The Gender Gap

Susan Devaney

5 min read

Women are speaking up. They’re ready to direct multi-million blockbuster films and run studios. Does this mean pervasive sexism that runs through Hollywood is finally dismantling? 

I can feel the Earth’s tectonic plates shifting as I use my superpower to do good.

I close the titanium door on my spaceship and zoom off into another galaxy.

I can sense its ravenous mind racing, as I’m poised, heart pumping, to fend off a dinosaur.

When questioned as to why there was a lack of women directing such action-packed blockbusters Colin Trevorrow, an up-and-coming director, suggested female directors making films involving “superheroes or spaceships or dinosaurs” was because not many women had the desire to direct studio blockbusters. With one established indie film to his name, Trevorrow directed and co-wrote the $150 million blockbuster ‘Jurassic World’ The power of my own imagination knows no bounds? Yes, apparently it does … if I’m a female director. The film went on to make $1.6 billion at the box office and he was consequently signed up to direct the ninth ‘Star Wars’. ‘Would I have been chosen to direct ‘Jurassic World’ if I was a female filmmaker who had made one small film? Trevorrow mused when speaking with “I have no idea.”

But the women of Hollywood have an idea. In previous issues, we’ve never shied away from discussing the sexism and ageism that still prevails in Hollywood – from ‘This Is 40’ and ‘Ladies Who Lead’ – it’s a topic of great discussion.  Kathryn Bigelow got a big budget for ‘K-19: The Widowmaker’ and the director Patty Jenkins’s ‘Wonder Woman’ will arrive in 2017. No other woman in Hollywood has directed a $100 million live-action film. And it’s 2016. Why is it that the male executives of Hollywood believe women can’t do action? ‘The rumour in Hollywood is that female action figures don’t have shelf-appeal and are harder to shift. Apparently, studio executives are worried they will take a hit on the merchandise revenues for next year’s all-female Ghostbusters movie, directed by Paul Feig, for just this reason,’ wrote journalist Elizabeth Day for The Guardian newspaper.

The problem is so worrying that actress Geena Davis commissioned Stacy Smith, a researcher at the University of Southern California, to study the issue and help push the studios beyond a male-dominated arena. From 2007 through 2014, according to Smith’s research, women made up only 30.2 percent of speaking or named characters in the 100 top-grossing fictional films. “After ‘Thelma & Louise’, which was pretty noticed and potent and significant, [people were saying] ‘This changes everything! There’s going to be so many female buddy movies!’ and nothing changed. And then the next movie I did was ‘A League of Their Own’, which was a huge hit and all the talk was, ‘Well now, beyond a doubt, women’s sports movies, we’re going to see a wave of them because this was so successful.’ That’s b***s. It took 10 years until ‘Bend It Like Beckham’ came out. So, there was no trend whatsoever,” she told The Guardian UK newspaper.

But throughout 2015 a series of tales and home truths were thrust into the spotlight and the issue has now become a hot topic. And women talked. The Sony Pictures e-mail hack revealed that actresses Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams received less money than Jeremy Renner and Bradley Cooper for ‘American Hustle’. The scandal also revealed that nearly all of the top executives at Sony were white and male. As a consequence, the A.C.L.U. in Los Angeles and the A.C.L.U.’s Women’s Rights Project in New York petitioned state and federal agencies to delve further into the matter, leading the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to open an investigation. Writing for director and writer Lena Dunham’s, Lawrence said: “It’s hard for me to speak about my experience as a working woman because I can safely say my problems aren’t exactly relatable. When the Sony hack happened and I found out how much less I was being paid … I didn’t get mad at Sony. I got mad at myself. I failed as a negotiator because I gave up early. I didn’t want to keep fighting over the millions of dollars that, frankly, due to two franchises, I don’t need.” And other actresses have quipped in too. Last year, Anne Hathaway told the New York Times that, professionally speaking; she had been ‘treated differently because I was a woman’.

The world of movies is fascinating to me because everyone has amnesia all the time. Every time a female-driven project is made and succeeds, somehow it’s a fluke
Shonda Rhimes

But behind the lens the case is worse. In both 2013 and 2014, women were only 1.9 percent of the directors for the top 100 top-grossing films. Professor Martha Lauzen of San Diego State University reports that in 2014, 95 percent of cinematographers, 89 percent of screenwriters, 82 percent of editors, 81 percent of executive producers and 77 percent of producers were men. But why does sexism in film remain so pervasive?

Jill Soloway, the creator and director of the hit Amazon TV drama ‘Transparent’, said during her speech at a Women in Film event last year: “Male creators, show runners, producers and directors have to face the immorality – their own immorality – of hiring their friends, of telling male stories, of perpetuating male privilege through protagonism. The male gaze – men as subject, woman as object – is business as usual for men to be able to keep telling their stories from their point of view.” Female directors are in what ‘Girls’ creator Lena Dunham calls “a dark loop.”

There is plenty of evidence to back up female success. From ‘Mamma Mia’ and ‘Bridesmaids’ to ‘Frozen’, these films have grossed millions. Not forgetting, ‘Hunger Games’ and ‘Pitch Perfect’ to ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’, all with female-centred plots, and directed by women. They may be making a tonne of profit, but they’re viewed as flukes. “It’s kind of like the church,” said actress Anjelica Huston, whose father was a well-known film director, “they don’t want us to be priests. They want us to be obedient nuns.” Instead of accepting the role of an ‘obedient nun’ many women are taking things into their own hands. Established Hollywood actresses such as Reese Witherspoon and Sandra Bullock have both set-up successful production companies. Bullock went as far as to convince the studio executives behind Hollywood film ‘Our Brand Is Crisis’ to rewrite the lead role as a woman for her to play. Angelina Jolie is increasingly creating and starring in her own films. ABC powerhouse Shonda Rhimes recently told the New York Times: “The world of movies is fascinating to me because everyone has amnesia all the time. Every time a female-driven project is made and succeeds, somehow it’s a fluke. Instead of saying ‘The Hunger Games’ is popular among young women, they say it only made money because Jennifer Lawrence was luminous and amazing. I mean, you go get yours, girl. But seriously, that’s ridiculous. There’s a very hungry audience of young women dying to see some movies.”

Last month’s Oscars only highlighted further the number of award-worthy films that failed the Bechdel Test. The test asks whether a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. But the tide is somewhat turning. Amy Poehler, Reese Witherspoon, Paul Feig, Lena Dunham, Jenni Konner, Adam McKay and Will Ferrell are all investing in showcasing women from start to finish of the filmmaking process by setting up their own production companies. No wonder men find women so ‘mysterious’, ‘difficult’ or ‘complicated’ if all they ever see on screen is a diluted, uninteresting version of reality. It’s boring – something women are not. We want action.