Feminism / Films

As the World Turns: Lack of Women Filmmakers Often Leads to Female Film Characters Revolving Around Men

Do these films pass the Bechdel Test?

Think of some of your favorite films.  Now envision the plot and the characters.  Is there a female character?  Are there more than one?  And if so, do they talk to one another?  You might be saying why is The Opinioness asking this…of course there are movies with women talking to each other!  But it happens less often than you might think.

Women write only 10% and direct a mere 7% of the top 250 top grossing domestic films. And only 33% of films’ speaking roles belong to women.  As it’s clearly a challenge for women to find any roles, let alone substantive roles, it’s not surprising that some female actors have resorted to writing their own roles.  A recent study in Quebec finds that female directors have a tough time getting their films made and actor Kerry Fox, in her recent article in The Guardian, wonders where are all the female film directors, attributing it to a lack of confidence co-mingled with a lack of role models.  So where ARE all the women?!

Last month, I eagerly headed off to NYC to attend the amazing Athena Film Festival in NYC, hosted by Women and Hollywood (one of my fave blogs by Melissa Silverstein), Barnard College and the Athena Leadership Institute.  The festival showcased films about women and leadership.  One of the panels I was most excited to attend was the Bechdel Test Panel: Where Are the Women?.  Inspired by her friend Liz Wallace, cartoonist Allison Bechdel created the Bechdel Test in 1985.  So what’s the test you ask??  Well it involves the criteria of:

  1. At least two named female characters in a film,
  2. who MUST talk to each other,
  3. about something other than a man. 

Sounds easy right?  Sadly, soooooo few films make the cut.  Films revolve around men. Men, men, men.  And when there IS a woman, usually she’s merely some dude’s lover or spouse or sidekick or the person he’s gotta rescue.  As if women’s lives perpetually revolve around men.  All the time. 24/7.

The Bechdel Test panel featured screenwriter Delia Ephron (You’ve Got Mail, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants), writer/director Deborah Kampmeier (Hounddog, Virgin), writer/producer Margaret Nagle (Boardwalk Empire, Warm Springs) and moderated by writer Dodai Stewart (Jezebel).  The women were all intelligent and articulate and fired up.  It was obvious they were fed up with sexism in the film industry.

Kampmeier uttered perhaps one of the most powerful statements to me:

“Women making films is a political act.”

I had never thought of it that way.  I had never envisioned women creating art and telling their stories to be a radical idea in and of itself.  But when I stopped and thought about it, I realized she was right.  We can’t be what we can’t see.  Nagle said that when she was young,

“I didn’t see women write.  I didn’t see women direct.  No one encouraged me.  So I went to acting as a way to tell stories.”

Regarding ageism and sexism, Nagle advised that if you think about it, your work won’t be made.  You have to push past the discrimination.  Ephron echoed this sentiment.  She talked about how when you’re a little girl, and you watch the Academy Awards, you see two women win in the gendered categories designated for them (Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress) but that’s it.  Sadly, nothing has really changed.

Nagle discussed how Susan B. Anthony wanted to attain women’s suffrage by going state to state.  But when Alice Paul came along, she said screw that; we’re going to take the vote because men aren’t going to give it to women.  Nagle declared,

“And that’s what we need to do in the film industry.  The only way movies are going to change is if we make it change.”

Nagle went on to talk about A.O. Scott, The New York Times film critic.  He recently pointed out sexism, misogyny and homophobia in the new Adam Sandler/Jennifer Aniston film Just Go with It.  Scott points out that Sandler is over 40, a schlubby mess of a guy who of course is dating a beautiful 20-something woman and that a female character is demeaned for her plus-size body type.  I haven’t seen the film so I can’t criticize it or refute Scott’s claims.  But it IS exciting to hear a well-known male film critic pointing out sexism.  As Nagle said, many critics, men and women, don’t acknowledge misogyny, they just accept it.  She says, “Unless journalists take it on, we [in the film industry] can’t take it on.”  I couldn’t agree more.

Ephron talked about women as directors, in particular Deborah Chase, director of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, and how she makes movies for women.  She said, “To write and direct are the way to go,” since directors can (and often do) wreck a writer’s story.  She asserted that women are more flexible and adaptable.  But are they?  I’m often wary when people claim that women are this or men are that.  It not only reinforces gendered stereotypes but gender binaries too.  These kinds of statements often ignore that culture and socialization play pivotal roles in people’s gender identities.  Yet perhaps Ephron is right. Perhaps the industry forces women to be more flexible and adaptable in order to not only survive but thrive in a sea of patriarchy.

