Women in Emerson film’s blindspot

by Julia Bannon / Beacon Correspondent • April 6, 2016

Every day I read the casting and crew calls posted on the bulletin board near the elevator on my floor. Every day, I see the same formula: The cast consists of one male lead, one supporting male, and one supporting female. The female is described as “witty” or “quirky” and is usually the love interest of the lead. If you want to get involved, you can shoot an email to “typically-white-male-name_last-name@emerson.edu.” These films—made at a progressive school, with progressive students—don’t even pass the Bechdel test, which aims to quantify women’s roles in film.

Emerson has some great programs involving women. The Bright Lights Film Series features feminist films, directors, and writers. The liberal arts and interdisciplinary studies department also hosts a strong “women, gender, and sexuality studies” minor. But in terms of the artists the college churns out, the ones with the leading edge are men.

The major question is whether this is the unintentional doing of the school, or of the students—and I believe it’s both. Emerson’s population is over 60 percent women and is undoubtedly left-leaning, so we forget that we exist in what seems like, at face value, a microcosm of equality. But this exists neither here nor in the real word—our school’s collective efforts to give women equal or greater opportunity doesn’t go past surface level.

Women in Motion, for example, is the only student organization centered around giving equal opportunities in the media industry. The club holds workshops throughout the year for participants of any gender and hosts guest speakers. Camille Speer, WIM’s secretary and a sophomore visual and media arts major, explained they put heavy focus on technical development and mentorship for women. She said, “We find that discussing the problem is good, but one way to combat it is by adding skills so that women can go into the industry and feel prepared.” The club is also adamant about including men: “The whole point of gender equality is that no gender is superior to the other,” Speer said. 

The idea of equality is important, but that doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of equity. When women on campus feel intimidated to go to technical workshops, or to pitch BFA projects that don’t fit the stereotypical mold for their gender—Speer recounted people’s surprise at her pursuit of directing horror films—there should be more than just one organization to turn to for support. This is not to negate WIM’s work, which provides awesome opportunities for women, but perhaps Emerson could also do with a club that would serve more as a forum on campus to discuss the pathos of the issue. Women aren’t skipping opportunities because they don’t want them, they are missing them because they don’t feel supported in going after them.

Furthermore, there is no mandatory “gen ed” to address inclusivity issues within the media industry in the classroom. Students are required to fulfill diversity requirements, but because most of the classes that fulfill this are not within VMA major classes, they don’t provide relevant solutions on the issue of representation. If you take a multi-cultural literature class, you may learn a lot about different people and places, but you aren’t necessarily addressing the effects of their marginalization relative to the creative industry, nor are you learning to counter it.

To combat such issues, professors Miranda Banks and Angela Cooke-Jackson have created a class that will run simultaneously on the Emerson LA and Boston campuses, and falls under both communications and VMA. It intends to comprehensively examine diversity in the media industry. But this doesn’t guarantee a solution to the underrepresentation of women at our school, because closed-minded people who need the perspective most are the least likely to sign up for it. Perhaps the solution would be to make such a course mandatory for students. 

Some disconcerting occurrences have no clear cut explanation at all. Why is it that at the Emerson Student Film Festival, hosted on March 20, only five out of 17 films displayed were directed solely by women, and only two out of the 17 featured solitary female leads? This is glaring considering the college’s majority-female population. At a school that appears to be so accepting of women, it doesn’t add up that we would be so underrepresented.

The amazing thing about Emerson is its position as a miniature extension of Hollywood. We have the equipment, the networking, and the professors that make it one of the leading film schools in the nation. We forget that while we have many of the best things the industry has to offer, we also have the worst.

If in 15 years the Oscars are #stillwhite, we’ll know it’s because students today didn’t provoke enough change. This means seeking out women to work in production and writing roles about “normal” people who aren’t white men. This means no more manic pixie dream girls. So start demanding that you be taught about diversity, and start demanding of yourself and your peers that we actively improve our culture on campus and then in the work force. Emerson should be a place where women make the same professional connections and participate in the same discussions as men, rather than perpetuating gender roles and stigmas that have always existed.