Cracking the celluloid ceiling, one day at a time.
Or: How not to dissuade women from directing blockbusters
Reading time: 3 minutes
A couple of weeks ago, I was handed a free copy of French Stylist outside Blanche metro station. The heavens had opened and I was without a waterproof, so I just grabbed the magazine without looking at it (fret not, I still thanked the distributor) and continued on my way. Once safely home, I cast my soaked jumper and shoes into a corner and took a look at the rained-on rag. The cover image took me quite by surprise. A bewigged Steven Spielberg was smiling jovially up at me. Dangly earrings framed his face and he had donned a low-cut V-neck for the cover shoot. Mighty fetching. Except, of course, it wasn’t a genuine photograph. Some poor graphics person at Stylist had spent genuine moments of life piecing together this photo-shopped fiasco. Across Spielberg’s glaring lack of cleavage read the words: “What if Steven Spielberg had been a woman?” Oh boy.
The French edition of Stylist has been distributed for free around Paris (no idea about other cities) since the beginning of this year. I know nothing about the English-language edition, except that I would never buy it, so am unsure whether this magazine is just another travesty of catwalk/diet/celebrity journalism, or whether it does occasionally try to make women feel good about themselves. However, for this particular issue, they had pushed the boat out and done a ‘Yeah, yeah, sisterhood!’ feature on the film industry. And they thought the best visuals to accompany the piece would be of male directors made to look like hideous women.
At the time, it did make just a bit of sense to focus on Spielberg. The Cannes film festival was in full swing two weeks ago, and old Spielly was chief member of the jury. Last year, the complete absence of women nominated for Cannes’ Best Director category sparked fierce protest, so an article written twelve months on about female directors also made sense. I did try to set aside my irritation at the shocking visuals whilst reading. Sadly, the journalist’s work did little to persuade me that File name: Tarantino + boobs JPEG was just a bit of tongue-in-cheek fun. Nowhere in the piece is there mention of how Spielberg or Scorsese or Nolan’s careers might have been less successful if they had been born female. The theme of the article is that female directors’ chances of making expensive Hollywood movies are still incredibly slim. The concluding message is that women shouldn’t really bother in the first place, neatly summed up by a by-line: “Women, don’t make any films. You’ll never have a career in Hollywood, at least not as a director”. No sarcasm, no satire – just an appallingly anti-feminist call for ladies to leave the golden goose of modern cinema to their male counterparts.
Why? Because statistics gathered by the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film show that “of the 250 most profitable films at the American box office, only 9% were directed by a woman.” According to the article, this shouldn’t be extra motivation for ambitious women. No, no, no. At French Stylist, these figures are deemed conclusive evidence that women will never be equal to men in La-La Land. Never. Even though at no. 237 is Disney’s 101 Dalmatians (1961), a movie released in the U.S. fewer than 20 years after women in France were granted the right to vote. I’m pretty sure that attitudes to gender equality have changed quite a lot since then, even in Hollywood.
Reams and reams could be written on the terrible lack of female representation among successful, contemporary film-makers. It’s extremely sad that women had to wait 81 years to see one of their own named Best Director at the Academy Awards. It was surprising how the press accused Helen Mirren of ‘attacking’ director Sam Mendes for his list of all-male inspiration, when all she actually did was calmly highlight an undeniable truth about women working behind the cameras. And apparently, professionals in the industry still happily admit that “the bigger the budget, the less chance a female director has of being in charge of the project”. However, previous episodes of full-on ‘X Chromome vs. California Hills’ are over. It’s time for a new series, in which Hollywood producers see the success that Kathryn Bigelow, Catherine Hardwicke and Lynne Ramsay have already had on the Big Screen, and decide to support even more women like them. I firmly believe that a larger number of men directing Hollywood blockbusters has no negative impact on audiences. Every artist has the right to choose their own path; if art house and non-action films appeal more to female directors, as the Stylist article claims, then so be it. However, the issue of such uneven gender statistics for the direction of top Hollywood projects must be addressed. Telling women to give up is not the way to do it.
The Stylist article is ludicrous, giving out more mixed messages than a bag of stale fortune cookies. After referencing an interview in which Angelina Jolie claims it was difficult to script the most upsetting scenes of In the Land of Blood and Honey whilst her children needed attention, the journalist scoffs, “it’s hard to fight for gender equality when Laura Croft plays at being a Desperate Housewife”. No mention made of how this film about the Bosnian War had such an effect on that region’s people, that Jolie was awarded honorary citizenship of Sarajevo. That, combined with images of a Thatcheresque Scorsese or Nany Dell’Olioed Tarantino, is neither funny nor clever. Is the visual impact supposed to make us think that women can’t achieve the same things as those male giants of film? Who knows. Whatever the intended effect, it just renders any well-made point completely irrelevant.
Hollywood is a business. We know enough about women’s experiences in the higher echelons of business to understand why they have similar struggles in the film industry. Nevertheless, just as Marissa Mayer (CEO of Yahoo) has well and truly smashed the glass ceiling, so has Kathryn Bigelow, whose name will be remembered far longer than her ex-husband’s. It can be done, it has been done, and things can only continue change for the better. To tell women that this isn’t the case is irresponsible and, frankly, quite offensive. So, to the morons at Stylist, I say: Just as women have the right choose to be housewives or dedicate their lives to raising children, so can they choose to eschew big-budget films and direct smaller projects instead. However, rather than play the role of a nagging, 1950s’ agony aunt by telling them it’s their only option, how about you harness the power of national distribution and write articles which inspire the masses? Women have well and truly begun to direct successful blockbusters. They serve as role models for the (hopefully) countless female action directors to come. If you don’t believe me, Google images of Kathryn Bigelow on 7th March 2010, or Youtube the reaction as her name was read out on stage, and then reconsider telling women that her achievements are redundant.
Images: Stylist France, 16 May 2013
Image captions: (Unfortunately also) Stylist France, 16 May 2013
Article quotes: ‘Sexisme, mensonge et vidéo’ by Tom Robinson
#Translations of French from the article all my own#
 “Steven Spielberg : Et s’il avait été une femme ?”
 “Femmes, ne vous faites pas de films. Vous ne ferez pas carrière à Hollywood, pas en tant que réalisatrice en tout cas.”
 “plus le budget du film est élevé moins une réalisatrice a de chance de se retrouver a la tête du projet”
 “Difficile de se battre pour l’égalité lorsque Lara Croft joue la Desperate Housewife”