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A “historic low for women” in film? Not so fast.




In a piece on RogerEbert on March 6, 2024, Carla Renata asks, Has the needle moved on the impact of women in cinema for 2023? then answers, “The reality is 2023 marked a historic low for women in the top 100 grossing movies of last year, with only 30 featuring a female-identified actor as the lead or co-lead.” 


March 8 is Women’s Day


The Oscars are out on March 10.


And the month of March is Women’s History Month


Perhaps why Renata’s “only 30” implies that the figure should be closer to 50 if not higher. 


This lament is understandable. It’s also misplaced.


The sex of a film’s lead/co-lead does not tell us much about the power (or powerlessness) that one sex experiences in reality. 


Movies are about stories and storytelling. Yes, they often reflect some real-life trends. But they can’t or shouldn’t be expected to unfailingly mirror them. When they’re not re-creating reality, they dream it up. 


That the lead is a “female-identified person”, dinosaur, dog, or a bear on coke doesn’t tell us whether pundits were right or wrong when they proclaimed that Barbie "paved the way for a big year for women in film and credited the mega hit with even possibly saving Hollywood.” 


As hard it may be for some to believe, women directors held sway in the early 20th century. And were trailblazers at least a little before Ava DuVernay! But you wouldn't be able to tell that from the way she or Chloe Zhao or Greta Gerwig are written about. Recency bias may be increasingly recent, but it's still bias if it repeatedly glosses over pioneers and their pioneering legacies.


Elaine May, Kathryn Bigelow, Ida Lupino, Jane Campion, Nancy Meyers, Mimi Leder, Penny Marshall


DuVernay's early 20th century predecessors may have lost their sway by the mid 20th century, but in the 21st century, women directors have regained much of that sway. DuVernay's not quite the symbol of sexist neglect that Renata hopes she’ll be. Not if she's one-third of the three-person, two-woman Directors Branch 2023-24 of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS)?!


For a century, brilliant women creatives have given us some of the best plots, characters, scenes, dialogue, often alongside brilliant men. They've not sought the erasure of men. They've not sought to contribute at the expense of men either. Instead, they've fought to see (and be seen by) men and women anew, wielding their unique, feminine lens. And the movies have been the better for it. Sadly, some of that is being lost in this relatively new combat mode, this either or, this with us or against us, this demented dash for DEI. Nothing wrong with DEI, but demented is another matter.


If there ever was a "historic low", it was the decades when the best women directors were not recognized, rewarded or written so highly about, when they did not occupy pride of place in AMPAS. The influential men who could have changed the status quo then, but didn't, can't undo that damage now. But they can at least do all they can to ensure that the best women have a fair shake at the top awards. They must.


Renata infers some almighty slight from imagined audience indifference to DuVernay’s film Origin (2023). But maybe, just maybe, not every disaster, not every film that "was blatantly ignored and dismissed during the current awards season and at the box office" is down to sexism and misogyny? Perhaps audiences didn’t take to DuVernay’s film, worthy as it is, because it’s ahead of its time? Or because a connection that should be obvious (between casteism and racism) still eludes developed-world audiences so obsessed with homage to color and race. That’s a tribute to DuVernay's vision and ambition. Why insult her by linking an imagined snub of her film to women and womanhood?


Instead of respecting women and womanhood by refusing to submit to "female-identified" lobbies, alleged frustration with the pace of equity and scale of inequity is fuelling misguided demands for onscreen to mirror offscreen. It's as if the proportion of women leads/co-leads (presumably a sign of onscreen influence) must somehow be made to catch up with the proportion of women in powerful positions in real life (a sign of offscreen influence). In real-life, the rough equivalent of a lead/co-lead on screen might be a CEO/Public Administrator.


According to Pew Research Center’s analysis of gender gains and gaps in the United States, dated February 27, 2024, “about a third of workers in the country’s 10 highest-paying occupations, or 35%, are women; up from 13% in 1980.” That’s a nearly three-fold jump. Women are 40% of all lawyers, nearly a third of all America’s CEOs and Public Administrators, nearly a third of all congressional members and state legislators and nearly a third of Fortune 500 Board Members. 


