Rosie the Riveter

Positive Role Models: Where are the Women in Film?

Does the lack of women behind the lens reflect on what we see on the screen? The Tramp considers where women are in film.

At some point in our lives most of us have sought out role models or characters that we aspire to be. It isn’t the case that women only relate to female characters and men only relate to male characters. It is about people relating to the most interesting and relevant characters to them. But what if every character or story that you relate to, every role model, is male?

“Media images exert a powerful influence in creating and perpetuating our unconscious biases” – Geena Davis

When I was growing up almost every interesting character in the films I watched, the leaders, the adventurers, the challengers, the heroes were male. I can think of three exceptions – Princess Leia (Star Wars), Sarah (Labyrinth) and Marion (Raiders of the Lost Ark) – just three, out of countless films watched. As I grew older I found myself drawn to cinema’s golden years, where stars like Katharine Hepburn, Audrey Hepburn, Bette Davis, Tallulah Bankhead, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich shone through the material they were given, dominating the screen. I grew up in a period when Margaret Thatcher dominated Britain, and yet I was searching for powerful female role models, because while gender shouldn’t matter, it does if there is no balance. As a girl you want to see women at the top, women you can aspire to be – not just men. And whilst I respected Margaret Thatcher’s achievement, I can’t say that I aspired to be her.

Thirty years on it should be better, but if anything it feels worse. Perhaps this is because I now have two children of my own – a boy and a girl – and I hope that they will see female characters that inspire as much as male ones, but right now I don’t believe that that is the case, which is somewhat depressing. Could the reason for this be that film makers are more likely to be male than female?

For every female character seen on screen you see 2.25 male characters. The New York Film Academy

I have been told, by some people within the film industry, that while it is true that film school may feature as many men as women there is a reason why men rise to dominance: they’re just better suited to the industry and the top roles. It takes a particular set of skills, tenacity and ego to get by and men are just more likely to have this mix. I’m not convinced. Take for instance the role of cinematographer.

Cinematographers have to understand how cameras work, but they must also have knowledge of optics, filters, film stock, exposure, composition, lighting, film development, special effects, colour composition, scene blocking, and sound. Does this skill set sound like something only men can do? It doesn’t sound uniquely male to me, and yet the New York Film Academy study showed that in 2012 all bar three of the top 250 films (that is 98%) had male cinematographers. If you consider that the cinematographer’s role is to create a convincing visual world and establish a film’s tone to provide an understandable context to the characters and narrative seen on screen, you can appreciate how important that role is and perhaps wonder what difference a female perspective might have in setting that tone over a male one.

The same study of the top 250 films of 2012 concluded that:

  • 91% of the films directors were male
  • 85% of the writers were male
  • 75% of the producers were male
  • 80% of editors were male.

Which means that the people who write the stories, the people that put together the financing and the teams to make the stories, the people that direct how the stories are made, who are responsible for the visual tone of the story and the people that edit and are responsible for the final shape of the story are all likely to be male. (Source New York Film Academy)

But does this male bias really matter? The Bechdel Test  asks a work of fiction whether at least two female characters talk to each other about something other than a man. At least half of all films fail this test. That means that in almost half of all the films released, and viewed, the female characters only purpose is to serve the male characters of the story.

  • Just 31% of women on screen get to talk
  • 29% of women on screen wore revealing clothes, compared to 7% of men
  • 26% of women on screen got naked compared to 9% of men.

The New York Film Academy

What we see isn’t only shaped by the people making the films. Those who distribute and review also play an important role in deciding what we get to see. For instance, around half of the Sundance Film Festivals films were directed by women in 2015 and yet those chosen for broader commercial release were predominantly directed by men.

But it wasn’t always so. Between 1917 and 1923 women dominated the US film industry. Frances Marion was the highest paid screenwriter of the 1920s and 1930s; Alice Guy-Blache was a producer and director who from 1896 made over a 1,000 films, whilst Lois Webber and Dorothy Arzner were famous female directors of early silent films.

“Women support women.  Films directed by women feature more women in all roles.  There is a 21% increase in women working on a narrative film when there is a female director and a 24% of women working on documentaries.” – the Sundance Institute

Almost half of all cinema tickets sold are sold to women, and if women really wanted to see films starring women and about women they would go to see those films wouldn’t they? And yet the last thirty years is littered with female starring flops. Geena Davis as a pirate in Cutthroat Island, Angelia Jolie as Lara Croft, Geena Davis (again) in the Long Kiss Goodnight and now, it seems, the female reboot of Ghostbusters. All critical and commercial flops (the jury is still out on Ghostbusters). However consider the Women in TV and Film’s recent study of Rotten Tomatoes, the popular and influential film review site. The study found that in the spring of this year 73% of the top film critics were men and just 27% female. There was a bias, the study concluded, with films with male protagonists receiving greater visibility than films with female protagonists. So critics prefer films with male protagonists.

