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Sidelining Women in Film

Imogen Gardam is sick of dealing with dudes.

The babadook oscar The babadook oscar

It’s Oscar season again, which means we can expect the usual—the dresses, the glamour, the breathless predictions and detailed analyses and the near universal celebration of men and male stories (and among these of course, white men prevail). This year has delivered a line-up even less diverse than most, with all of the Best Director nominees—Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Richard Linklater, Bennett Miller, Wes Anderson and Morten Tyldum—being men, and all Best Picture nominees featuring male protagonists. Across all nominations, 102 were male and 25 female. Either the Academy is incredibly oblivious to achievement if it doesn’t come with a penis, or women are grossly underrepresented in the film industry. Or both.

The film industry has a gender problem. This is not exclusive to Hollywood by any means, and in the Australian film industry we find a similar story—at times more so, given the industry is so much smaller, leaving less room for women to squeeze in amongst all that incumbent privilege. And this is not the sole battleground for equity within the industry—there are many, many groups that are kept off our screens or shut out of the industry. As this year’s Academy nominations prove, if you’re not white and male, good luck. As 51% of the population, however, and 52% of film-going audiences, women are woefully underrepresented both on screen and off. Last year’s Motion Pictures Association of America (MPAA) data showed that only 15% of films starred women, while the Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film in San Diego reported only 7% of the top 250 grossing films released this year were directed by women, which itself represents a 2% drop over the past 17 years. In other words, gender equality in the film industry is right where it was in 1998.

How does this disparity translate to the Australian industry? Statistics are a little thinner on the ground, and somewhat out of date, but they paint a familiar picture. In 2008, the Australian Film Commission reported that 14 out of 93 directors (15%) credited for a feature film between 2003 and 2007 were women; 57 out of 161 producers (35%); and 30 out of 144 writers (21%).

The problem is essentially two-fold. To begin with, women working in the industry struggle to get projects developed, funded, distributed and recognised. Ava DuVernay’s Selma struggled to find funding and a studio after its first director Lee Daniels dropped out. In addition to this, women on screen, when they do appear, are rarely given any sort of characterisation beyond their function to male protagonists—the love interest, the mother, the sister, the daughter. The cause of the problem is essentially the same (hello patriarchy, my old friend), and one is the solution to the other.

Better representation behind camera is the key to better representation on screen. The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media found the positive flow-on effect in family films in particular—an important battle ground for normalising gender roles—where the presence of one or more female writers on a film resulted in 10% more women and girls on screen. A female director meant a 6% increase. It’s worth noting that the same report also observed that a higher percentage of female characters in family films were shown in “sexy, tight or alluring attire”—24% to the male 4%—or with “exposed skin between the mid-chest and upper thigh regions” – 18.5% compared to 5.6% for men. This is in family films alone—one can only imagine how the statistics would read in less PG rated genres.

Meanwhile, a female Academy member recently observed to the Hollywood Reporter that Patricia Arquette (star of Boyhood) must regret being filmed over 12 years and congratulated her on not getting cosmetic work done in that time—as if women aren’t allowed to, you know, age.

Patricia Arquette in Boyhood

In Australia, the Natalie Miller Fellowship is one of many groups working to address gender inequality in the film industry, and to advance women in film, with the specific mission of nurturing and supporting women into positions of leadership. As such, they provide funding of up to $10 000, annually, to a woman working in the screen industry to help further her professional development. Now in its third year, the Fellowship was named after Natalie Miller, who is the owner of film distributor Sharmill Films who remains the only woman in Australia to establish and run her own distribution company. Recipients of the Fellowship have used it to undertake courses at Harvard, Oxford, and to attend the Women in Leadership program at the UNSW Business School. The inaugural recipient, Rachel Okine, has recently been announced as the new ‘Vice President, International Productions and Acquisitions’ at StudioCanal.

Perhaps, in true Hollywood insider style, one solution is mentorship—women helping women where possible, and taking responsibility for diversity on their own projects. Producer Liz Watts, speaking at a Natalie Miller Fellowship event in July last year, explained that The Rover, a very male-heavy project featuring one female character with any significant dialogue, employed female department heads in every area of the film. For Watts, who came up through the industry in the boys club that is the camera department, it is important that her own company, Porchlight Films, addresses the “gross underrepresentation” of women where possible. At the same event, Rachel Okine argued that one of the best ways to address the disparity was executive training and mentoring, saying that “every time you move up the ladder, you have to make sure you are pulling someone up behind you”.

There is, of course, the opposite approach —asking and working with men to improve equality. Elizabeth Broderick, the Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner, has taken this approach with her Male Champions of Change program, which involves directly approaching CEOs and chairs from large corporations and institutions to improve gender equality in their own companies. The Male Champions of Change program recognises that if those who hold the power and keep the gate are male, then they need to be part of the conversation. According to Broderick, the first person she approached for the program was Glen Boreham, who was at the time the chair of Screen Australia, the premier national funding body.

Like many industries, there are multiple factors at play in shutting women out of the film industry. Childbirth and childcare is an oft-touted excuse for not advancing women, or trusting them with positions of influence or responsibility—how do you know they’re not going to disappear to reproduce suddenly? There is an argument to be made for the suitability of the film industry to family life, with the project-by-project structure of many positions allowing women to pop off and pop one out. Those women who do, however, tend to find the door closed to them when they return. In the 1970s, Screen Australia allowed for childcare to be included as a line item on its budgets for projects applying for funding. Once again, the industry has gone backwards, rather than forwards, in enabling gender diversity.

In the furore around this year’s nominations, it is easy to dismiss the Oscars as pure fluff and glitter, a masturbatory exercise in self-congratulation and back-patting that has no bearing or relevance on cinema at large, out of touch with audiences and rarely rewarding truly good art. The Academy voting body, after all, is 77% male and 94% white, with an average age of 62. The films they choose to laud make perfect sense in this context, and are rarely representative of the most exciting, innovative or quite simply good things happening in cinema currently. It is easy, and often done, but should be avoided. In dismissing out of hand one of the most prominent accolades in cinema and in the industry itself, certainly the most highly publicised, we dismiss those it ignores, allowing the institution a free pass to continue to validate an already privileged group and firmly shut out more diverse voices. To write them off is to refuse to hold the Oscars to a higher standard. And it is only reflective of the industry as a whole.

The picture is not completely bleak for the Australian film industry, and it is certainly brighter than that offered by Hollywood. This year’s AACTA Awards celebrated Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, awarding it Best Screenplay, Best Direction and a joint win for Best Film with Russell Crowe’s The Water Diviner. John Curran’s female-starring Tracks was also nominated for Best Film, while Sophie Hyde’s 52 Tuesdays was nominated for Best Screenplay. The latter is not only directed by and starring a woman, but also explores (albeit problematically) the experience of gender transition. There is hope yet.

That said, the highest grossing Australian film of 2014, the aforementioned The Water Diviner, features a veritable boys’ club of a production team and only two female characters, both of whom are defined and characterised strictly within the bounds of their relationship to the male protagonist, as wife and love interest separately, the former only existing on screen long enough to die and make way for the latter. Rusty’s sepia-toned tale of the ANZAC spirit beat out Wolf Creek 2, another bastion of well-written female characters, for the top spot. The more things change, the more they stay the same.