We Need More Movies Directed By Women And Queer People
Today’s program will be rich, rest assured. But, as always, it might also be infuriating. So, take your time to read it, grab your favorite drink and buckle in!
Where are the women: the cinema industry’s adaptation of Where is Waldo
Women are part of and have been part of the history of cinema since its very beginning. As have queer people and people of color. Because, yes, shocking as it may seem, we have not been invented in the 1990s. Sadly, the cinema industry is not some sort of equalitarian exception, exempted from the white heteronormative patriarchal system we live in. Just like every other sphere of our society, it has been heavily influenced by gender norms. As a result, women and queer people have been systematically erased from cinema’s history and discarded from prestigious competitions.
Take the Cannes’ Festival, for instance. A jury has been giving the ‘Palme d’Or’ to the best film of the competition (in their opinion) since the 1950s. From the beginning of the Festival to today, 2 ‘Palme d’Or’ only have been awarded to women: 1 in 1993 to Jane Campion for ‘The Piano’, ex-aequo with Chen Kaige’s ‘Farewell My Concubine’, and 1 in 2021 to Julia Ducournau for ‘Titane’. 2 in more than 70 years, and 1 was awarded to a man as well. But, considering the number of selected films directed by women, it is not that surprising. Over the 20 something movies selected each year to compete for the prize, there have never been more than 4 women-directed films. So, indeed: where are the women?
And things are no better when we look overseas. Over the almost 100 years of existence of the Academy Awards, only 2 women have been awarded the Academy Award for Best Director: Kathryn Bigelow, for ‘The Hurt Locker’ in 2009 and Chloé Zhao for ‘Nomadland’ in 2020 – she is also the first woman of color to win the prize. In total, only 7 women have ever been nominated in the category.
So, yeah, let me ask again: where are the women?
NB: If you want to explain how maybe men receive more awards than women because they are more talented – do not do it. Directing is not a biological marker that comes with being a man. We all know why men are given more awards: it is called the patriarchy and it has been telling us for centuries that (cis) men are better, based on absolutely nothing other than prejudice.
Finding Waldo: a brief history of the forgotten women in cinema
Authors Jill S. Tietjen and Barbara Bridges have recently published a book titled ‘Hollywood: Her Story’ (2019), in which they investigate the importance of women in the history of cinema in the USA. And surprise surprise, women have been crucial to cinema’s development.
1890-1920: Alice Guy and the silent movies era
The beginning of cinema in the Western world dates back to the 1890s, with the invention of Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope; a device that allowed a person to look through a small lens to see a moving film (Hollywood: Her Story). People loved it, which gave Edison the idea to produce movies that people could watch through his Kinetoscope: this was the birth of story-telling and motion pictures. In 1895, he shot his first movie, which was 30 seconds long (Hollywood: Her Story). And in 1896, came Alice Guy.
This French woman was the first ever woman to direct a movie. ‘The CabbageFairy’, produced by Gaumont, is a minute-long film following a fairy as she picks up newborns in a garden’s plants. It is also arguably cinema’s first fiction movie (rts.ch, April 2021)! Sadly, the movie has been lost since then, but Alice herself shot a remake in 1900, which you can watch on YouTube!
(Not so) fun fact: Alice, a secretary at Gaumont at the time, was allowed to try and direct a movie by her boss, only if it did not affect her administrative work (rts.ch, April 2021)…
But Alice has done much more for cinema than filming one movie. She has shot more than a thousand movies, and has also founded her very own movie studio in 1910, Solax Films, which she directed on her own (rts.ch, April 2021). Amongst her movies, we can cite ‘Madame a des envies’ (1907), in which she addresses cliché on female desire, or ‘A Fool and His Money’ (1912), the first ever movie to feature exclusively black actors and actresses (rts.ch, April 2021). Alice’s work has profoundly influenced modern cinema and famous movie directors, and forever shaped Western cinema as we know it – an incredible woman who deserves way more credits than she gets.
