Where are the Women Directors?

Rare sighting: Angelina Jolie, right, director of “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” poses for photos at the Golden Globe Foreign Language Nominees Seminar on Jan. 14, 2012, at the Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles. (AP / Chris Pizzello)

Here’s a thought exercise: In a nation where 33 percent of the Supreme Court justices are women, 17 percent of the seats in the Senate and House are held by women and 12 percent of the statehouses have female governors, what accounts for the fact that only 5 percent of movie directors in 2011 are female?

Five percent? According to Martha Lauzen, the San Diego State University professor who has been tracking behind-the-scenes female employment in Hollywood since 1998 and released her annual “Celluloid Ceiling” report on Tuesday, that’s approximately half of what the figure was when she released her first report 13 years ago.

That’s the bad news. The good news—or less bad news, as some observers see it—is that women comprise 18 percent of producers, writers, cinematographers and editors working on the top 250 highest-grossing domestic films, an uptick of 2 percent over last year.

The stats for women are better in television, where they made up 11 percent of directors in the 2010-11 TV season. Still, Lauzen notes, three years after Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win an Oscar for best director, there are fewer female helmers at work in Hollywood than there were 20 years ago.

Why is it easier for a woman to get elected to the U.S. Senate than get a place behind the viewfinder of a movie camera?  In Hollywood, where two women are studio heads (Sony’s Amy Pascal and DreamWorks’ Stacey Snider), and Nancy Meyers and Nora Ephron are A-list directors, few are willing to talk on the record.

One high-ranking executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity—let’s call him Mogul A—cites “subconscious sexism” and the economic crunch: “Studios are making fewer movies, and the effect is last-hired, first laid-off,” he says.

Another successful executive who also asked not to be named, let’s call her Mogul B, admits, “There’s still this feeling that making movies for women is risky.”

This, despite the success of “The Help” and “Bridesmaids” in 2011, each of which made $169 million.

Implied in Mogul B’s admission is that movies by women are movies for women. Not necessarily. “Kung Fu Panda 2,” the top-grossing 2011 movie directed by a woman (Jennifer Yuh Nelson), is a family-friendly animated film.

What is true is that of the top 10 highest-grossing movies at the U.S. box office, only one, “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part I,” boasts a female protagonist. This begs the chicken-or-egg question: Is this because few movies with female protagonists are being made, or because there is a Hollywood perception that men will resist films with a woman at the center?

“The idea that men won’t see a film with women in the lead—that’s punditry,” says Jeanine Basinger,  chair of Wesleyan University’s film department. “Where’s the data?”

Excellent question. While most research, including that of the Gallup Organization, shows an equal number of female and male moviegoers, some movies skew male (“Transformers”) and female (“Sex and the City”).

There are two obstacles to getting verifiable across-the-board data about the composition of audiences. One: The studios and the companies that conduct the research for them say that the information is proprietary. Two: Social scientists are skeptical about the accuracy of such information, branding it as “anecdata” collected from opening-weekend screenings in major metropolitan cities.

One market-research firm that did not want to be identified reported that for “Haywire,” an action film starring mixed-martial artist Gina Carano, the audience skewed “slightly male,” around 53 percent. Whether it’s true that men will vote for a woman to represent them in Congress but not buy a ticket to a movie with a woman as a central character, it is a Hollywood perception. As is its corollary, says Mogul B: that from childhood women learn to identify with male characters (but that men do not grow up identifying with female characters).

“If women have been taught over time that they should identify with male characters, doesn’t that give them authorial capacities men conspicuously lack?”—and thus make them better candidates for the gig of movie director, asks Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

That argument doesn’t carry much weight with Mogul B.

“If writing is gender-neutral,” she asks, “why do I read so many screenplays by women that are character pieces and so many by men where there’s an explosion on the first page?

“What nobody in Hollywood is allowed to say out loud,” she adds, “is that the subject matter that interests many women isn’t going to sell tickets to a mainstream audience. How many women want to direct ‘Fast Five?’ How many women want to direct ‘Captain America?’ ”

Again, this begs the chicken-or-egg question. Are “Fast Five” and “Captain America” popular because they’re action movies that get big budgets and big marketing pushes, or because that’s what’s greenlighted by the studio heads?

Lauzen’s latest findings come on the heels of a 2011 study from the USC Annenberg School of Communication that reported that, in the top 100 box office films of 2009, men outnumbered women on screen by a ratio of 2:1.

That’s the broad-stroke data. The fine-grain data, USC professor Stacy Smith told the Los Angeles Times in November, is that in movies directed by women in 2009, there was near gender parity: 48 percent of the characters in female-directed films were women. In movies directed by men, fewer than 33 percent of the characters were female. The mirror that Hollywood holds up to the culture reflects back a distorted image.

“There’s a lot of myths in Hollywood. Which is why we need hard data,” says Madeline Di Nonno, executive director of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which supported the USC study.

Di Nonno thinks that not only is Hollywood missing the opportunity to sell more tickets to women, but that the gender disparity results in fewer professional opportunities for women both behind and in front of the camera.

“We’ve come a long way from the days when female audience members had to root against the weak, silly love interest who held the male hero back,” says Stephanie Coontz, historian and author of “Marriage: A History” and “The Way We Never Were.”

“Now we have real kick-ass females, but too often their behavior and attitudes reflect male fantasies,” she says. “The decline in the number of female directors is a particular problem. With two men to every woman on screen and 95 men to every woman directing their interactions, Hollywood’s portrayal of male-female relationships and women’s interior life is badly skewed.”

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