No Girls Allowed: The Gender Problem in Film


The considered greats of directing are almost always all male

I’ve always been interested in the world of film, but lately (now that there is a light at the end of my PhD thesis tunnel) I’ve been dedicating more time to watching “the classics“. However doing some research into the essentials of cinema has brought home a sad fact: very few of the “great” directors are women. On top of this, look at any list of must-watch films and you’ll notice that there is a lot of gendered genre-bias too. Basically: if you’re looking to become a film buff, you’re going to run into a gender problem.

KStew <3

KStew ❤

The lack of women directors in cinema has not gone unnoticed. Just last week it was reported that since the 1970s only 15% of Australian films have been made by women, a trend that continues today despite female film graduates making up 50% of the cohort. The Tumblr site “Sh*t People Say to Women Directors” also went viral this year, shining a light on the rampant sexism experienced by women in the industry. Actress Kristen Stewart recently commented, “Hollywood is disgustingly sexist. It’s crazy. It’s so offensive it’s crazy”.

But let’s imagine we put aside the sexism involved in producing many of the cultural products we consume, for a second. What we find is that what counts as film cannon is overtly biased toward stereotypically “male” genre films. Searching for “films every film buff must see” reveals lists like this:

Not saying the Godfather isn't good though

Not saying The Godfather isn’t good though

1. The Godfather: Part 1
2. The Godfather: Part 2
3. The Godfather: Part 3 (srly?)
4. Citizen Kane
5. Vertigo
6. Casablanca
7. Psycho
8. Raging Bull
9. Notorious
10. Taxi Driver

These lists are overwhelmingly dominated by films about male gangsters, men in power, male killers, men beating each other up, and so on. Admittedly there is one romantic drama in this particular list, but in many, romantic comedy and fantasy adventure is basically left out. Such films daren’t been seen tainting such lists (even though we can all admit that The Princess Bride is an *absolute* classic, but never features in any top 100 lists).


Bechdel test explained

And, even if we decide that the Godfather: Part 3 is actually deserving of a top spot, applying the Bechdel test to these films reveals very few lead female characters, let alone ones that talk to each other about topics other than men (The Godfather: Part 2 passes).

Dancer in the Dark is SO GOOD and SO DEPRESSING

Dancer in the Dark is SO GOOD and SO DEPRESSING

However, abstaining from watching films created by men, or that fit into a “male” genre, or that predominately feature men isn’t going to do much. Certainly boycotting male directors in favour of female ones would achieve little more than just missing out on some actually awesome films. I’ve long been a fan-girl of several auteurs (directors who are visionaries imagining a distinctive world) who are men, such as Lars von Trier, Wes Anderson, Michel Gondry, David Lynch and Pedro Almodóvar. If we ran with a top films list from these guys, it would look something like this:
Dancer in the Dark
The Life Aquatic
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Mullholland Drive
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

Pretty great. I don’t recommend missing them.

Film is a way of framing the world

Making films involves framing and reflecting on the world

But, film is an incredibly important tool for philosophising about the state of the world, humanity and existence. One can assume that the greater the diversity of people from different life experiences musing on this, the better. So I wonder what we are missing when we leave women out, both as characters within films and as the creatives behind the scenes.

Seeking out female directors, films of different genres, and films that feature strong women might be a good idea. If nothing else, this can act to provoke mindfulness about the gendered aspects of film-loving. So, just incase you’re googling “films every film buff must see”, here are some alternative lists to consider (according to me).

Sophia Coppola directing (also starred in Godfather: part 3...)

Sophia Coppola directing (also starred in Godfather: part 3…)

Awesomest films (by female directors):

The Virgin Suicides (Sophia Coppola)
Monsoon Wedding (Mira Nair)
An Education (Lone Sherfig)
Me and You and Everyone We Know (Miranda July)
Clueless (Amy Heckerling)

True fact: Four Weddings was nominated for an Oscar for best picture (and lost to Forrest Gump)

True fact: Four Weddings was nominated for an Oscar for best picture (and lost to Forrest Gump)

Best ever films (that happen to be romantic):

– Four Weddings and a Funeral
West Side Story
Calamity Jane
– Annie Hall

Favourite films (that feature amazing female leads):

Million Dollar Baby
All About Eve
Black Swan
Ghost World
The Wizard of Oz

No, our watching practices aren’t going to defeat sexism in film. But being mindful of our viewing habits can’t hurt…especially when it comes to determining what “counts” in the land of the film buff.

3 thoughts on “No Girls Allowed: The Gender Problem in Film

  1. All true. Thanks for the recommendations!

    I realise how late I am to comment on this, but I have a different take on Million Dollar Baby…

    This film was widely marketed as the ‘female Rocky’, but I’m going to argue that’s not a good comparison. Hilary Swank does a great job, and almost masks the fact that this is actually a film about a man. The character arc happens to the Clint Eastwood character, not to the Hilary Swank character. Swank’s *circumstances* change, sure, big time, but Eastwood goes from being an embittered man estranged from his own daughter to one who has finally learns to love. If there’s ever any doubt about who the main character of a story is about, we only need ask: Who changes the most? (Psychologically, that is, not in circumstances.) This is definitely a story about the male coach.

    Now that I’m reading about the Olympics (in lieu of watching it — feminist commentary is coming through my feed) I notice how far-reaching this narrative is, not just in fiction but in real life. So often we’re hearing, even in 2016, about ‘the man behind the woman’ instead of the actual, medal-winning woman. We hear about who she is married to, who her male coach is, her opinion on the men competing in the same sport. In sports stories, but certainly not limited to sports stories, we’ve all been trained to focus on the men, even if the *protege* is a young woman.

    This story has been going on at least since Pygmalion, in which a man makes a woman in his own image. Man as god.

    Another troubling thing going on in Million Dollar Baby is what I call the ‘female maturity formula’, in which the female character exists for the purposes of the male character arc, but we tend to classify the story as feminist anyway, due to her being ‘a strong woman’. The problem is, women are consistently portrayed as the mothers and teachers of men, and this plays on an underlying assumption that girls and women are therefore ‘naturally suited’ to motherhood. Hilary Swank is a *strong woman* at the beginning of the film but is still strong at the end. There is no real psychological change there. But Eastwood’s character needs to take his lesson from her. If this dynamic were limited to this one film I wouldn’t have a problem with it, but it’s pervasive, and can be found in almost every Pixar animated movie for kids, not to mention the much crappier Dreamworks ones. We’re feeding this dynamic to our kids from birth.

    This female maturity formula of storytelling has been going on at least since The Odyssey, in which Penelope is faithful sidekick to her far more interesting husband.

    Until we start seeing female characters undergo their own psychological change, otherwise known as the character arc, we’re actually watching the same old, same old. I argue that we need fewer ‘strong female characters’ and more flawed-from-the-beginning female characters, in equal proportion to all of these flawed men. Until then we won’t have equality in storytelling, no matter how many stoic boxing/arrow shooting/kick boxing women appear.

  2. Four Weddings & A Funeral is one of the best romcoms out there! I have been having a little fling with the black and whites myself, and what I noticed is how much more favourable these oldies are towards women. Take Hitchcock’s The Birds for example. The leading lady is independent, resourceful and extremely feminine without being slutty. I was surprised by this, and it feels our feminism efforts have started to go the wrong way, where women who squeal a lot need to be saved by strong, masculine men as opposed to taking matters into their own hands.

  3. Very few people actually speak about female directors, albeit Indian ones. I really applaud you for thoroughly researching! I hope to watch all the movies on your list of best films soon.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s