They’re vastly underrepresented in all aspects of filmmaking, a new study shows us.  Of the 100 top-grossing films made in 2007, only 2.7% of the directors were women, while only 11.2% of the writers and 20.5% of the producers were women.  This radical gender imbalance is likely largely the reason why women characters onscreen are so few — and generally so shallow or used as eye candy.  As the authors of this study show, “the lack of gender symmetry on-screen” (only about 20% of films feature a solo female as the main character) might be at least partly explained by “the biological sex of behind-the-camera content creators.”

Director Aparna Sen

This study led by Stacy L. Smith of USC shows that overall, men in prestigious positions behind the camera outnumber women by five to one, and women are most profoundly underrepresented in the role of film director.  Yet when women do serve as writers, directors, and producers, their films are far more likely to show girls and women on screen.

Director Lucrecia Martel

The study is hardly a feminist rant, especially considering that its authors specifically reject a particularly ignorant New York Times piece last year that claimed, preposterously, that a small group of female screenwriters now constitutes a “fempire” of their own.  (Can we please have a moratorium on these words?  I’m as sick of “mansplaining” as I am of “fempires.”)  Indeed, the study’s authors frequently imply that they expect things will improve for women behind the camera as in front of it.  “As women inhabit these prestigious posts, we may begin to witness a representational sea change on-screen,” they write in a representative line.  Smith et als, let me conduct your rant for you:  considering it’s 2010, when exactly is this sea change going to occur?

Jane Campion directing "Bright Star"

Look: there is no “fempire” of women behind the camera.  Even more due to this study, we must celebrate Kathryn Bigelow’s Academy Awards win as a Pyrrhic victory, as it was one of those few films that featured no women characters at all.

Feel good

9 March 2010

Two thoughts on the Oscars last night.  First, and most obviously, it takes truly awful writing to make the naturally funny Alec Baldwin fall flat as host.  Second, and more substantively, it takes a collective cultural willingness to ignore reality to award the best actress Oscar to the woman who plays the nice, rich white lady who helps the poor black boy rise out of poverty and ignorance — rather than give it to the woman who plays the overweight, impoverished, sexually & psychologically abused black woman. 

I don’t think I’d be complaining so much if one of the other actors had won.  And my response has nothing to do with the actual performances by Bullock and Sidibe.  It’s just that the politics are so transparent here.  Sidibe forces us to witness the experience of one of America’s true subalterns; Bullock gives us hope for white agency.  And then there’s the fact that we already know and like Bullock, despite a career of mostly pulpy films — whereas few can imagine Sidibe getting many parts from here on out (Jennifer Hudson, the lighter-skinned, thinner, and vocally extraordinary singer, has obtained only minor parts since winning a best-supporting actor award three years ago).  Sigh.

Feminism, cinéma

8 March 2010

I begin this blog on an auspicious day: The day after the first woman in the history of film has won an Oscar for best director (and best picture). Only four women in history have been nominated for this award. I liked the movie, although I found all the kow-towing to the military grating and politically restrictive. It’s a good film, not a great one.

Let’s bring up the obvious:  Kathryn Bigelow is shit-hot. According to, she’s only 1/2″ shy of six feet tall (which explains why she towered over all her stars). She’s fifty-eight and looks twenty years younger than her vile ex-husband, James Cameron — who was providentially seated directly behind her in the audience at the Oscars, and who is actually three years her junior. All of this is hugely satisfying.

So why do I feel ambivalent about this? It’s a little too close to The Onion’s brilliant take on women onscreen. “Women can do anything men can do on television,” the morning-show host chirps. “You can be sexy and tough. Sexy and smart. Sexy and professional.” You can be sexy and win an Academy Award for Best Director — just don’t expect the same award to go to someone who looks like, say, Kathy Bates or Gabourey Sidibe. Those women will still be given crap directing jobs for lite romantic comedies and “women’s films” about abusive husbands or children with leukemia. A woman has finally won Best Director at the Academy Awards — and I feel like I’m looking at one of those other female “firsts” early in the 20th century whose desire to be accepted by mainstream culture completely outshines their “first-ness.”