There are plenty of films with male protagonists that flop, it is rarely the maleness of it that is held up as to blame for the failure. And yet with so few female starring films (and yes I am excluding the so called chick flick genre here, the films where women bond by dancing around in their night clothes whilst drinking margaritas), it is easy to blame a lack of audience interest in female starring vehicles of this type for the flop, rather than say – bad writing, directing, editing or all of the above.

So does it make a difference when a woman directs? I would argue that yes it does. Fish Tank (2009), directed and written by Andrea Arnold is about a 15 year old girl whose life changed when her mother brought a new boyfriend home. Similarly the recent (2015) Diary of a Teenage Girl, written and directed by Marielle Heller, is about a teenage girl who has an affair with her mother’s boyfriend. In both films the focus is not on the romance, or abuse, by the older man, but the impact that these relationships have on the female protagonist and their relationships with the people around them, principally their families and friends. In one scene in Diary of a Teenage Girl the girl in question examines herself naked in a mirror. It is a far from sexual gaze, rather it is critical, focused not on ‘pert young flesh’, but on imperfections, with an attempt to comprehend what appeal it has for men. There is nothing exploitative about this scene. This is a young woman trying to grasp the power that her body can hold and understand it. Could a male director have shot this? Perhaps, but not, I think, in the same way.

In 2000 American Psycho was brought to the big screen with Christian Bale in the lead role. A problematic book, a satire sometimes read rather literally, there were questions raised about how the graphic and sickening violence that the lead character perpetrates against women would be depicted on screen. It would be all too easy to make it as glossy and sexual as Patrick Bateman believes it to be. However, in director Mary Harron’s hands, the audience was delivered an insight into the mind of a fantasist and regardless of how horrid the fantasies were, the focus was not on a sexualised death of a prostitute, but on quite how pathetic Bateman really was. Would a male director have done the same? Countless horror film franchises suggest otherwise.

There are some strong female writers, directors, producers and performers who are making their presence known and may, I hope, make a positive impact; Andrea Arnold, Lena Dunham, Drew Barrymore, Tina Fey, Amy Schumer all come to mind. But I would argue that until the key positions in film making – directing, writing, producing, editing and cinematography – are as likely to be held by a woman as they are a man, then films will continue to fail the Bechdel test, and my children are as likely to grow up and unconsciously absorb the idea of men deservedly dominating, as my generation were.

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5 thoughts on “Positive Role Models: Where are the Women in Film?

  1. I’ve posted some thoughts on why this might be here.

    Short version: lead roles in films have been made very one-dimensional, to the point there are much fewer complex and interesting characters. This has reduced the opportunities for women more than men because the latter can always play the villain (with whom more risks can be taken) but villainous roles for women that are not cartoonish are very few. If women had better roles in films, we might see a decent role model emerge.

    1. Tim, I would suggest that does not have to be the case, as female roles in television have highlighted. The late 1990s and early 00s, for instance, had popular female led franchises like Buffy and Xena, and in a double header like X-Files, Scully was as key as Mulder – the show really couldn’t work without that duo. There are a slew of interesting female vehicles out or coming soon. A few Western’s from last year also spring to mind – Jane Got A Gun, The Homesman and the Keeping Room. – albeit the directors were male. The stories can be made, and can be interesting, but largely they are not.

      1. “I would suggest that does not have to be the case, as female roles in television have highlighted.”

        I fully agree it doesn’t have to be the case, and I was going to make the point in my own post that the roles in television (for both men and women) are nowadays often a lot better than those for films (which is why so many A-listers are now doing television). And yes, I think this started a long time ago, as per the examples you mention. I think the reason for this is that producers and scriptwriters can afford to take a risk on a TV series – you can always steer it in another direction if things go awry. But with a film it’s a one-shot thing, and I don’t think anyone wants to take a risk any more. Or at least, the big studios and big stars don’t.

  2. It’s not just elision in film. In any company’s board of directors – in every parliament globally – women are under-represented. What is more shocking than women’s elision from film, is the sorts of roles that are written for them when they are in films. I read through a list of 20 films about supposedly ‘strong’ women – every last one of them was sexualized to a degree where I could not show it to my young daughter. Can we only imagine narratives about women where sex is their main raison d’etre? What if we do not choose to define ourselves in terms of that biological essentialist nonsense? In fact many films featuring girls have them framed entirely within a male context – think of heroines having to be men to fit in (GI Jane, Brokovich) exhibiting aggressive killer instincts; lead female roles that are ditzy with slow-reveal mitigating features (Clueless, legally blonde), who are making money by trading on their bodies (Pretty Woman, Flashdance), or who are helpless damsels in distress having to be rescued from their situation by a man (most Disney films)…there is precious little that inspires or would lead me to wish for heroine-identification from my child. We are 51% of the world’s 6bn population, and I can’t find a film to show her about Us that would leave her feeling good about herself and her potentials. Do any other parents share my baffled frustration?

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