Never mind that the proportion of women has not been closer to half or higher because women may have chosen their homes, their families, their children, themselves or other priorities over jobs that pay/perk the highest but also demand the highest responsibilities and often the highest stress.


Of course, you can't ignore the aspirational impact of films. Sometimes, girls and women need to see themselves on screen as they are not off it, so that onscreen can shape change offscreen. But that must be left to women creatives to shape through their art. Not by making heroines of those whose offscreen and onscreen metrics tick Latina or LGBTQ boxes. Certainly not by making villains out of those who don't have enough of a Black or Asian cast or a sufficiently disabled crew on set.


Like it or not, most leadership positions are held by men. Only 11% of all Fortune 500 CEOs are women. If there’s a Leadership Awards ceremony across sectors, women will be a third, fourth or a fifth of all nominees/winners; rarely higher. 


But you can't — mustn’t — keep rewarding/recognizing women only because they’re women. Instead, you widen the talent pool until the best find their way to the top on merit. Women don’t need endlessly tokenistic representation. Sure, they did need more representation for a while. What they now need more of is better representation, better for women, that is.


Renata quotes USC Annenberg School of Communication & Journalism folk to press her claims, but USC seems set on forcing a DEI agenda onto Hollywood aimed at ending what it calls "Hollywood's epidemic of invisibility" — colored conceptions, using a colored lens, to arrive at colored conclusions about what it sees as "disenfranchised or marginalized groups."


A diagnosis built on grievance will produce prescriptions founded on little but grievance.

Naturally, USC’s Stacy L. Smith says, “This is a catastrophic step back” and USC’s Katherine Neff says, “The film industry continues to not show up for girls and women.” 


Renata points to “back-to-back……Oscar victories” for women filmmakers in 2020 and 2021 and a no-show in 2023 as signs of backsliding!


Seemingly aghast, Renata says that for “nearly 100 years” of the Oscars, only 17% of all nominees and 16% of all winners were women.  


Naturally, she's horrified at apparent neglect of women directors.


But how many women directors with staying power have been around in the first place to even stake a claim, let alone be nominated?! Shouldn’t that be our starting point before launching an endoscopy of an imagined Ground Zero?


Between 2011 and 2016, the share of women among U.S. film directors nearly doubled from 4.1% to 6.9%. How can the proportion of women approach half of all nominees/winners with such a paltry presence? 


The share of women directors more than doubled between 2016 and 2022, jumping from 6.9% to 14.6%. This, after hitting highs of 20.5% in 2020 and 21.8% in 2021. 


According to The Celluloid Ceiling Report 2023 from The Center for the Study of Women in TV and Film, San Diego State University, from a study of 250 of the top grossing films, women were 16% of all directors in 2023


Precisely how is all this “catastrophic”, a “reversal” of progress, or “startling”?


The participation of women is only just climbing back up. And recognition and reward with it. Yes, it’s in fits and starts, not always in sync with real life, but it’s broadly upbeat.


No one’s keeping women out. Not any longer, anyway. 


If women want in, they’ll get in. They have. They will. They must. 


When women want more of the action, they’ll ensure they get it. And thank heavens for that. 


Take indie films. Between 2011-12 and 2022-23, women directors of indie films rose from under 30% to 42%. That’s approaching half of all indie directors, without the face lift of reverse discrimination or the tummy tuck of institutionalized tokenism. 


Trouble is, women directors simply haven’t shown up as much, or as consistently, as they might have. Not only were there too few women directors, most of the time, they directed only a handful of films each. As director, the filmography of Lois Weber alone dwarfs that of Nora Ephron, Penny Marshall, Niki Caro, Jane Campion, Mary Harron, Ida Lupino and Mimi Leder, all put together. 


