The End Run

Illustration by J. Brooks Robinson

The Myth of Equality

Other columns in this series:


Part 1: The Myth of Gender

Part 2: The Myth of the F-Word

Part 3: The Myth of Collaboration I

Part 4: The Myth of Collaboration II

When we talk about culture and equality, there’s always hope that discourse will play a small role in moving things forward; that things will progress, be different, and change for the better. History, however, often doesn’t easily yield to the binary of bad at one end of the scale and good at the other.

When it comes to the subject I’ve focused on in this series — the intersection of gender and screen culture — we needn’t look far to find evidence of a heightened interest in gender inequality in the film and television industries, loosely falling under the #MeToo banner. At the same time, there’s a sense that much of this is mere lip service.

The other half

The Oscars insist on maintaining its status as the ultimate industry symbol of white patriarchal out-of-touchness with its almost signature refusal to acknowledge the achievements of women directors (coinciding with its shameless disinterest in questions of race and representation).

While filmmakers like Cate Shortland and Chloé Zhao have recently made headlines for helming upcoming Marvel features, Variety recently noted a 2018 survey showing that only 8% of the top 250 feature films released in the U.S. were directed by a woman, down 3% from the previous year.

This same article quotes activist and producer Cathy Schuman stating “the parity issue is still alive and well.” The question of parity — not just pertaining to gender, but a more intersectional vision open to the creative and technical professionals whose career progress stalled because they fall outside the category of the middle or upper-class, educated white male — is therefore an important one to examine.

When it comes to gender parity, we should start with this one important statistic: in 2018, women made up 51% of the film-going audience. This figure instantly shatters the foundations of the assumption that men between the ages of 18 and 34 are effectively bankrolling the film industry; it’s simply not true.

These same statistics, however, paint a shocking picture of how that fairly even split contrasts with what’s going on in the production of these films. 4% of 2018’s top 100 grossing films were directed by women. And while 40 of the top 100 grossing films starred or co-starred women, just 11 of these were women of color (and another 11 over the age of 45). Women might make up half the film audience, but in terms of representation, that reality is bluntly ignored in the movies themselves.

It’s somewhat tricky to attempt an all-encompassing critical sweep of this issue across every facet of the screen industry, made up as it is of so many internal components and specific media, each containing important micro-stories within this bigger picture, be it in the context of genre filmmaking, multiplex blockbusters, or documentaries.  

The festival connection

Film festivals provide a useful case study, not necessarily because they reflect the broader screen industry, but rather because these questions of inequality (and our response to them) here often rise to the surface of critical discourse, and are thus representative of broader contradictions and tensions in screen culture more generally.

For example, at the 2018 Venice Film Festival, only 1 film out of 21 was directed by a woman. On the plus side, that film — Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale — was awarded the Special Jury Prize. Its star, Galiwin’ku dancer-turned-actor Baykali Ganambarr, received the Marcello Mastroianni award for best young actor. (Kent also made headlines at Venice when her film received an expletive-filled insult from a film critic.)

The final days of Venice overlapped with the beginning of last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, which took a notably different approach to the gender issue. 2018 was my first visit to TIFF, funded in part by the festival’s Share Her Journey campaign, “a five-year commitment to increasing participation, skills, and opportunities for women behind and in front of the camera.”

Maybe it’s my own bias in terms of the films I look for and watch (or the fact that I was there in large part precisely because of the campaign), but I felt the spirit of Share Her Journey everywhere — in the parade of highly-visible promotional materials as well as the sheer number of fellow women critics and industry figures I met on the street and in cinemas. The women-directed films from countries around the world were simply too numerous for me to see them all.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think the question of gender and inequality at the film festival level is as simple as I’ve implied. There needs to be a conscious decision to act within an intersectional framework that acknowledges the institutional and systemic biases entrenched in film culture at large, and to practically address how they can be rebuilt.

Months before both TIFF and Venice, the comparatively tiny Queensland Film Festival in Australia — by its own admission — inadvertently programmed a slate of films where 80% were directed or co-directed by women. Festival director Dr. John Edmond mentioned this number quite casually in a conversation, as though it were little more than a passing curiosity.

When I interviewed him about this number, he explicitly rejected the idea of quotas, while noting that from a curatorial perspective, there are certain thematic approaches to programming streams that can incorporate women’s voices as much as exclude them.

Between headliners such as Lucrecia Martel’s Zama (2017) and Lynne Ramsey’s You Were Never Really Here (2017), to retrospectives of the work of Věra Chytilová and Belgian-based French filmmakers Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, Edmond saw this pro-woman gender bias more as a happy accident than the result of any conscious decision. He emphasized that festivals should allow themselves the elasticity to make space for filmmakers so often excluded or considered tokenistically. This obviously gets harder in the context of larger film festivals, where economically there is more at stake. In that context, maybe 51% of an audience shouldn’t be underestimated.

The grand take-away from all of this — not just my thoughts on festival culture, but on the film-and-gender question more broadly — is simply that audiences are far less homogeneous than the industry has given them credit for.

Now it’s time for that industry to catch up.

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is an Australian film critic and academic who has written five books on cult, horror and exploitation film with an emphasis on gender politics and representations of violence. Her research has recently focused on women's filmmaking, co-curating the 2017 "Pioneering Women" program at the Melbourne International Film Festival, and co-editing a forthcoming book on Elaine May. Her sixth book, 1000 WOMEN IN HORROR, is due for a 2019 release.

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