically. Inequality and exclusion in film production is a real issue and, yet, we have never spoken about it. In implicating ourselves into this system of dominance, we (unwillingly? unwittingly?) partake in sexist/racist/homophobic/ overall discriminatory behaviors. My hope is that this post will spark discussion and increase awareness.

First, what is feminism?

You certainly know what feminism means. Equality! Political, social, economic equality of the sexes. But, it has held different meanings at different times:

  • 1st wave: the woman’s right to vote. Women achieved (some) political power.
  • 2nd wave: women’s civil rights—reproduction, workplace, sexuality, family rights. Tackled issues like race, class, violence against women. Educational equality rights.
  • 3rd wave: destabilizing the concept of universal womanhood. Grrls. Refusal of an us v. them identification.

There’s also different kinds of feminism:

  • Cultural: Women’s biology and instincts make them different from men in ways that ought to be celebrated.
  • Liberal: Men and women are created equal, and should be equal in society (even though they often aren’t).
  • Intersectional: Sex, gender, sexuality, race, class, religion, etc etc are all components of identity and signifiers of privilege in society. Systems of power/dominance impact marginalized groups.

American feminism today is a huge, often-confused term. It is divisive and alienating. Categorizing feminism is tiring and confusing. In attempting to fight for inclusion, feminism excludes. White feminism dominates, playing into systems of entitlement and dominance that it so passionately wants to dispel. It is important to recognize that feminism is not a perfect structure, but ultimately it is a movement to end sexism/bigotry/misogyny/etc towards all women in contemporary society.

One thing: ‘feminist’ has turned into an ugly word. It’s not. Calling someone an “angry feminist” (which I get called, often) is dismissive and ineffective. Believing in the equality of half of the planet ought to be commonplace, but currently is not. There’s a reason feminists are angry, and it’s because of the injustices marginalized people face daily. And the systems of power that continue to enforce oppression and exclusion. If the media (sic: Hollywood) continues to support the portrayal of women/people of color/queer/trans/etc as negative, if portrayed at all, then audiences will continue to propel these stereotypes. So yeah, feminists have a lot to be angry at.

At the end of the day, a feminist is just fight against the patriarchy. It is important to not underestimate any person’s struggle against systems of power. Exclusion and alienation within a patriarchal industry are at the root of the issue. Funny enough, most people learn their twisted representations of what it means to be feminist from the media. Enter: cinema.

How does feminism and film connect?

Cinema is art. Good art reflects society. Cinema historically hasn’t done a good job at reflecting anything other than patriarchal values, and in doing so only exacerbates gender/race domination.

Feminist film theory stems from the 2nd wave’s development of women’s studies and educational access in the 60s and 70s. It is a changing thing, but at the crux of a feminist film theorist’s argument is the need for accurate, fair, and fully-realized depiction of women on screen.

Theorists from different places see films differently:

  • UK-based scholars based their writings on psychoanalytical theory, drawing heavily from Freud and Lacan, looking more closely at symbolism and signs of masculine anxiety
  • US-based scholars, on the other hand, based their theory on sociological findings, focusing on the function of the female within the narrative/genre, and also the role of the spectator.

Another through pervading media today is the marriage of feminism and sexism. The absence of one does not imply the presence of the other. You can make a feminist film that is sexist. You can make an un-sexist film that isn’t feminist. But, more often, people are just making sexist and un-feminist films. Feminism is more than the opposite of sexism. It’s about inclusion, diversity, equality in media representation—on- and off-screen.  

Enter, Laura Mulvey & the male gaze:

The film image draws attention to the patriarchal view that women need to be dominated. A female on screen activates voyeuristic mechanisms, existing within a “to-be-looked-at-ness.” Accordingly, there are three different gazes present in any film:

  1. The camera as it records (points to the narrative/character arcs)
  2. Audience as it watches – distance awareness
  3. Characters within the screen

Ultimately, the woman is the bearer, not the maker, of the image. The women becomes an “objectified other.” This is Laura Mulvey’s quintessential theory of the male gaze. The male gaze has been a part of feminist discourse for nearly 50 years, and its presence continues to inform perception of women, of gender performance, of societal norms.

