Let’s imagine that the entire slate of films nominated for the Palm d’Or this year at this year’s Cannes Film Festival consisted solely of films directed by white men.

Oh, sure, they’ll put Marilyn on their poster, but they won’t allow a women-directed film to enter competition.

Or how about this: imagine that every single director nominated for this prize was French. Would anyone argue, in defense of such a decision, that all those other directors of color “just weren’t good enough,” that such a decision could be based purely on the merit of the films involved?

Yet when the Cannes organizers advertised their final slate of nominees — none of which was directed by a woman, just as it had been all-male in 2010 — the worldwide uproar prompted the jury to deputize its sole female jury member, Andrea Arnold, to respond with such a statement:

I would absolutely hate it if my film was selected because I was a woman. I would only want my film to be selected for the right reasons and not out of charity because I’m female.

Now, I’m not interested in attacking Arnold for getting stuck in this position, or even for believing this statement. In fact, her framing the problem in these terms reveals the real problem: at least as articulated here, she (and many other women and/or directors of color) actually isn’t sure she’s good enough.

Given the way women and people of color are viewed when it comes to these conversations about merit, is it really any wonder we don’t sometimes believe we’ve failed? A year ago I wrote about exactly this question — the insidious “what if I’m not good enough?” worry that proves a self-fulfilling prophecy if asked often enough, as it did in Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s 2008 film, Sugar, about a Dominican baseball pitcher trying to wend his way through the American minor leagues. Riddled by fears that he’s not good enough, Sugar proves to himself that those fears were correct.

But to claim that Cannes’ 22 films in competition are objectively better than any work by a woman this year isn’t just a depressing example of women and people of color internalizing those fears. It’s also a manifestation of the concept of meritocracy used as a weapon against exactly those populations intended to benefit from it in a truly meritocratic world.

  • Tell me, how does one objectively compare a film by a film great like Abbas Kiarostami or David Cronenberg to a film by an unknown  woman director?
  • What incentive does Cannes have to feature unknown directors if they can stock their nominees with favorites who’ve won prizes in the past?
  • If your jury has only one woman on it, as this one does, how likely are those jurors going to be to fight to include the unknown director’s work?
  • Jurors who are white and male will generally find greater merit in stories about white male protagonists because that’s the norm in film.

The notion of meritocracy is infuriatingly persistent, no matter how much we acknowledge that money, connections, and normative notions about white men onscreen all combine to alter views of merit.

  • SAT scores can win you a spot at a prestigious university, but if your parents have enough money, they can buy you the SAT prep course and/or tutors that raises your score by 200 points.
  • Having more money for a film permits you to buy favorite/ highly talented actors and crew who make a film objectively better and subjectively more appealing.
  • Having strong connections to money is often equivalent to having strong connections to power and influence.

The question is not whether you have “earned” your spot. The real question is how we can still be using the notion of merit in a real world of college admissions any less than to official selection for prestigious festivals, for the inevitable result is to give more to society’s haves, and less and less to the have-nots who cannot buy themselves a place at the table.

So, what’s a girl to do? Sign a petition. (Hey, at least it’s a start.) Melissa Silverstein over at Women & Hollywood now has a petition seeking to pressure Cannes into changing its tune of this issue.

And read more. A fiery group calling themselves La Barbe (“the beard”) has barraged the jury with questions on this topic and has offered up a scathing sarcastic congratulatory statement to the festival’s directors for their achievement this year:

Last year, doubtless due to a lack of vigilance, four women somehow sneaked in among the 20 people nominated in the official competition. Thierry Frémeaux, the festival’s director general, correctly remarked: “It is the first time that there are so many women.” How weak! 

[This year] Sirs, you came to your senses and we are glad. The Cannes film festival 2012 applauds Wes, Jacques, Leos, David, Lee, Andrew, Matteo, Michael, John, Hong, Im, Abbas, Ken, Serguei, Cristian, Yousry, Jeff, Alain, Carlos, Walter, Ulrich, Thomas, all of whom show us once again that “men are fond of depth in women, but only in their cleavage.”

…With great understanding of the monumental importance of such an event, you were able to dissuade women from aspiring to set foot in this closely-guarded world.

Signing the petition over at Change.org takes less than a minute. (And thanks, Tam, for pushing me to get on this!)

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