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Cinema's glass ceiling

Design by Nick Cruz

By Kayla Upadhyaya, Managing Arts Editor
Published February 21, 2013

What’s your favorite movie from the past year?

When you talk about film and television as much as I do, you become accustomed to the question. And choosing favorites isn’t something I like to do, so I usually rattle off a list: I saw “Pitch Perfect” three times in theaters; “Perks of Being a Wallflower” made me feel a whole range of emotions; I waited five years for “Avengers” and it exceeded my soaring expectations; “Skyfall” had the best chase scene ever.

But I noticed something about almost all of the movies I listed: They were directed by men.

As someone who invests a lot of time in studying pop culture from a feminist perspective, I knew there were gender barriers in the film industry. I knew why Kathryn Bigelow and Nora Ephron matter. But I’d never really looked at the numbers behind the story.

So, I pulled out my laptop to do some investigating. With a list of the top 250 grossing films of 2012 in hand I highlighted the ones helmed by female filmmakers.

Only 9 percent of the 250 were directed by women. In the top 100, there were only three: “Brave,” “Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Guilt Trip.”

If you can’t think of the last movie you saw that was made by a woman, you’re not alone. Even most of the Screen Arts and Cultures students I sat down with had to take several seconds to think about it, and some of them are aspiring directors themselves.

“Sometimes women express an idea and are shot down, only to have a man express essentially the same idea and have it broadly embraced. Until there is a sufficient number of women executives in high places, this will continue to happen.”
- Brenda Chapman, The New York Times, Aug. 14, 2012

Have you heard of Dorothy Arzner?

Neither had Nicole Gellman.

Last semester, Gellman, an LSA junior studying SAC and also enrolled in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, was given a list of famous directors and had to choose one to write a research paper about. She stumbled upon Arzner, the only woman on the list. Even though Gellman had never heard of her, she soon discovered that Arzner was critical to early cinema.

Arzner directed over a dozen feature-length films from the late 1920s to the early 1940s. She made Paramount’s first talkie and was the first person to rig a boom microphone. Gellman pointed out that she was also essential to giving huge stars like Katherine Hepburn and Clara Bow their starts.

“She was an open — to her colleagues, not to the public — lesbian lady, and that was unheard of at the time,” Gellman said. “And it still kind of is.”

Though current trends suggest that cinema has been an old boys’ club, the industry wasn’t always so male-dominated.

Professor Caryl Flinn teaches film theory and music at the University, and she’s particularly drawn to media’s mix with feminist theory. Feminist film theory, which emerged in the 1970s, has helped unearth female pioneers integral to film’s roots.

“Because cinema was a relatively fledgling business and industry at that point, I think they were more open to experimentation,” Flinn said. “And I think when the studios became big business, there was a little less proclivity to invest so heavily in female talent.”

Flinn noted that while this does partially explain why there aren’t as many women seen in cinema today as there were in the past, it’s not the whole story.

When I asked Gellman what her career plan is, she replied emphatically, “I will be a director.”

She is currently taking the SAC department’s highest level production class. During the course, students work on one of two films from beginning to end, and the finished products premiere at the Traverse City Film Festival in the summer. Gellman is the Assistant Director for the project “Fender Bender,” for which the creative team is composed mostly of women. Gellman works closely with the director, LSA senior Yaqi Ge.

“I’m lucky to be working on ‘Fender Bender’ with Yaqi because, really, it’s a woman team,” Gellman said.

When Ge was five, she watched “Toy Story” for the first time. Immediately after, she turned to her mom and said that this is what she wants to do; she wants to make animated movies.

Ge is used to working in male-dominated settings. In addition to her involvement in film, she is double-majoring in computer science, another field with a disproportionately high number of men.

“Most of my computer science classes have only two or three girls,” Ge said. “Sometimes I feel a little bit uncomfortable.”

Working with so many women on “Fender Bender” has created a noticeably different working atmosphere, Ge explained.

“You just feel more comfortable with other girls,” she said. “You think in the same way; it feels easier.”

She mentioned that, in some ways, animation is a more open field for female artists. When she worked at an animation conference one summer, Ge was surprised to see so many women involved.

Women often work as producers on animated features, but female directors are still uncommon. While Brenda Chapman’s spot in the three-member directing team of “Brave” was a step in the right direction, it didn’t come without its obstacles. Pixar fired Chapman halfway through production for undisclosed “creative differences,” leaving two men to spin the tale of the production company’s first female lead.

LSA senior Christina Bender expressed a similar comfort in working with other women.

Bender, who has been involved with University student-run film studio Filmic Productions since its inception, took an interest in film before coming to the University. In high school, she attended a film camp at the Motion Pictures Institute of Michigan. When she arrived, she was the only girl.

“It was really weird,” Bender said. “I kind of felt funny about it.”