The male gaze is a lens of entitlement and dominance. It is a lens through which the dominant gender can exploit, explore, touch, gaze, and eroticize the female other without consequence. The gaze is a white, heterosexual process. It hits on the fundamental pleasure of viewing. With the male gaze, the female loses her voice. The gaze encodes power and sexual dominance unto the image.

Male gaze is a pretty alienating force. If you’re not a white/straight/upper class/cisgender/able-bodied male , watching cinema can be uncomfortable: you’re watching something not made for you/with you in mind.

So now we know what a woman may look like on screen, but what does she do?

Where my female agents at??

Females are often simply plot devices, used to hinder/help the male from achieving his goals. Stereotypes abound. Women, when really boiling it down, are either mothers or villains. Women’s roles, for a long long long long while, remained unchanging compared to her male counterparts: “the fact that there is a far greater differentiation of men’s roles than of women’s roles in the history of the cinema relates to sexist ideology itself, and the basic opposition which places man inside history, and woman as ahistoric and eternal,” (Claire Johnston, Women’s Cinema as Counter-Cinema). Operating within a masculine distortion of the female figure, women on film lose their identity and agency. This is a toxic thing.

Feminists seek more than women simply acting as props on the screen. We seek more than hot women being hot for no apparent narrative reason. Saying you’re going to write a “strong female character” and actually creating one is different. A strong female character might be Catwoman or Black Widow. But do they possess agency? Do they change or grow or do anything at all in the script? Luckily television is doing a bit better in the agency department than its cinema counterpart. Feminist audiences seek a screen that reflects the diversity and capability of society today, and female agency is the key to achieving.

We have a clever thing called the Bechdel test to see if women are actually people in films. And now, we have the DuVernay test to see if people of color are actually people in films.

Women are awesome and interesting. One never ought to defend the choice to include fully-developed female characters into a film. They should just be. Think about it, would anyone ever question the choice to include a male character? ((I think about it in terms of the new Ghostbusters. Feig made a choice to create an all-female cast. Reitman just did.))

But this is more than just women…

How do oppressed/non-dominant/minority groups respond to media/cinema dominance?

Women are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to systematic exclusion and dominance. Women and man of different race/sexuality are faced with the fight against systematic erasure and caricature from this extremely powerful medium.  As America throbs with racist/sexist/homophobic tension, one must consider how Hollywood denies access/acceptance of these underrepresented people. While I cannot claim it as my own, I can emphasize a great deal: being anything other than white in Hollywood is shitty.

Exclusion reaches far beyond #oscarssowhite to post-colonialism. Black males and females are often caricatures, not characters. Dominant mass media abuses and ignores the voice of the gender/race/sexual other. The act of inclusion, of equality, has yet to occur within the closed system of the entertainment industry. We need to stop upholding established racist norms (the one black friend on a sitcom, the Asian doctor, crazy latina woman, etc etc etc), and start focusing on telling interesting and dynamic stories –and including the best actor for those roles. Diversity does not occur overnight. Through forms of internal resistance (#oscarssowhite a good beginning, perhaps), this racial ‘otherness’ becomes more apparent and problematic. Subverting classical Hollywood tropes allows slight internal shift within a system of power. But we can do more than subtle transgression.

Being a black female in Hollywood is even more difficult. Denied any access to the gaze, a black woman is entirely alienated from the supremacist, patriarchal mode of viewing. Essentially, women of color are condemned by inaccessible systems of power, barring the entry and growth of their own stories. The engagement of women and people of color in film and media denies access on every level. Stories are not written about black women, black women are barely cast to act in mainstream media, and it’s near impossible for black women to direct their stories in the first place.

When Hollywood does happen to create a story about a marginalized group, that too becomes problematic. Through appropriation, Hollywood has sanitized the fight of the marginalized. In doing so, the radical voices are not allowed to succeed.