Alice is not the only woman who had a crucial role in cinema’s development. Overall, the silent era was a very prolific era for women. There were 10 times more women screenwriters than men, and many of the movies featured famous actresses as protagonists (Hollywood: Her Story). Lois Weber, for instance, became the highest-paid movie director – and yes, that was including men (Hollywood: Her Story). What a time!
1920-1960: Business is business baby
Over the course of the 1920s, however, movies developed from small pictures, made on tight budgets, to the premises of what the industry is today. For the first time, movies could cost up to 1 million dollars to produce (Hollywood: Her Story). And with money, came men. As is the case for a lot of professions, if you think about it. Many tasks are women-only, as long as money is not involved. But add a little cash to the mix, and suddenly, men are popping left and right. One of the best examples? Cooking. In almost every household, people are raised believing that it is the woman’s role to cook for the family. But when you look into professional cooking, the majority of chefs are men. Weird, uh?
During the 1920s, big studios were founded, which put many small studios owned by women out of business; studios became more industrialized, organized in different sectors. Men were put at the head of the different departments and became directors (Hollywood: Her Story). It was the end of small, independent studios where women could hold important positions. Only a handful of women were able to hold their positions of screenwriters and directors. The same was true for actresses; with the coming of ‘talking’ movies, many actresses were discarded and instead of writing a part for a specific actress, parts were written first and movie stars chosen second. Women were slowly pushed to the back of the stage.
The next decades saw the rise of movie stars – and especially women – as sex symbols, who set fashion trends. This opened the door to costume designers, an area where women were finally welcomed in. But, as the 1950s came and the studios system changed, less and less women were able to remain in important, decision-making positions (Hollywood: Her Story).
1960-today: Back in the game!
The 1960s are known for its social protests: women’s right, civil rights, the Vietnam war, the sexual revolution and so on. These events affected the cinema industry as well, and with them, women slowly started to regain some of the power they lost (Hollywood: Her Story). In the 1970s, more women became screenwriters and founded their own studios. Among them, we can cite Nancy Dowd and Dede Allen. The latter was especially famous for being the first woman to ask for – and receive – a percentage of the profit of the films she worked on (Hollywood: Her Story). You go, girl!
The trend continued over the 1980s, with Sherry Lansing becoming President of the 20th Century Fox studio. Slowly, ever so slowly, women were nominated in more Awards categories (Best Actress, Best Animated Feature, Best Original Screenplay, Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Effects, Best Costume Design and so on) and won more Oscars – except, of course, for the Best Director Oscar. But we have already talked about that.
Overall, women have always been present in the cinema industry, be it in the acting department, the editing department, the costume department or the directing department. Only, they have always been carefully put back in the shadows. And it is time we change that.
So, why not give a little love to women directing movies? The British Film Institute published an article called ‘The Female Gaze’, listing 100 great movies by women that have been overlooked. I am sure you will find something worth watching!
The side-effect of the absence of women: classic misrepresentation tropes
But then, we might ask ourselves, why is it so important to have women directing movies? Sure, it is not really fair that more men get to do it and we should strive for more parity – like in every other sector. But what difference does it make concretely?
Well, first off, it is crucially important to achieve parity when you are concerned. If you are a woman and want to direct movies, it is important as hell that you get the same opportunity as men; let us start here. But, on top of that, it is absolutely crucial, because movie directors are storytellers – like novelists, journalists, illustrators and so on. All of these people create stories for us to read, watch and marvel at. Stories onto which we can project our own life experiences, stories that build us and which are o so fundamental for our identities. Stories help shape the adults we become.
But when these stories are only ever told from one point of view, and when they only ever tell one version, it leaves out a whole lot of people. A large part of us do not get representation, and an even larger part of us do not get positive representation. How can a little girl dream of becoming President, when this reality does not exist anywhere? How can you understand that it is ok, as a man, to marry another man, when you have no access to such representations? How can you grow into believing that you can be a good person, when we only ever show you Muslim characters as evil terrorists?
Let us have a look at some of these clichés and the issues that come with it.