Though her first experience was shocking, Bender said she has become more accustomed to working mostly with men.

Then, last year, she had the opportunity to work as a production assistant for a female producer.

“It was so wonderful to have a woman as a mentor, and people kept telling me how lucky I was,” Bender said. “She was so sweet and so nice, and I heard so many stories of other people’s experiences of being a producer’s assistant that weren’t as positive.”

Though she was fortunate to have a female mentor, Bender explained that the rest of the crew was male-dominated and that she still observed a subtle sexism.

“I don’t know if it’s super sexist, but just the way that they talk,” she said, “They call you ‘sweetie’ and that kind of stuff. It wasn’t anything like groping or anything, just comments.”

“I think that there is just a deep and abiding sexism that’s part of your life from the moment that you’re conscious as a female. And you are afraid to step into the idea that you could be an authority figure, that you could be a boss, that you have a vision that other people should listen to you on a set … and I think that you therefore don’t allow yourself access to the dream of being a director.”
- Liz Garcia, Sundance Film Festival Women Directors’ Roundtable, Jan. 16, 2013

Though a dominantly female creative team backs Gellman and Ge, there aren’t very many female students who come into the film course as determined to direct as Gellman is.

“I think there probably is a subconscious level of ‘oh, that’s a man’s job,’ ” she said.

However, women do tend to fill other positions on creative teams. In particular, there have been many successful female editors.

Patrice Petro, vice provost for international education at the University of Wisconsin, has written several books on film theory and history. She offered scholar B. Ruby Rich’s explanation for why we see more female editors than directors: “Editing is the great exception, as closed work in dark rooms dedicated to making the guy look good — that’s a job for a woman.”

“It’s the perennial and persistent sexism that accounts for why women are not as represented in the industry — certainly not as directors,” Petro said.

With recent trends in gender barriers to filmmaking in mind, the Sundance Institute commissioned an unprecedented study into the status of female filmmakers in the independent film industry. Scholars from the University of Southern California probed the issue, and while it focused on the independent world, the findings illuminate problems women face throughout the film industry.

According to Sundance Film Festival Senior Programmer Caroline Libresco, “as there’s more power on set, there’s a decreasing number of women.”

Emily Lyon, a senior dual-enrolled in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance and LSA, explained that women in any kind of leadership position have to walk a fine line. She said women are expected to be generous and inspiring and are not necessarily allowed to be commanding.

“Because they don’t want to be called a bitch,” she said.

In a directors’ roundtable at the Sundance Film Festival in January, five female filmmakers with movies in this year’s festival discussed society’s divergent expectations for women and men, noting that women are socialized to be more collaborative, while men are socialized to be more aggressive in the way they lead.

Commanding men are ambitious; commanding women are bitches.

This double standard can be seen in the media’s hypercriticism of female pioneers in the industry. Flinn used the ever-increasing backlash against “Girls” creator Lena Dunham as an example.

“She’s enormously talented, and it’s all of a sudden great to dump on her now,” Flinn said. “It just seems like there’s really not room at the table for women, and I don’t understand that.”

Lyon, too, pointed to the double standard in Dunham hate.

“I don’t recall anyone saying ‘Woody Allen, what are you doing writing, directing and acting in your movies? You’re not an attractive male!’ That was never an issue,” she said. “I do think we are hypercritical in terms of appearance, and film is very much about appearance.”

And when women aren’t scrutinized, they’re ignored.

Even Kathryn Bigelow, the only woman to ever win the Academy Award for directing, was passed over when the nominations came out this year. “Zero Dark Thirty” received five nominations, including Best Picture and Lead Actress, but Bigelow wasn’t recognized.

“It does seem like when movies fail of female directors, the fall is really hard sometimes,” Flinn said.

While “Zero Dark Thirty” wasn’t a failure, the politically charged debate surrounding the film has overshadowed her continued success as a filmmaker.

Last year, the LA Times investigated the composition of the mysterious Academy, which doesn’t publicly release a list of its voting members. The report found that nearly 94 percent of Oscar voters are Caucasian and 77 percent are male.

“I think sometimes they’re still a little gender blind in terms of who even gets nominated,” Flinn said. “I think that still there’s a lot of underrepresentation and underconsideration of female talent, except for in the obvious Actress categories.”

In addition to expanding access to directing, Katy Ralko, a Ph.D. candidate in the SAC department, said she thinks part of the problem is the lack of recognition for women who are working in other creative positions.

“I think we live in a culture where so much of that credit goes to the director,” Ralko said. “I think we have to challenge that idea.”

According to Ralko, small industry changes such as including more names in the top credits or celebrating creative work more visibly at events like the Academy Awards can open up more space for female recognition in film.

“For example, Martin Scorsese is one of these pantheon directors, and he’s worked with the same editor for almost all of his films,” Ralko said.