Queer Hollywood similarly has functioned as an ‘other.’ Gay cinema challenges the strict patriarchal binary, thereby challenging the norm of heterosexuality. Gaining popularity with the onset of AIDS in the 80s, queer cinema functioned as a political strategy and intervention. A cultural product of a national issue, queer cinema worked to challenge the hegemony of straight ideology. Nevertheless, the issue of appropriation and sanitization of a marginalized voice hints at the inherent politics of any film. Today, Hollywood does a horrible job at represented gay people. And even within queer cinema, lesbian film is lesser represented, hinting still at patriarchal dominance. Trans cinema, too, continues to be appropriated and dismissed. Considering the extreme violence, discrimination, and bigotry thrown at the trans community, filmmakers ought to use their powerful political tool to incite change and growth and education. The state of trans representation on screen is pitiful at best. Think: why did Eddie Redmayne play a trans woman in The Danish Girl—and then get nominated for this? Think: the most popular about trans cultures was shot on an iPhone because no one would finance it. The elimination of trans stories from the media zeitgeist reflects the exclusory and discriminatory power of a patriarchal cis-gendered racist Hollywood system.

Prejudice abounds both on- and off-screen. Using feminism as the weapon by which we examine the representation of marginalized groups (and I have only addressed a few), the exclusion of stories within an industry so focused on monetary returns reveals a deep system of gender power dynamics.

Therein lies the question:

Who has the right to document? Can I, a white cisgender female who went to fancy private college, make a movie about two gay women? Or is that an act of privilege that ultimately plays into the closed system of power dynamics and exclusion?

So what’s Hollywood like right now?

Really bad…Hollywood may be working to tell more women’s stories, but there aren’t many women getting the chance to make those stories. Women can’t even tell their own stories (think: appropriation? discrimination?). We can’t fix the stories being told if the people they represent are not allowed in! Give us a camera. Please.

  • 4% of top grossing films were directed by women.
  • 1% of cinematographers are female.
  • 30% of speaking roles are women
  • 20% are female editors
  • 20% are executive producers
  • 17 % are female writers
  • 34% v. 16% documentary v. fiction female filmmakers
  • 50% of the world is female (wait, what????)

**shocker***these numbers increase when one woman is in command. Aka, women hire women.  

Only Kathryn Bigelow has won an Academy Award for Best Director…… That means we have a 1/88 success rate.

Why these numbers are so dismal:

MONEY! Men won’t bankroll female-directed films.

  • Male-dominated industry networks. (Think, why Colin Trevorrow went from indie Sundance director to Jurassic World in 3 years, but Ava DuVernay has yet to be hired….)
  • Stereotypes of being a “woman director” (emotions, trust, strength)
  • There is a 6:1 male/female director ratio.

Even the critics aren’t female, which means that when a woman makes a movie, she doesn’t get the inherent support of her own gender that males so often do. This furthers the struggle of all women filmmakers out there.

This is a serious issue plaguing the industry right now. So serious, the feds got involved. Women, among other minority groups, are discriminated against. And have been, since the movie camera was invented.

Entitlement & Implication

People in the film industry are inherently entitled. Entitlement is the belief that one inherently deserves certain privileges and treatment. The industry itself is built on status. We as students are implicated into this system, before we have the chance to realize it ourselves. Power dynamics are already at play, even before we graduate. Sexism is an institutional problem, one to which we are already implicated. To deny the concerns of underrepresented voices, and to create stories that exacerbate gendered norms, is exclusive and dismissive. Entertainment is a monoculture. As seen at the most recent Oscars, people are growing tired of hearing the same stories, seeing the same talent, and watching the same films. We as burgeoning filmmakers/theorists/producers/etc can do something about this!

But hey, some women are really killin it in Hollywood!

It’s not all bad. It’s just mostly really bad.