Stewart raised the issue of children’s films and how they fare for women and girls.  She talked about how most films have male protagonists.  Most movies for kids are just sexism in training.  Ephron said that if you write a girl, the producers and studios will ask you to change the protagonist to a boy.  I’m reminded of Tangled, the supposed last Disney princess film.  Disney changed the name of the movie from “Rapunzel” to “Tangled” so as not to be associated with a girl.  They also added the male character Flynn and showed both him and Rapunzel in the posters, so boys wouldn’t be turned off from going to see it.  Isn’t that nice, let’s just fucking forget about half the population.  Who gives a shit about girls? Clearly Disney doesn’t. As Peggy Orenstein argues in her new book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, the puke pink propaganda of girlie girl crap has invaded children’s media. It’s shoved down little girls’ throats, telling them to be princesses.

Nagle questions if women buy 50% of movie tickets, “why do women’s films fail?  Are women so brainwashed by the culture?”  She wishes women would take their boyfriends and husbands to see films featuring women.  She asserts, “It’s not that polarizing but we make it that way.”  This echoes what blogger Melissa Silverstein has argued and that I’ve written in the past.  Women’s films are seen as separate than men’s films but also less important.  Kampmeier responded to Nagle’s question by discussing how marketing dollars and how films are packaged determines who goes to the theatre.  And far too often, films featuring female characters are labeled that odious term: chick flick.

Nagle said that critics dis a film for being a “chick flick.”  Ugh, I fucking hate this term more than I do chick lit!  Are people so worried that if a film focuses on women that vaginas are going to take over the world?!  She talks about how journalists “have a responsibility and they don’t even know it.”  Ephron questioned if TV was friendlier to women than films?  But Nagle disputes this as there are barely any shows with women protagonists.  She mentions The Good Wife and Grey’s Anatomy as examples.  But there’s also The Closer, Damages, Weeds, United States of Tara and The Big C.  Doesn’t that show that things are improving?  Apparently not as Nagle said that Showtime is now changing their mandates because they have too many “chick shows.”  Gag…what the hell is wrong with people?!

Nagle shared how she had pitched a show for ABC.  But the channel wouldn’t support it because they were already airing too many women shows.  So Lifetime aired it.  About 2 female friends since childhood.  Had a quote in the script about Shakespeare spoken by one of the female characters who’s a journalist.  Lifetime wanted her to cut it but she refused.  Lifetime said she was difficult to work with.  And she said, “Why, because I won’t make my character stupid??”  It’s so nice to see studio execs want women to be dumbed down.

Nagle went on to say, “If I lose it, I’m going to get called a bitch.  You have to hold on to the big picture and make people remember it when they forget it.”  Kampmeier responded to this story with, “Sometimes you have to say ‘fuck you.’ You do.  But they make money and I don’t so take that with a grain of salt!”  In her film Hound Dog, people wanted her to cut a rape scene.  She refused and said, “Fuck you, it’s staying.  Sometimes you have to walk away from money.”

But interestingly, it’s not always just about money.  Sometimes it’s about sheer discrimination.  Nagle referenced the Princeton study conducted by Emily Glassberg Sands, in which she found that plays written by women actually made more money than plays written by men.  However, producers don’t keep these plays “running any longer than less profitable shows.”  Glassberg Sands also found that plays featuring female protagonists don’t get made as often as ones with male leads.  A gender bias exists in most forms of visual media.

The panelists discussed how producers and execs see films featuring women that turn into box-office blockbusters as anomalies.  Twilight, Sex and the City (the first film), Mamma Mia, The Devil Wears Prada, The First Wives’ Club…these were all deemed god damn anomalies but they’re not!!  Women will pay to see good movies.  There’s a market there but the sexist execs are too stupid to see it.  So guess which entertainment product is the number one highest grossing property for Universal Studios.  Give up? It’s Wicked.  Yep, the Broadway musical which has grossed over $2 billion worldwide and focuses on two women and their friendship.

The panelists ended with a call to action, asking the audience who wanted to be a writer, director, producer or a studio exec.  Kampmeier insisted we can’t have men telling women’s stories; that women must tell their own stories.  Nagle said,

“Speak up.  Speak out.  Be confident.  Don’t let anyone else speak for you…They say the truth will set you free.  I think a good story will too…You are the next generation…only you can tell those stories.”

All the women spoke of persistence; that you have to cut through the bullshit to get your story heard.  The panel left me thinking about all of the amazing talent out there…all of those unheard stories. I had never thought about being a screenwriter before (although I did have this secret dream to make a documentary film with my fantastically fabulous friend Jooyea).

So think about your fave films…which ones actually pass the Bechdel test?  As my bestie John, film critic at Hello Mr. Anderson, and I talked about this, we realized that once you learn about the test, you won’t be able to watch movies the same way again.  When you stop and think about it, it’ll be hard to come up with a list of films that actually pass the test.

