As a woman who loves both films and feminism I like to open all my dates with a little pop quiz: “name five female directors.” Watching them squirm as they stutter through an obscure reference to ‘that chick who directed Lady Bird’ has become something of a ritual. Curiously, I have not found the chosen one who could name all five, but then again, not many of my female peers can name any either. Perhaps I am asking too much? But demand five male directors and you will barely finish your sentence before they – Quentin Tarantino, Stanley Kubrick, Wes Anderson, Ridley Scott, Alfred Hitchcock – round off the names of their – Baz Luhrman, Tim Burton, Francis Ford Coppola – favourite directors – did I mention Steven Spielberg – okay, we get it.
Frankly, it seems outrageous that a woman’s name does not punctuate these greats. Men are not born with a magical auteur gene which we women somehow do not possess. Female directors DO exist, but why are they so chimerical?
This month, eighty-two filmmaking women interlocked hands on the steps of the Cannes Film Festival to ask this very question. They represented the meagre eighty-two female directors honoured in the festival’s prestigious Palme d’Or competition, paling in comparison to the 1645 male nominations. Cate Blanchett led the movement, which included the likes of Emma Watson and Kristen Stewart, in protest of the under-appreciation and under-representation of women in “all industries”. The pay wage gap, safe work environments and greater diversification were among the issues that Blanchette and her compatriots voiced.
It was refreshing to see fame’s spotlight empowering universal issues, that for far too long have gone unaddressed. Their enlightening statements are symptomatic of a unanimous ‘Time’s Up’ revolution amongst Hollywood minorities this year, finally biting back after years of being bitten. This particular demonstration mirrors the recent Golden Globe’s ‘all-black’ red carpet look, designed to create awareness over sexual harassment. Such operations tragically expose the ingrained misogyny within the very industry which insidiously influences male-and-female relations throughout society.
What I mean is that popular culture conditions audiences from early ages. Some films are encoded with harmless or indeed moral ideologies, such as: good should prevail over evil. However, embedded within some of the most general plots is the sub-textual establishment of male and female roles, which all too often centralise a hero with his damsel in distress.
Compare the introductions of characters from James Bond and Stagecoach to Gilda and Lolita. You haven’t seen those films? Well one can whittle a century of cinematic character introductions down to a pithy yet all too accurate encapsulation: Cut to low-angle, a dramatic pan up on the foreboding stance of a lone man, sweat on his brow, mischievous glint in his eye and an air of ‘don’t fuck with me’ amplified by sudden silence. You want to be him. Fade now to a woman, a lingering pan up on the legs with soft lighting and sultry music. She smiles and looks away submissively with an aura that demands to be ‘fucked.’ You want to possess her.
Women are objects of desire, which has dangerous ramifications considering the audience’s vulnerable state of blind consumption. Whilst watching films we tend to internalise the stories onscreen to rationalise our reality and conduct within it. Hence, we similarly learn to view and treat women superficially and instrumentally. Spectator theory further highlights the sinister inequality of framing, favouring the men as leads and women as followers, subconsciously typecasting genders. Reese Witherspoon aptly pointed out that in any film, the woman will invariably turn to her male co-star and ask ‘what do we do now?’ Having this awareness throughout a movie marathon is an awakening experience and I was profoundly disturbed by the truth of her statement. The repetition of ‘what do we do now’ from female side-kicks impresses upon modern women the sentiment that we do not know the answers and men somehow do. This serves to reinforce their ego and undercut our own.
Misogyny is as natural to film as air to our lungs: unless someone reminds you of it, you will rarely notice. Couching casual chauvinism in cinema is something of an Australian tradition. Consider the likes of The Adventures of Barry Mckenzie (1972), Alvin Purple (1974) or Don’s Party (1976), which feature such oh so tasteful scenes of ocker chic which reduce women to body parts not personalities. Advance a few more years and one might expect a maturation in our expression of women, but then we have The Man from Snowy River (1982) and Crocodile Dundee (1986), which affirm our sexiest heritage. Both films use women as romantic plot filler; specifically, in Snowy River’s case, the ‘feminist’ dialogue is no more than titillation, a subterfuge satiating the increasingly progressive 1980s milieu whilst masking a deeply misogynistic plot which ends with (spoiler) a woman abandoning all career aspirations for the love of a man. She is won as a prize like a horse, symptomatic of the value we assign to female bodies not ‘persons.’ Tragically, these latter films are manifestations of Australian national identity. This identity clearly being male, despite 50% of us being female.
But there is hope. Films foregrounding powerful women are circulating the Hollywood atmosphere, The Hunger Games and Gone Girl being box office hits. Their success magnifies the demand from audiences for female-centred plots, which as Blanchette points out, is still an ongoing battle “we [demand] a world that allows all of us in front and behind the camera, all of us, to thrive shoulder-to-shoulder with our male colleagues.” Of course, for every I Feel Pretty is a film like Fifty Shades Freed which aestheticizes abusive behaviour and glorifies the old-school gender relations; men as large and in charge, and women as boobs and butts. Roxanne Gay in her essay ‘Bad Feminist’ admits the difficulty of avoiding misogyny when it is packaged so prettily.
However, becoming more self-aware and recognising the entrenchment of misogynistic norms weaved into the sub-textual fabric of cinema is enough to challenge some of the most complacent among us. Notice how men and women are introduced, think upon their over-arching plots, how many times do women ask, ‘what do we do now’ and consider yourself, can I name five female directors? Only then will we realise that female directors do exist, but no one is looking for them. Do yourself a favour, do me a favour, do the world a favour and critique what you see, do not consume it.
This article appeared in the autonomous wom*n’s edition, Wom*n’s Honi 2018.