She paused, trying to recall her name. She reached over to her computer for help. A quick Google search pulled up the name Thelma Schoonmaker.

“See?” she said. “Even though I try to be so conscious of these things, I remember Martin Scorsese’s name and I forget his editor’s name. That woman has had her hand on every single frame of every single movie that Scorsese made. And I couldn’t even remember her name.”

It’s not uncommon for women to be relegated to positions in which they don’t receive much recognition in fields beyond film. Just think about how significantly female legislative aids outnumber female legislators.

“We’re overly critical of female leaders in general,” Lyon said.

“Female ownership of media companies is key to opening doors for women on set and in the boardrooms of film companies. Women can and will open doors to other women. We need money to make that happen.”
- Susan Cartsonis, New York Times, Aug. 14, 2012

The Sundance study found that when women are behind the camera as directors or producers, the number of women hired to be on the crew for the other content-creator positions goes up significantly. But there are obstacles getting women into these lead positions.

Libresco pointed to some of the key explanations that the report helped uncover. One of these is gendered financial barriers.

Independent narrative film relies on a funding structure that is primarily run by men, and these gendered finance obstacles are certainly seen in Hollywood as well.

As Gellman explained, the multi-billion-dollar business model of big cinema harms women.

“Women, right now, are a risk,” Gellman said. “Because people are taking on established professionals who, just by the history of the years, have more experience, and you’re more apt to give someone a hundred-million dollars to make a movie with more experience.”

Financial barriers help explain why, in many ways, the television industry seems more open to women than film. Female showrunners are much more common than female directors. In addition to Dunham, women like Tina Fey, Shonda Rhimes and Elizabeth Meriwether have helped pave the way for female showrunners. But TV typically involves less money, so there’s more room for experimentation and risk.

“The stakes are lower,” Flinn said.

She added that women on television, like Fey, Amy Poehler and Sarah Silverman, have helped break the glass ceiling for women in TV comedy.

“That was a genre that was so masculine,” Flinn said. “If you look at standup, it’s still really male-dominated. So, maybe the best thing to look forward to is more cracks in the ceiling.”

But when it comes to filmmaking, she doesn’t think the ceiling is anywhere near being approached.

“You’ve said that filmmaking for you is not about breaking gender roles, but when you make a film that allows your character to disobey the conventions of Hollywood, you’ve done more for women in cinema than you take credit for.”
- Jessica Chastain to Kathryn Bigelow, Golden Globe Awards, Jan. 13, 2013

Enforcing gender roles on set goes hand-in-hand with enforcing gender roles onscreen. The Sundance report draws attention not only to the increase in women crews led by females, but also to the fact that in top-grossing films and Best Picture nominees, female directors are more likely to put girls and women in their films.

Lyon said she frequently thinks about the way women are portrayed onscreen.

“Right now, film tells young girls you can be a love interest — you can be a love interest that basically does some ass-kicking first — but you’re still a love interest, like in ‘The Matrix,’ ” Lyon said. “You can be someone’s mother, who might also find love eventually, but you’re someone’s mother. Or you can be that weird awkward girl or that annoying popular girl from ‘Mean Girls.’ There’s a very limited vocabulary of what women are.”

“I think what film really needs to do for us gender-wise is give us examples, open our imagination for who women can be and what their strengths could be outside of home and outside of relationships,” she continued. “Because when you can expose so many people to an idea, I think that’s one of the ones we can focus on to really change this unfortunately skewed sense of women.”

Lyon mentioned a screenwriter friend of hers in New York who wrote a script for a film centered on a female superhero. A group of producers thought it was great, but said it would never fly without the inclusion of a strong relationship arc.

According to Lyon, the unwillingness to try new types of characters and challenge stereotypes of women onscreen is innately tied up with the gender barrier behind the scenes.

“If we started changing the storylines for women, then I think women would have a lot more space to have their voices heard,” Lyon said. “Right now, we’re very much so telling men’s stories.”

“They’re not going to ask me to make ‘Blade Runner.’ ”
- Naomi Foner, Sundance Film Festival Women Director’s Roundtable, Jan. 16, 2013

So, do men make different movies than women?

LSA junior Kelsey Juddo is the director of photography for “Fender Bender.” She also took the upper-level SAC production class last year and worked on “The V Card,” a film about a group of girls trying to lose their virginity. Even though the story was about women, it was directed by two men. The other film, about a male Hasidic Jew trying to find his place in the world, was directed by a woman.

“I thought it worked out really well,” Juddo said.

Many of the students I talked to remarked that moviegoers sometimes expect women to make more sensitive films and love stories. Bigelow is the clear exception to the notion that women can’t make gory action flicks.

Try looking up the most recent romcom you saw. Chances are that it was made by a man.

