A Film Industry for Old Men

Ladies of Almodovar

As Indira and many of my friends know, I am always worried about the lack of feminine perspective in Hollywood. ‘There are no women directors!’ I wail. Indira thinks this is an unproductive way of thinking about the issue. She responds, ‘Women shouldn’t be expected to represent the experiences of other women.’ It is both unfair and unreasonable to expect that having more women in the film industry–as film company executives, movie directors, producers, or whatever–will improve the portrayals of women in film or generally make the industry more feminist-friendly.

And I’ve come around to agreeing with Indira. Suffragettes–post-temperance movement moral crusaders they were–argued that women were the guardians of America’s moral conscience. Letting women vote allows America to preserve itself from the immoral tendencies of men, they said. Nowadays some feminists still believe that electing more women to public office will improve the moral fibers of our politics, but the idea rests on the quaint Suffragette assumption that women are morally superior to men. I was assuming something similar when I suggested the film industry would be better if more women had power in it. But the truth is, if an industry is sexist, or immoral, or whatever, a fine trickle of a few more women in it won’t change the character of an institution. For reform, you need reformers, not just some women.

Still, it is useful and indeed necessary to continue examining the status quo of women (on scene and behind it) in the film industry.

For example, do you know that in all 80 years of the Oscars ceremony, only one woman has been nominated for best director? Yeah, that’s right–I checked, and no, Carol Reed (who won for Oliver! in 1968 ) is not a woman, but apparently a British knight. For your information, the one nominee was Sofia Coppala in 2003 for Lost in Translation. Likewise, no film directed by a woman has ever won Best Picture.

As for Europe, I checked the Cannes’ archives as well. Cannes awarded a Russian woman, Yuliya Solntseva, the award for best director in 1961 for the film Chronicle of the Flaming Years.

The dearth of awards for women is not just a manifestation of industry sexism; it is because there aren’t very many woman directors. There are many reasons for this, but one reason I can think of is that what is considered good in film is masculine/oriented towards men, whereas feminine/oriented towards women is marked and not considered good art by the male critics/industry at large. For a couple of examples, think of Martin Scorsese, who brilliantly examines (blue collar Italian) masculinity and the way men relate to each other in his films (I’m thinking of his masterpieces Raging Bull, Goodfellas, or even The Departed). Then you’ve got Woody Allen, who, at his best, portrays with near-scientific precision the psyche of the male intellectual. These two directors are celebrated as chroniclers of human nature and human interaction; we add no asterisk to their achievements denoting the male-oriented nature of their work, as we do for women’s or women-oriented work.

The entire film industry is a masculine enterprise, and it occurs to fewer women to go into film-making, just as it occurs to fewer women to want to be scientists, or pick up a guitar, when compared to our male peers.

The curse of the feminine marking has been noted by scholars lamenting the disparaged status of the markedly feminine romance novel. Most recently, the masculine industry bias in film was noted by a Newsweek writer angered by the vicious reviews of Sex and the City the movie.

In the same vein, one of America’s best known critics, the New York TimesManohla Dargis, recently outed herself as a feminist in her article “Is there a real woman in this multiplex?“, in which she takes stock of the film industries winners (byronic masculine existential dramas like No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood) and losers (ones led by women). This article is a must-read.

Fortunately, while I wait patiently for women directors to proliferate and creatively flower, men can make really good feminist movies. The most definitive that come to mind are Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Series, in which a group of tough women (led by heroine Uma Thurman) subvert his normal formula of shoot-’em-up tough-guy movies.

Then we’ve got Ridley Scott’s stunning “Thelma and Louise,” in which two women attempt to escape all the constraints male society has placed upon them. Unfortunately it doesn’t end very well for the rebellious duo.

Finally, my favorite director out there making feminist movies, examining woman’s lives, and commenting on gender roles, is the Spaniard Pedro Almodovar. Volver and All About My Mother are probably his two most outstanding films about the ladies.

What are your fave feminist movies?

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5 responses to “A Film Industry for Old Men

  1. Anna, this is a great post! Not to nitpick or anything but actually, three women have been nominated for a Best Director Oscar…not that this weakens your post in any way- it actually makes it stronger.
    Just the other day, I watched Sex and the City (you know I did) and I was stunned by the negative press the movie was getting. I even read a story on Slate about how disaffected Hillary Clinton supporters were probably the biggest audience for the movie, because of the whole empowerment thing. Movies like Indiana Jones and You don’t mess with the Zohan are not treated in such a disparaging manner.
    I do think that a number of women directors have really made a huge impact in Hollywood. Movies like Stop Loss and Little Miss Sunshine are a testament to that. Additionally, women have been sucessful action movie directors (Deep Impact, Point Break).
    But here’s the million dollar question, Anna. What do you think should happen in order for women to become more accepted in Hollywood? Or do you think it’s a lost cause? Would it be better for aspiring female film makers to boycott Hollywood altogether and concentrate on the indy scene?

  2. Indira,
    Damn! I thought I’d looked so closely on my Oscars list. But I found this article that seems to contain a useful score card for how many women are actually involved in Hollywood, and it also says the fact about 3 women being nominated for best director: http://money.cnn.com/2004/02/24/news/oscars_women/

    You guessed it…I don’t know the answer to the million dollar question. It is interesting to me that women directors have had more success in the indie world, with films like Little Miss Sunshine, American Splendor, or Me, You, and Everyone We Know. But I really do love Hollywood, even grandiose, billion dollar, manly and male-dominated Hollywood, and I would like to see more women making million dollar movies.

    But upon a little reflection, I find I have a lot to say about some possible solutions to your million dollar question. I’ll take you up on that question in a blog post for tomorrow.

    PS still haven’t seen Sex and the City! No one will watch it with me; I’m going to have to go see it alone. 😦

  3. Haha, it was the same for me. Seeing as I have no friends here in K.C., I dragged my sister along to see SATC. Predictably, she hated it. I, on the other hand, liked it a lot. I often felt like the movie was one big product placement after the other, but what’s a chick flick without crass materialism??
    Am waiting for the follow-up post eagerly!

  4. This was a really good post.

    1)

    I think you might like this writeup of the maleness of “No Country” and “TWBBlood” – it’s the best read on “No Country”, especially in relation to the Cohen brother’s other films, I’ve seen:

    http://www.thevalve.org/go/valve/article/why_americans_didnt_watch_the_oscars/

    2)

    In addition to the the more pervasive patriarchal instances of how we evaluate cultural products, it’s important to also note how the Culture Indusry makes its decisions. Females are purposely excluded in the name of larger profit margins – I don’t know if you followed the flap where the Warner Brothers President said privately that he would no longer make movies with female leads:

    http://www.deadlinehollywooddaily.com/the-reality-behind-jeff-robinovs-denial/

    It’s pretty depressing. They think it is more profitable to shareholders to kick out more and more movies aimed at teenage boys, that can go global (read: action) or movies that can spin off other revenue sources (My Dinner with Andre action figures, for instance).

  5. Mike,
    Thanks so much for the links. I especially found the Valve’s commentary valuable. When I saw There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men, I thought the lack of women was as obvious as it was deliberate, and as such, the overtly masculine narrative about violence and competition in an absurd world was fine. Only white men seem to struggle with those problems (and women have other things to worry about). But I am haunted by Kugelman’s idea that in the years past leading women added not only a
    ‘realistic’ dimension to the film, but that their presence also introduced the tension of the political (his analysis of Swinton’s role in Michael Clayton is brilliant!). Yes, we are truly lacking certain tensions in the “artificial wasteland of maleness,” as he says. Thanks for your comments.

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