Vicious circles re: women in film

19 September 2010

So I got into an argument with colleague about the books he’d assigned to his graduate students.  I took the position that having them read only 2 books by women out of a list of 13 was a pretty low number (and that zero books by people of color was likewise a problem) — and argued that as our grad students are fairly evenly divided by sex and increasingly diverse by race we should show them more of the varieties of academic writing.  He got defensive.  He fired back that he’d chosen books, not authors; that he’d chosen them for high quality and subject matter; and that there weren’t enough good books by women on the subjects he wanted to change the syllabus.  His defensiveness got us nowhere:  he left the conversation utterly convinced that he’d done no wrong and that I’d accused him of sexist bias, and he is no sexist.  It seems to me that in discussing male domination of the arts — filmmaking, authorship, prizes, criticism — we need to set a few ground rules.

This attitude is all over the place, isn’t it?  There’s no problem, it’s just that women aren’t good enough.  We hear that “The Daily Show” has only one or two woman writers out of 15, and we’re assured that this isn’t so bad — and inevitably someone suggests that it’s because male writers are funnierWhen the Cannes Film Festival featured zero films by women directors this year, the author Bret Easton Ellis explained that women can’t direct — while others sidestepped and reminded us that Sofia Coppola’s new film won at Venice.  When Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner complained about the hyperbolic praise being heaped on Jonathan Franzen this summer to the exclusion of women writers, they were accused of being jealous and bad writers.  Suddenly Larry Summers’ famously offensive claim that women academics just aren’t as good as men in math and science — a claim that lost him the presidency of Harvard but didn’t hurt him in White House circles — seems utterly mainstream.  To respond to such charges by 1) denying male domination of the arts, or 2) insisting that it’s warranted via some kind of ahistorical, if not biological, superiority sends us back to the vicious circle.

I was delighted to see the (male) hosts of the Chicago podcast Filmspotting call out the male domination of the film industry recently.  They noted it’s not just that men dominate in directing, producing, and getting great roles; men also dominate the worlds of film criticism, film podcasting, film blogging, and film theory, thereby contributing to what we might call The Franzen Effect of limiting attention to a very few films.  (For example, who’s heard anything much recently other than hype for new movies by David Fincher and Ben Affleck?  When was the last time Richard Brody of the New Yorker said anything about a woman on his film blog, The Front Row?)  Yet in the weeks since, the Filmspotting podcast has lapsed back into its unselfconscious focus on men — celebrations of the films of Robert Duvall, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, American hit-man movies, “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World,” and so on.  Consciousness-raising is great, but it amounts only to lip service if you don’t walk the walk.  As film drawing queen Lisa Gornik puts it:

So here are my thoughts for getting out of those vicious circles and starting conversation in the right direction:

  1. The stats are clear:  stop denying that the male/female ratio in film directing, producing, and screenwriting is radically out of whack. 
  2. The fact that men dominate the criticism racket matters to the question of how more women might succeed in filmmaking.
  3. The exceptions to the rules — major attention to films by established directors like Sofia Coppola, or to a popular screenwriter like Diablo Cody — don’t necessarily signify any measurable change the statistics or in general for most women trying to get films made.
  4. Find ways to celebrate both big successes by women filmmakers (like Lisa Cholodenko’s big summer success, “The Kids are All Right”) but don’t make commercial success the sole goal. 
  5. In the end, what we all want is for women to make whatever kinds of movies they want — whether it’s films about men like Kathryn Bigelow’s “Hurt Locker” (2009) or stereotypical rom-coms like Nora Ephron’s “You’ve Got Mail” (1998). 
  6. That said, with the big critical success of films this summer like Debra Granik’s “Winter’s Bone” and Nicole Holofcener’s “Please Give”  we can glimpse how having women at the helm can lead to great parts for and compelling stories about women that don’t get cordoned off as “women’s films.”

In the end, that pretty much summarizes why I have a dog in this fight.  I’m not involved in filmmaking in any way aside from being a fan.  But the problem of the radical underrepresentation of women in filmmaking is a highly visible and influential microcosm of a larger problem for women making it in creative and professional worlds.  Just as I don’t want my grad students coming of age believing that only white guys write the “best” academic books, I want to see more films in which female characters have complex thoughts and lives that don’t revolve solely around men.  The problem is, to achieve it requires pushing back at men’s defensiveness and the pugnacious claim that the creative and academic works by men are better than those by women.

Of course, I didn’t change my colleague’s mind about putting more books by women on the syllabus this fall.  But I’m enough of a chess player to see this as one play in a long-term strategy.  We’ll see about next semester.

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4 Responses to “Vicious circles re: women in film”

  1. servetus Says:

    Wow, less than a sixth by women? I guess the half of profession made up by women is just writing crap. For crying out loud.

    Sophia Ford Coppola has a famous father. That doesn’t mean she has no talent, just that she had above average access to helpful connections. She’s not a great example if what we’re talking about is lack of female access to the networks of power (is all I mean) — i.e., if part of what you’re saying is “filmmaking is not open to the socially disempowered” she doesn’t count.

    • didion Says:

      I think my colleague felt sort of proud of himself for having two whole books by women on the syllabus. No wonder he got defensive about it.

      And yeah, Sofia Coppola. I really love her films — I think she’s extraordinary. And I’m fascinated by stories about her shyness, the profound differences between her style in directing compared with her father’s. (Somewhere years ago I read a great piece that described her walking up to her actors and whispering to them, then starting another take; much unlike the bulldog-like FF Coppola.) But with a name like that — and her former marriage to Spike Jonze, and her high-profile extended family in the business, and her friends in high places — all of this means she’s had the wind at her back relative to other women directors. So she’s getting no complaints from me, even though I fret that she belongs in a different category than most other women in filmmaking.

  2. Susette Says:

    (clink)(Coffee cups come together.)

    Right on…and write on!

    Watch out ladies, move over men…here I come..


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