The rape/murder plot device
I have already mentioned the fact that a lot of trans characters – especially trans women, and trans sex workers – are killed on screen. These deaths serve as an obstacle or plot device in main cis characters’ narrative arcs. Trans characters almost always only exist a possibility for cis people to show vulnerability through sorrow and, thus, to show more depth and character development.
In the movie ‘Dallas Buyer Club’ (2013) for instance, Rayon, a trans woman – played by Jared Leto (a cis man) – dies during the HIV crisis. Her death is used to illustrate how awful the situation is for the main cis characters (bitchmedia.org, July 2017). Rayon’s death is an accessory that serves to highlight the harshness of the HIV health crisis from the main – cis – point of view, addressing the projected cis audience. Rayon, because of her transness, is a secondary character, whose lifeline only serves the larger cis main protagonist’ character development.
On top of that, dead trans characters are overly used in criminal series. Almost always already dead as the episode starts, trans characters are rarely presented as living, breathing human beings (bitchmedia.org, July 2017). Instead, they are viewed as disposable corpses. Over the last decades, at least 25 characters on the trans spectrum have died on American criminal shows like NYPD Blue (1993), CSI (2004) and Law&Order SVU (1999) (bitchmedia.org, July 2017). All of this representation buys in the idea of tragedy being the only possible representation for trans people. Which cannot be any good for a community already targeted by transphobia in every other aspect of their life…
But trans people are not the only ones who have to die in order to give the main protagonists purpose. Women in general, cis or trans, are affected by this movie trope. How many Disney movies with dead mothers can you count? And how many with dead fathers? Dumbo, Bambi, Pocahontas, Aladar, Kida, Nemo, Koda, Cinderella, Belle, Simba all grow up without a mother, which serves to move the plot forward – be it because they are grieving or because of the strains it causes on their relationship with their father.
In other movies too, women deaths are used for the development of the main male characters. In ‘X-Men: Apocalypse’ (2016), we witness Magneto slowly turning from a good man to an accomplished villain, following the murders of both his wife and daughter. In the ‘Mentalist’ (2008) TV series, Simon Baker agrees to help the police on investigations, in hopes to find the serial killer who has brutally murdered his wife and daughter. Monk in the eponymous series (2002) becomes the man he is following the murdering of his wife. Every time a male character needs to be given more humanity, some depth or any kind of vulnerability really, his wife and/or daughter(s) get killed, leading him to his life purpose (be it eradicate the human race, catch a serial killer or get back in the force).
So, what about female protagonists, then, you might ask yourself. Do they brutally lose husbands and sons as well? Well, no. You see, there is another plot device for women. Why kill the men around them, when all you have to do is showcase a rape scene?
‘Ms .45’ (1981), ‘Millenium’ (2009), ‘Revenge’ (2017) and ‘Promising Youg Woman (2020)’, for instance, are all movies in which a female protagonist hunts down the men who raped her (or her friend), in order to kill them. Quite informative, if you want my opinion. What is most precious for men, in Hollywood’s eyes, is his family – wife and daughters, the better. But what is most precious for women, is their virginity. O, the patriarchy, what a wonderful invention!
Women and agency: The Bechdel Test
Another point that needs to be addressed is the lack of agency of women characters in movies. On average, women speak less than their male counterparts. A study by Hanna Anderson and Matt Daniels points out that men have more than 60% of the dialogues in the majority of Disney movies (pudding.cool, April 2016). Among the worst dialogue distribution (over the 90% of speaking time), we can cite ‘The Jungle Book’ (1967), ‘Monsters, Inc.’(2001), ‘Toy Story’ (1995) and ‘Aladdin (1992)’. I have to mention, though, that there are a very few Disney movies where women have more dialogues than men: ‘Inside Out’ (2015), Alice In Wonderland (1951), Maleficient (2014) and Sleeping Beauty (1959).
