Earlier this year, Chloe Zhao made history as the first Asian woman to ever win the prestigious Academy Award for “Best Director” for Nomadland. This made her one of two women to ever win this coveted award, the first going to Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker (2008). Other women, such as Greta Gerwig (my personal favorite and pictured below), Jodie Foster, Patty Jenkins, and Mira Nair have found commercial success and/or critical acclaim. Zhao’s win was a step forward for women and fem-identifying people in directorial positions, yet there’s still something missing. It’s an interesting thing to wrap your head around–women make up 50% of the global population yet in the 93 year history that the Academy Awards have taken place, which is arguably the biggest culmination each year in the cinematic industry of the past year’s filmmaking, only two women have ever won for directing.
In 2004, the Geena Davis Institute for Gender in Media was founded to research and analyze gender representation in media and advocate for equal representation of women. In 2018, a documentary titled This Changes Everything was released on Netflix, a project that takes a deeper look at gender disparity in Hollywood through the eyes of well-known actresses and female filmmakers, including Shonda Rhimes, Natalie Portman, Meryl Streep, and Reese Witherspoon, to name a few.
Films are powerful because they can make us feel connected to one another, give us a broader sense of humanity, or simply make our night more fun, but not having women playing major roles in the stories being shared across the globe leaves out the potential for diversity and inclusion that the world of filmmaking could foster.
Geena Davis, an Academy Award-winning actress, activist, producer and model widely known for her role in the film Thelma and Louise (1991), said, “The ratio of male to female characters in film has been the exact same since 1946. We cannot wait around for change to happen when all the evidence shows us that we’re going nowhere, slowly.” In 2012, Davis and the Institute received a Global Impact Award from Google to advance the research. Through this, it became possible to create the software to analyze screen and speaking time, which is almost humanly impossible to the naked eye. This allows for actual quantification of screen and speaking time. After much development, such software was created and it was discerned that in 2017, male lead characters received twice as much screen time as female leads.
To investigate the disparity between female and male characters in front of the camera, the Bechdel-Wallace Test was introduced. Don’t let the word “test” fool you – it’s quite simple. You need two named characters who are women. They need to have a conversation, and that conversation needs to be about something that is not a man. Sounds reasonable, right? Guess how many films passed this test when it was run by software for the first time?
The solution for this issue is to bring more female-identifying directors, producers, and screenwriters to the table. Naturally, a majority of people write stories and make films about what they know or what they can resonate with, so having production companies and major networks ensuring that they have more people from diverse backgrounds directing and writing helps change the narratives being told in cinema. Female characters that were once depicted as one-dimensional or just as the sidekick by the male gaze can be further developed into something much more empowering and multifaceted. It’s something that is desperately needed in cinema and media, considering that it is one of the most influential forms of content creation, especially on adolescents who can be shaped by what they see on their television screens.
When the Bechdel-Wallace Test was run again, American Hustle (2013) passed. There’s one conversation, and it’s about nail polish. It’s still not good enough.
Unfortunately, reluctance to give women opportunities and credit in the entertainment industry isn’t some new fad. It’s been going on for years, dating back to the early 1900s. The documentary does a thorough job highlighting the disparities between genders that have been rampant for years, and it’s quite eye-opening to learn that major studios and networks actually saw female filmmakers as risks with no return on investment. Even after a major investigation from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), where broadcast networks were required to keep their rosters of directors 50% female, things barely progressed forward.
Narratives created and presented by female-identifying people are an untapped potential of storytelling that can connect with audiences around the world and truly make people feel something.
And if we’re seeing a lack of white female filmmakers in Hollywood, then it can practically be guaranteed that female filmmakers of color are slim to none. According to the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at the USC Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism, of the 100 top-grossing films of 2018, only 11 were women from an underrepresented racial/ethnic group in a lead or co-lead role. Now three years later, this hasn’t changed significantly. Not having representation in mainstream media and specifically in film can be negatively impactful to adolescents in their impressionable years. As an avid film connoisseur myself, I want to see that the table of directors and creators continues to expand so that everyone can feel represented and seen in some form or another.
Although this documentary is an informative step for taking filmmaking in the right direction in the future, it is surely not without flaw. It simultaneously feels contradictory, considering that it was made by a male director. From a personal perspective, this feels a little off putting. If a film about female filmmakers and lack thereof can’t even have a female filmmaker leading it, how are we supposed to convince a male-dominated industry that women have talent and are to be taken seriously? Does this really change everything?
In the future, as a filmmaker and film enthusiast, I hope to see more women in positions of power and influence in filmmaking not just as a token of diversity and inclusion but because they are truly talented and have important stories to share with the world. It is no secret that female driven stories have the potential to not only be extremely nuanced pieces of art but also products that perform well in the box office. Quite frankly, there is no excuse for the disparity between filmmakers of all identities and origins. It will significantly lessen the objectification of women that is seen so rampantly in film through the lens of the male gaze, and instead will offer something more positive and nurturing to the next generation. And to me, that is such a huge component of filmmaking: to continuously offer something to the next generation.