When I saw Zero Dark Thirty, the same thing happened to me as when I saw The Hurt Locker: I wanted to watch the movie on an infinite loop. Since that wasn’t possible, it being in theatres and all, I was hungry for pretty much any detail about the actual events the film was alleging were true-to-life. During my hunt I came across a video on the BBC’s website titled “How close to the facts is Zero Dark Thirty?” I clicked that immediately.
You can imagine my surprise at discovering that what Kathryn Bigelow and the BBC felt was the most surprising thing about the hunt for Osama bin Laden was that a woman was central to it.
Yes, you read that correctly. They were surprised that a woman was capable of gathering the intelligence necessary to find North America’s Public Enemy Number One.
Come now. It’s 2013. Certainly it should not be surprising that women hold important or pivotal positions in any type of organization – and it certainly shouldn’t be news worthy.
And yet there is definitive proof that it was.
I think it should go without saying that I found this a little bit disturbing. What I also found unsettling was that the video then went on to champion that it was a female filmmaker who was telling this unnamed female CIA agent’s story.
Is that important? I asked myself. Would the gender of the director have made any difference whatsoever to the telling of the story?
And then my brain alighted on the only important question in this equation:
Do women direct films differently?
The question often reflects the asker
I know that this is a question that is asked a lot and, on the face of it, I find this question a bit insulting. I often wonder if the question shows more about the asker than the subject itself. I find that people often have the same reaction to finding out that a movie is directed by a woman as they do to finding out a movie they liked is Canadian: “That was directed by a woman?! But it was so good!”
Somehow women have become synonymous with half-baked, overly touchy feely films that don’t connect with their audience – which also equates to not making much money. Now, being a woman myself, this doesn’t feel great. It also doesn’t inspire me want to run out and make a film.
On the flip side of this is a biological fact: men and women are different. We have different hormones, our bodies are built differently (and for different things) and so it would seem obvious that we would tell stories differently.
My gut-reaction is to dismiss this question out of hand as laughable, but upon further reflection, it seems that my own reaction comes from the inference that movies directed by men are somehow objectively better and more marketable than those directed by women.
What Hollywood wants
And, it would seem, this is a perspective held by a great majority of Hollywood, where women make up a minority of those hired in any position on sets, sometimes as low as 23 percent.
I wondered if it had always been this way. Had women always been undesirable behind the camera in Hollywood?
It seems not. In the silent era, a lot of women held a wide variety of behind the scenes roles. It was actually a woman named Alice Guy-Blanche who created the very first narrative film in 1896 and a further 700 films were created by women during this period. Female screenwriters in particular were highly sought after. The first female studio executive even dates back to this time, but this female-friendly environment certainly couldn’t last.
Around 1929 banks took control of many of Hollywood’s production companies and began strictly supervising production. The addition of sound increased the cost of film and demanded new investments.
This harsh economic production environment, combined with what would eventually become the Hays Code, meant that studios simply weren’t taking chances – and banks thought women were risky. Women made films differently than men and wanted to try new things. They took creative chances that didn’t always sit well with audiences and no studio could afford to lose money on a picture, so women became largely on-screen talent, not behind the scenes.
…And they never looked back
Is this institutional sexism limited just to Hollywood? Of course not. In publishing, 83% of authors are men, while only 32% of staff writers are female.
Hollywood has never returned to broad acceptance of women behind the scenes, although many women have made excellent and critically-acclaimed films in the years between 1929 and today.
The list of highest grossing films directed by women is packed with films that you would be surprised by: Shrek, Look Who’s Talking, What Women Want, Dr. Dolittle, Sleepless in Seattle, Deep Impact, Wayne’s World, Alvin and the Chipmunks 2, Kung-Fu Panda 2, Brave (co-directed), Big and Twilight.
Lifetime box office gross for directors like Betty Thomas (Private Parts, Only You), Nora Ephron (Silkwood, When Harry Met Sally), Penny Marshall (Big, Awakenings) and Nancy Meyers (What Women Want, Something’s Gotta Give) are very respectable, in line with their male counterparts and yet only 9% of top-grossing films are directed by women.
It’s all about the story
My original question – do women direct films differently? – seems objectively and empirically unanswerable. So what should we do? Start an uproar? Boycott movies directed by men? Well, no, because then we would all miss out on a lot of great movies and that borders on reverse sexism, which doesn’t really solve anything.
The central problem with equal representation in directing actually comes down to storytelling. If we don’t allow for (and demand) diversity in our storytellers, we won’t continue to evolve and we won’t see ourselves in those stories.
Salman Rushdie once said, “Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives, the power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change, truly are powerless because they cannot think new thoughts.”
Do I think women across the world aren’t thinking new thoughts? Of course not. Do I think that the mindset forged in the ‘30s that taking financial “risks” on filmmakers, especially women, should stop? Yes, absolutely.
If we allow different voices into the telling of our stories we will inevitably begin to tell different stories. This will allow our culture to grow, change and evolve differently. So the next time you see that a film has been directed by a woman think to yourself, “Awesome,” instead of “Good God, really?!?!”
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