So why does this all matter?  You’re probably thinking can’t I just sit back and enjoy a good movie??  Of course you can.  Hey, I like dramas and documentaries and movies where they blow shit up too.  But it matters because as Kerry Fox points out, over half the population’s stories aren’t being heard.  It matters because the media we create and consume says something about our society.

People often think that films, TV shows and music are just pure escapism; that pop culture is fluff so we don’t need to examine it. As one of my feminist idols author/lecturer/documentary filmmaker Jean Kilbourne argues, mass media and advertising invade our lives, even if we think we’re ignoring it.  The amount of stimuli is so massive that even on a subconsciously level it impacts us.  So it’s important to examine even seemingly innocuous things like films for they inadvertently shape our views about the world around us.

When women are in films, they’re portrayed as “damsels in distress, pining spinsters, fighting fuck toys (women who are supposed to be empowered due to their physical prowess but who are often sex objects for men)” sexy seductresses or “manic pixie dream girls (a term coined by film critic Nathan Rabin about quirky young women who help soul-searching men find their way in the world).”  These female archetypes only exist to titillate men, educate men or show how much women really need men; all conveying that women’s lives revolve around men.  As Caroline Heldman writes in The Huffington Post,

“Why does The Little Mermaid sacrifice her very identity as a merperson to get her man? Why is the only prominent female character in Transformers simply window-dressing for the male lead and a reward for his heroism? Why does Ironman present us with several strong female characters but then reduce them to mere objects through the male protagonist’s sexual exploits?”

It’s not surprising that most films don’t feature strong, complex women on their own terms.  We live in a patriarchal society where women don’t receive equal wages, are accused of being liars or gold-diggers in cases of rape and domestic violence, have their reproductive rights assaulted, and where their beauty and thinness determine their worth.  Now, I’m not saying that sexism in films causes gender inequity.  But we subtly (and too often bluntly) tell women and girls they don’t matter…and that destructive message has got to change.

8 thoughts on “As the World Turns: Lack of Women Filmmakers Often Leads to Female Film Characters Revolving Around Men

  1. The worst films are the one’s done by male director’s, supposedly tailored towords women (the dreaded “chick flick”).
    There’s usually a baby pooping, lot’s of shopping & shoe buying, then the male love interest, who’m isn’t quite ready to settle down.
    They dumb women down to shopaholics who obsess over getting married.

    There’s a new film by a woman director, which stars Amanda Seyfried (purrrrrr).
    It’s an adaptation of “Red Riding Hood,” and i would like to see it.
    I’ve always thought, the story itself, was very sexual, in nature.
    Even the title, if you think about it.
    “The wolf” is a metaphor for man, and “Red riding hood” represents virginity & purity.
    “The grandmother” is sort of the moral center, but she get’s eaten, thus eliminating good old fashioned values.
    “The wolf” is on the hunt, deceptive & dangerous (kinda like Charlie Sheen).
    It’s a good lesson for girls, as they become women.
    Look out for the cross dressing wolf, he isn’t whom he appears to be.

  2. Julian, I’d recommend skipping “Red Riding Hood” and seeing Amanda Seyfried in “Chloe” instead. It’s Atom Egoyan’s recent film where Julianne Moore suspects Liam Neeson of cheating so she hires Seyfriend (a prostitute) to put the moves on him. Things, of course, are never what they seem. I thought it was a great movie, with great performances, that flew under the radar. And, Seyfriend (not sure if it was a body double) gets naked. I guarantee that doesn’t happen in “Red Riding Hood”.

  3. Thanks for the tip, Brian!

    Instead, i’m gonna rent “Twilight” and “New moon,” because i’m obsessed with
    romance & vampires.
    I’d like to direct “Breaking Dawn,” but cast Kristen Stewart alongside Nosferatu, instead of the dreamy, Edward.
    Can you imagine?
    A lithe, teen girl has her heart stolen by the charming & hideous, Nosferatu.
    “Those portruding fangs, the glowing, yellow eyes, the gaunt, skeletal physique…
    If i can’t love him, then love is dead in my world!”

  4. I hear Edward gives Bella a c-section in Breaking Dawn. With his teeth! If that isn’t reason enough to see the movie then I don’t know what is!

  5. I stole one of Megmo’s lines, to the delight of two women, standing nearby.
    There was a promo table for Disney’s ‘Tangled,’ and noticing the ladies, i loudly joked (to a co-worker), “Tangled?! Back in my day, we called it ‘Rapunzel.”
    The women laughed, and i went on my merry way, with a wink.

    All thank’s to the Opinioness.

  6. There’s too much “Red Riding Hood” talk going on in this discussion; Julian, trust me on this and DON’T see it. You’re better off seeing snippets of Seyfried on Veronica Mars than in that war crime of a film. Haven’t seen “Chloe” yet, but it does look interesting.

    Not gonna lie: kinda want to see Tangled. Supposed to be good. Maybe now that it’s on DVD

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