At a glance, Hollywood loves women. From Greta Garbo to Marilyn Monroe; from Meryl Streep to Jennifer Lawrence, strong leading ladies have been headlining our favorite films since the dawn of cinema. It’s interesting, then, that this love does not extend behind the camera. While hundreds of actresses may be household names, there are frighteningly few women actually making movies. I spent a few hours going through every picture that opened in limited or wide release in 2015, and of the approximately 230 total, only 25 were directed by women. That’s about 11 percent.
Eleven percent is not only disappointing, it doesn’t make sense. There are thousands of women making movies, both in the US and internationally. There are hundreds of veteran female directors in Hollywood, from Kathryn Bigelow to Ava DuVernay to Mary Harron. Two notable films from this year, “Pitch Perfect 2” and “By the Sea”, directed by Elizabeth Banks and Angelina Jolie Pitt respectively, exemplify the ability of actresses to do more than act. In “By the Sea,” Jolie Pitt directed her husband, actor Brad Pitt, and in an interview with the New York Times said, “I’m the first female director that Brad’s ever worked with. That doesn’t seem right when you think about it.” It certainly doesn’t.
So why aren’t there more films directed by women? The answer seems to be that somewhere in the greenlighting process, there’s an ingrained sexism and gender inequality. Coupled with Hollywood’s race problem—of the 25 female-directed movies this year, only six were made by women of color—there is an inherent imbalance in the industry that has gone unchecked for years. What makes it worse is that while there are movements to increase awareness of this disparity, there is little change actually being made by production companies and studio heads. It’s becoming increasingly clear that gender discrimination is no longer simply a problem that can be swept under the table and ignored. This is a matter of equality and justice in the filmmaking community.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission launched an investigation into exactly this issue in October, prompted by a request by the American Civil Liberties Union in May. The Commission will interview numerous female directors, and if it determines a pattern of discrimination, legal action can be taken against the studios. While this is a historic step forward, there are no guarantees that this process will actually lead to any discernible change in the industry.
While Hollywood may be mired in sexism, racism, and gender inequality currently, the system cannot last forever. Every year a new batch of young directors graduate from film schools around the country and move into the industry, bringing with them fresh perspectives on the movie-making process. The future is in the hands of the media makers coming into maturity right now.
There are many ways to empower fellow artists and to make one’s own filmmaking more inclusive. Students currently learning to make movies can help by being considerate and inclusive in their casting and crew selection. A white male director might feel most comfortable working with other men who have backgrounds similar to his, but there is great value in going outside what is familiar. The perspectives and experiences of a diverse group of people can be transformative to a work in a very positive way: There would have been no “Goodfellas” without an editor like Thelma Schoonmaker, and there would have been no “Pulp Fiction” without Linda Chen to type up and consult on Tarantino’s handwritten script. Perhaps the easiest way to make a change is to be sure to patronize works directed by female filmmakers, whether those movies are in theaters or projects made by your peers. Films get produced based largely on their financial prospects, and if there is a clear market for works made by women, there may be a response in the way studios hire directors.
This is a feminist issue, even if content of female-directed films are not necessarily empowering—“Fifty Shades of Grey” might be a sexist movie, but it was also directed and written by women and is one of the top-grossing pictures of 2015. For comparison’s sake, the Bright Lights film series at Emerson College has screened two movies as part of its “‘F’ for Feminist” series: “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “It Follows”, but neither was directed or written by a woman. This is an issue of representation and fairness: what feminism is all about. According to statistics compiled by the MPAA in its 2014 report on Theatrical Market Statistics, ticket sales for the movies are split evenly between men and women 50/50. It’s high time the demographics of the people making those movies began to reflect those of their audiences.