Barring the early 20th century when women directors were almost as numerous and as prolific as men, it’s unfair — at this stage — to have unrealistic expectations of women from any other era bagging a chunk of nominations/awards. 


But that’s what unrealistic expectations do. They produce unrealistic conclusions. They make activists of academics and subversives of scientists, where researchers think nothing of orchestrating equal outcomes, when all they need be devoted to, is creating an environment of equal opportunities

No. It isn't "natural to believe 2023 was indeed the Year of Women in Cinema, especially with the release and hype surrounding Barbie."


Honestly, shouldn't it be anything but natural to believe hype?


Deciding who’s before and behind the screen


Between 2011 and 2022, the share of women film screenwriters nearly doubled to 27%. That’s nearly a third of all writers.


According to the Writers Guild of America West, between 2011 and 2020, among staff writers employed in film/TV and related industries, women nearly doubled from 35% to 63%. That’s about two-thirds of all writers, all women! Inclusion, here we come.


If anything, women now have more power to “move the needle” than they've ever had, more power to shape who turns up on screen and how, even if the results are only just showing. It’s another matter what they’ve done with that power and influence: conjure the most entertaining, enlightening stories or take the knee to DEI tokenism.


According to the San Diego team, from a study of 250 of the top grossing films, women were 24% of all executive producers and 26% of all producers in 2023; they were 25% and 31% respectively in 2022, 18% and 24% respectively in 1998. For a quarter of a century, one in four or five producers/executive producers have been women. 


Women too (not just men) have been handpicking screenwriters and screenplays, directors, cast and crew. If gifted women directors have always been in such abundance (to warrant claims of consistent neglect) why haven’t women producers/executive producers picked more women directors or screenwriters? Perhaps there were other causes beyond the sex of practitioners? That's as it should be.


A director's creative vision and skill should count for more than her or his sex.


Either way, women have had no trouble doing just that (picking more women) in the streaming services sector. The San Diego team found that of original U.S. films by streaming services in 2022, half the protagonists were female, 44% of major characters were female, 40% of all characters were female, 21% of films had more female than male characters. Also, women were 22% of all directors, 23% of writers, 27% of producers and 29% of all executive producers.


Deciding Oscar nominees and winners


AMPAS votes on the Oscars. No need to guess at who's snubbing whom.


As of 2023, 3/3 persons heading the Actors Branch were women; 2/3 heading the Directors Branch and Producers Branch were women; 6/10 seniors including President and Vice Presidents were women. 


Of new membership invitations issued in 2023, 40% were to women; the Academy is now overall 34% women. 


As of 2024, 2/3 persons heading the Actors, Casting Directors, Directors, Film Editors, Documentary, Marketing & PR, Producers, Production Design and Short Films and Feature Animation Branches are women. All three heading the Executives Branch are women. That’s an overwhelming ten Branches dominated by women. Equity, here we come.


If anything, Hollywood has recently overcompensated, swinging blindly in the other direction, giving women disproportionate sway; the Big Daddy of the movie world is now more akin to Big Mommy. 


Exactly how is all this a “historic low for women” in film?


As far as recognition and reward go, women in film have never had it so good. Let's hope it gets even better.

There is a sense in which Renata's right, though, even if unwittingly.


If her phrase “female-identified” placed alongside, but distinct from the now worryingly quaint word “women” is taken seriously and to its logical conclusion, the proverbial needle won’t budge in favor of women, ever. It'll be — and stay — a historic low for women, in or out of film.


After all, overwhelmingly, it is oppressive men (identifying and being excitedly accepted as women) who are gatecrashing hitherto women-only spheres and spaces: Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress better watch out. And it is too often oppressive women who are cheering this recognition/reward of these oppressive men, somehow as a victory for women! But that's another story; Hollywood’s little plot twist: DEI-driven women waking up after years of DEI cryosleep, shocked that their shiny little "equity" projects, meant to have liberated fellow women, somehow lobotomized them.


Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is an independent writer who writes on culture and society. 

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