The same study also highlights that, among actors and actresses, actors between 42 and 65 years old make up for the largest part of speaking time – and it also underlines that actresses have much more dialogues when they are young, reaching a peak between 22 and 31 years old. Moreover, among the 2000 movies analyzed by the searchers, from the 1980s to the 2010s and in 6 genre categories (action, drama, comedy and horror), 1513 of them feature male characters making up for 60 to 90% of the dialogues. Only 9 of them see women with 90% of speaking time.
Statistics about marital status and jobs are also interesting. Among the 100 top-grossing Hollywood films of 2019, 46% of female characters had a known marital status (almost half of them), compared to 34% of men (womenandhollywood.com). Men made up for the larger part of the characters with an identifiable job or occupation: 73% vs 61% of women. On top of that, men were more likely to be actually shown in their work setting – 59% compared to 43% of women. Also, women were less likely to be featured in primarily work-related roles and more likely to be featured in primarily personal life-related roles instead. Women only made up for 26% of the leaders, while men made up for 74% of leaders; this discrepancy is particularly true for roles of white collar leaders, religious and spiritual leaders, blue collar leaders, political leaders and criminal leaders.
Hence, men get more dialogue time and are presented as actively working or leaders more often than women. Women are so often secondary and non-speaking characters that a test was created to measure women’s influence in movies: the Bechdel Test. It is based on Alison Bechdel’s comic strip ‘Dykes to Watch Out For’ (1985), which highlighted the lack of representation of active women with complex lives in movies (feministfrequency.com, December 2009). The principle is rather simple. In order to pass the test, films must meet 3 criteria:
- The film must feature at least 2 (identifiable) women.
- The female characters must talk to each other.
- They must talk about something other than a man.
Unfortunately, many well-known movies, like ‘Fight Club’ (1999), ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy (2001), Avatar (2009), The Avengers (2013), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II (2011) or the original ‘Star Wars’ trilogy (1977) do not pass the test. You can find a huge online database, listing movies that pass and fail the test, if you are curious. In 2016, the DuVernary Test, named after ‘Selma’ (2014) director Ava DuVernay, was crafted based on the same type of rules, only measuring racial diversity in Hollywood (The Guardian, February 2016).
Uncovering a general lack of diversity
Clichés and inaccurate representations are legions and I was not able to cover them all here. For instance, we have not discussed the ‘warrior, whore or mother’ trope – this one is pretty explicit, I guess. Nor do we have addressed the ‘bury your gay’ trope. You might have read about it on our Instagram account; it is a Hollywood trope, born with the laws on morality during the 1930s. Under these laws, homosexuality was considered immoral – and, by extension, immoral characters could not get a happy ending. So, a lot of gay characters used to ans still get killed once they openly come out – yes, even on your favorite show; Lexa much?
We can also point out the abyssal lack of racial diversity and queer identities in movies and TV shows. Muslim characters are almost always written as terrorists or criminals; there are close to no female Muslim characters – if you want a series that addresses that, we can only recommend ‘We Are Lady Parts’ – and only a small amount of the characters featured actually speak – maybe we should do a Betchdel test for Muslim characters as well. Things are not any better for Latinx characters either – here comes the Gang cliché – who are largely underrepresented as well. Or for black characters. ‘Black Panther’ (2018) was so important because it finally put black characters to the front of the stage as mainstream superheroes – which was long overdue. And the way Hollywood ALWAYS casts light skin actresses for black female roles? We see right through your colorism babe.
Also, where are the gays? The queers? The lesbians? The trans representation? We have already pointed it out and the ‘Disclosure’ documentary does it better than I ever could, but trans representation is catastrophic. From freaks to victims of murders and sex workers, there are only a handful roles that are offered for trans characters. And a majority of those are actually played by cis actors – remember ‘The Danish Girl’ (2015)? This is why, amongst other reasons, the series ‘Pose’ was so needed. Diverse trans representation played by trans actresses. Yes please!