Luckily, as we move forward, we have some truly inspiring role models to follow. By subtly inserting feminist politics into the entertainment zeitgeist, discriminated groups gain a bit more traction in our fight for equality. Thelma & Louise will stand as the perennial feminist favorite. Kathryn Bigelow is a badass. Ana-Lily Amirpour is really cool. Marjane Satrapi’s insistence on the creation of Persepolis. Boys Don’t Cry. Lake Bell. Aziz Ansari knows what’s up. Lena Dunham.  Amy Schumer. Patricia Arquette at the Oscars 2015. Selma Hayek at Cannes. Jenny Slate’s Obvious Child. Miranda July’s entire feminist existence. 52 Films by Women. Tina Fey. Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls. Chris Rock at the Oscars. Jada and Will not going to the Oscars. Tangerine. Magic Mike might actually be subversive. Dope. Ridley Scott’s Alien (maybe….). Abbi & Ilana are kweens. Ava DuVernay is “getting her Shonda on.” Geena Davis is doing great things. Emma Watson‘s making feminism cool. 

Here’s a supercut of some pretty stellar women representations:

Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 12.51.57 PM

So we’re graduating soon & will join this world & what are we supposed to do?

Awareness is a great start, but not the end game. Let’s focus on disrupting binaries and boundaries so that equality is measured by how you treat people.

The big question we might consider is what is being lost in this process of exclusion?

So here’s what we can do to and think about before we create our next masterpiece. It’s one thing to apply feminist theory to movies already made, but it’s more important to think about the theory before we create. I’ve started a list, but let’s add more.

  • Costumes
  • Bechtel & DuVernay test
  • Character arcs + plots
  • Narrative goals
  • underlying political message
  • cinematography
  • the film’s crew + producers
  • your actors & why you chose them & who they’re meant to represent

Some things to avoid on screen (but also just generally in life…): tokenism, fetishism, sexism, racism, homophobia, trans-phobia, labeling, sanitizing, violence against women, rape, appropriation, etc etc etc

Didn’t read all of that?

Women and people of color and queer and trans and etc etc etc are victims of an oppressive system of dominance in the entertainment industry. At the end of the day, it is not enough to discuss women within the text of a film. As filmmakers we are taxed with the recreation of reality, to break the link between current ideologies and film texts! We are given a great deal of privilege and responsibility in creating cinema and television, so let’s not fuck it up. The politics of change reside in your awareness in decision-making processes. We can all be ambassadors for change! It is not enough to sit and agree in silence. Hoping is not the same as doing.  Dislocate, dismember, and destroy the patriarchy, please.

So here are my instructions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Burn the patriarchy.


Some footnotes:
  1. I often generalize “Hollywood” here to mean all entertainment/cinema. I know there exists a more supportive community in the independent sectors. However, there has not been enough effective and impressive change made within the independent world to truly make any distinction. Women struggle in both. To say that the indie world is more kind to underrepresented audiences is dismissive, and doesn’t do much to fight the root of the problem.
  2. There are plenty of groups of people that I did not address in this post. A true intersectional look at cinema today would have covered more races/classes/sexualities/religions/disabilities. However, the female/diversity/queer cinema issues stand at the forefront of the cinematic zeitgeist. In addressing these targets and groups, I hope to include the voiceless. If there is anything I ought to add, please let me know.
  3. I did not cover much of what films are doing well. This was a cursory look at the general issues in film historically and today. Plenty of good feminist work exists out there, but it is overshadowed by sexist/racist cinema.
  4. Again, I do not represent all groups I addressed in this post. I recognize that I am a white, cisgender, straight female in the industry. While that is enough going against me, I recognize and empathize with those who are even less represented than I am. Under no circumstances do I wish to dismiss those voices who I acknowledged. Simply, I am trying to help fight a bigger fight against dominance and exclusion in a field about which I am passionate.
  5. There is only so much space in this article to incorporate the work of all feminist film theorists. Here’s a list of more: Molly Haskell, Ruby Rich, Mary Ann Doane, Teresa de Laureates, Kaja Silverman, Michelle Criton, Annette Kuhn, bell hooks (again, for emphasis), Carol Clover, Barbara Creed, Linda Williams, Jane Gaines, Judith Butler, etc etc.

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