So, while women and men can tell the same stories, the ways in which they tell them differ. While “Zero Dark Thirty” is a spy thriller, it doesn’t come with the sexualization and reinforcements of masculinity and femininity so common to the genre.

Layne Simescu, an LSA junior and the production designer for the second SAC 423 film project this year, “Open House,” agreed that the stories we see onscreen are often dominated by male points of view.

Just look at the slate of Best Picture nominees this year. With the exceptions of “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” male characters control the narratives.

“Historically, movies have always been made by males, so we’ve always got that kind of viewpoint,” Simescu said. “If more females started making films, it would turn the filmmaking industry on its head.”

“What we see projected onscreen in the media is really powerful in shaping the ideas about ourselves and shaping the world we live in,” Libresco said when asked about the importance of increasing access to filmmaking. “So, the stories we tell actually shape our experiences and vice versa. If we don’t have a full range of voices reflected in what we see on screen and in the media, we don’t have a full reflection of human experience and therefore don’t have a fully equitable society. Because media is so intertwined with the world we live in.”

She referenced another USC study that looked at the way journalists cover war. The study found that female journalists wrote more humanistic stories and focused more on the victims and people affected by the war. Male journalists wrote about the more violent aspects of war.

“They had a very different vision of the world, and that vision was projected back out to audiences,” Libresco said. “We want the full range of voices to create more access to help tell those stories.”

When she isn’t consumed with her GSI duties, Ralko is her own writer, director, producer, music supervisor and editor on small-film projects. It’s impossible to untangle her work from her identity as a woman and a feminist.

“I think the things I think about are completely wrapped up in the fact that this is my specific set of identity markers,” Ralko said. “And that’s all the more apparent to me because I work alone. But I have friends that don’t work alone, and they will tell you the same thing — that who you are as a person is going to be reflected in whatever you make, whether that’s a story or a commercial for Pepsi or a feature film. The fact that a person makes it means that a person’s life was influenced there. And I don’t think those can ever really be separated fully.”

In addition to her Sundance position, Libresco produces and writes. She, too, noted that her identity as a woman and feminist influences the way she sees the world, and her work reflects that.

“I’ve always had the instinct to work on women’s stories — to work with women artists and to support women directors as a producer,” she said. “It’s a definite instinct for me because I knew there weren’t as many films from that point of view out there for women.”

Gellman said she does believe that female filmmakers shoot women differently than men do.

“It’s a different eye or a different perspective,” she said. “I think female directors shoot women as more of a whole. They seem like fuller characters; they’re not just there to serve the men.”

This difference in perspective is known as the male gaze, a term used in cinema to describe when the camera puts the audience into the perspective of a heterosexual man. Think Megan Fox lifting the hood of a car in “Transformers.”

During the Sundance roundtable, the women discussed the different ways in which they capture female sexuality onscreen. Director Liz Garcia talked about the sex in her Sundance submission, “The Lifeguard.”

“My film really deals with explicit female sexuality,” she said during the roundtable. “I mean, there’s cunnilingus in the movie. I think that tells you right there that this is a woman making the movie.”

“Though female directors are now a small part of the industry, we are an invisible minority. Even in government, we lack representation. It feels like we’ve gone backward. The cultural dismissal of women is so ingrained that the public, including women, doesn’t seem to perceive a problem.”
- Martha Coolidge, The New York Times, Aug. 14, 2012

So, according to Flinn, the glass ceiling isn’t even being approached.

And according to Petro, women have actually lost ground. She said there are ebbs and flows, but women aren’t on a truly forward trajectory in film or beyond.

“I think, today, there’s a backlash against feminism and a backlash to women’s rights, and you can see it at every level,” Petro said. “I think that a new generation has to be engaged to be attentive to reproductive rights, let alone to access and opportunities in various workplaces. I think that there still is incredible institutionalized sexism that needs to be addressed. And I think there’s been a kind of complacency that these issues are no longer issues when, in fact, they are. And they need continual vigilance.”

The issue of complacency is drawn out in the Sundance study. As part of the qualitative analysis, the researchers interviewed both males and females in the industry.

“When we did these in-depth interviews, we understood one of the major barriers to changing the data is that people don’t believe there is a problem,” Libresco said. “Now we have data. We have numbers. There’s no more refuting that there’s a problem. So, we can point to the data to raise awareness.”

While the Sundance U.S. narrative film competition boasted 50 percent female directors this year, the USC researchers say these results have to be seen three years consecutively before anyone can claim real change.

While not everyone is tuned in, the students I spoke with are acutely aware that they are entering an industry dominated by men. They’re “nervous”; they’re “scared”; they’re “intimidated.” But they still maintain an incredibly positive outlook, determined to do what they love and share it with others.

Throughout our conversations, it was clear that progress will take a long, long time and it requires sweeping changes throughout the industry — from the way films are financed to who we recognize at the Academy Awards.