And what to say about the representation of lesbianism? That is a whole other Waldo’s game. Lesbian representations are scarce, often erased or catastrophic – do not get me on the subject of ‘You’ again and of the representation of Peach’s love for Beck. Among the top-grossing Hollywood films in 2019, 94 rendered LGBTIQ+ women and girls invisible; around 80% of all LGBTIQ characters presented as men, while only 21.3% presented as women (womenandhollywood.com). And do not even think about DIVERSE lesbian representations. If you want to look outside the thin, white, conventionally beautiful canon, good luck. Especially, if you want a positive representation. Why do you think queer people keep on trying to establish relationships between two characters as soon as they merely look in each other’s direction – that is all we have.
We need to do better: overcoming the male gaze through diversity
A lot of the issues that we have pointed out earlier are linked to the male gaze. In film theory, the concept of the male gaze refers to the male point of view of the movie director, addressing a hypothetical male viewer. Simply put, it means that movies are filmed through a man’s perspective, for other men. This explains why a majority of movies give more important roles to male protagonists than female, and why the majority of female characters are young, beautiful and often hypersexualized.
A good example to illustrate the concept is the difference in the adaptations of the ‘Fingersmith’ (2002) novel by Sarah Waters. The plot is too long and complicated to be fully detailed here, but broadly speaking it tells the story of Sue, a poor girl living in Victorian-era Britain, who lets herself be convinced to help a young man framing a rich heiress, Maud, into marrying him. Long story short, the two girls end up falling in love.
The story has been adapted by Aisling Walsh into a two-part eponymous BBC mini-series (2005) and by Park Chan-wook into a feature length film set in Korea, ‘The Handmaiden’ (2016). Love-making scenes in both movies are particularly interesting. If Aisling’s piece shows two women loving, touching, exploring each other’s bodies in a delicate and sensitive manner, Park’s film heavily sexualizes the two women, adding playful teasing around a lollipop – a highly phallic symbol – with the two women licking at it. On top of that, if the two protagonists of ‘Fingersmith’ soon ditch all pretense of heterosexuality, completely forgetting about the future husband, in ‘The Handmaiden’, all of the love-making scene centers around what men want, virtually putting the future husband at the center of the scene. From a lesbian romance, ‘The Handmaiden’ quickly becomes a fetishization of lesbian sexuality for heterosexual male viewers.
To be honest, we could probably be more accurate and talk about a white, cis, hetero male gaze, giving us movies impregnated by their vision of the world and of women and queer people. And it is becoming urgent that we tell alternative stories – alternative in the sense of others. We, women, non-binary folks, trans people and agender individuals, lesbians, gays, bis, pans, aromantic people, everyone in the queer communities, people of color and people living with a disability; we have always been considered as the ‘other’. Well, it is time we tell the others’ stories too. We need to see other experiences translated onto screen. We deserve to have our stories told.
Hire more women on movie sets. Hire more queers. Hire more people of color. Hire people living with a disability. Diversify the stories we tell. I am not going to lie, I love the Spider-Man movies. But what if, instead of rebooting the same story over and over, we tell new stories? What if we start scratching at other realities? I think all of us would gain from that.
In the meantime, here is a little selection of movies and series about women and queer people, by women and queer people that you should definitely watch:
A documentary on legendary singer Chavela Vargas, her life, career and fight against heteronormativity.
Directed by intersex and non-binary activist River Gallo, this short film explores the dreams and traumas of Ponyboi and their relation to their intersexuation.
‘Kiss Me Before It Blows Up’ (2020)
An hilarious comedy about a lesbian love story between German botanist Maria and her Jewish girlfriend Shira.
A vital documentary addressing the history and issues of trans people representation in the media.
A sweet cartoon telling the story of Lilith, a lesbian trans vampire, and her first date at the fair.
‘We Are Lady Parts’ (2021)
A British TV show about what can happen when fierce, queer and Muslim women start a punk rock band.
You can also find our special selection of the best lesbian horror movies, if that is a movie genre you are into! Or, you can just check our film section, we give a lot (a lot) of recommendations!
And you, what do you think? What are your favorite ‘other’ movies? Tell us on our Instagram!
Take care and see you soon,