No room at the top: Sexism in Hollywood

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On March 2nd, the 86th Academy Awards will take place in Hollywood, with every star in attendance in their finest couture, hoping to leave clutching that elusive golden mannequin. After 86 years of the Oscars – through war, the civil rights movement, the rise of feminism, and the advent of technology that’s changed the very face of cinema – you’d think everything would have changed since 1929 – right?

Well, there’s one area that has remained stubbornly stagnant all these years, and that’s the presence of women at the top of the film making business. The Oscars, the Golden Globes, the Screen Actor’s Guild Awards and all the other big award ceremonies are a reflection of what Hollywood deems excellent (the 6,000 members of the invitation-only Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science cast the votes for what wins) and yet, the lack of female directors is conspicuous in the ceremonies’ history. Things seemed to be changing for the better when Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win the Best Director Oscar for The Hurt Locker in 2010 – but Bigelow was only the fourth woman to be nominated for the award in the Academy’s history, and none have been nominated since. It’s not only women who are drastically under-represented: if Steve McQueen wins this year for his searing historical drama 12 Years A Slave, he will be the first black male director to have ever lifted the Oscar statuette. Only two others have even been nominated – John Singleton in 1992 for Boyz n the Hood and Lee Daniels in 2009 for Precious. When you look at the statistics, it’s hard to excuse.

It seems shocking that in 2014, Hollywood can still be so apparently behind the times: yes, we have fantastic powerhouse actresses winning awards every year, but only four ever nominated for directing them? But it’s not just at the award ceremonies where things are tough at the top for women. Research carried out by the Sundance Institute and Los Angeles-based Women in Film organisation found that women represented only 4.4% of the directors of the 100 biggest box office films between 2002 and 2012, and that the figures also suggested that the bigger the budget of a film, the less likely it was to have a female director.  Of the top 100 grossing films of all time, only two have been directed by women: number 83, Phyllida Lloyd’s Mamma Mia! and number 68, Jennifer Yuh Nelson’s Kung Fu Panda 2.

These figures are all the more depressing in the face of what’s felt like a female revolution in films: the highest-grossing film of 2013 was The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, with star Jennifer Lawrence front and centre, and Disney’s sister-focused fairy tale Frozen, the first Disney Animation movie with a female director, is the studio’s most successful film since The Lion King. One piece of news that made my year was the fact that of the top 50 films in 2013, films passing the Bechdel Test made up to $1.5 billion more at the box office. The Bechdel test is a very simple test for obvious gender bias in film: a movie passes the test if it 1) has two or more female characters, 2) who talk to each other, 3) about something other than a man. The test isn’t perfect: it doesn’t guarantee that a film is actually female-focused (Alfonso Cuaron’s hit film Gravity, up for pretty much every Oscar this year, fails despite Sandra Bullock being the only character on screen for most of the running time) and it is a little depressing that we’re still celebrating films which beat what is basically a really low standard for women in film – having any conversation at all that’s not about a man? Wow, revolutionary! But the test is still a good way to analyse Hollywood’s prejudices when it comes to women in film. I for one am sick of films in which the main female character seemingly exists just to float around the main male character, explaining his skills and appeal, and maybe kicking some bad guys while wearing six-inch-high heels to prove that she’s a ‘tough action girl’ – and the Bechdel test goes some way towards suggesting an alternative, and mapping out hopeful trends for more three-dimensional women in film.

But even if we do have more women on our screens, they’re not finding their way to the director’s chair: only two films with female directors got anywhere near the top 100 films of the year, and the rest of 2013’s female-fronted films are mostly indie pictures that made relatively little, like Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, which only made $20 million (small money in Hollywood) despite the draw of Harry Potter star Emma Watson. There are excellent female filmmakers – say what you like about Twilight, Catherine Hardwicke’s film of the first book proved an undoubted smash-hit with teenage Twihards the world over, and perhaps one of the greatest directors, the late, great Nora Ephron, gave hopeless romantics like me timeless classics like Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail and Julie & Julia. That’s why it’s so disappointing that they’re not at the helm of the big, Oscar-bait movies that get the plaudits.

When the stars come out for the Academy Awards, there won’t be any women in the running for Best Director. There are women to be found outside of the acting awards – of the nine films on the shortlist for Best Picture this year, six have women on the producing team – and, in the cases of American Hustle and Her, the same woman, Megan Ellison. With women having such a powerful year in film, giving us new cinematic role models like Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen and a Disney film that’s more about a princess and her sister than a prince, it seems more tragic than ever that women are not being given the chance to step into directing films, hindered by Hollywood sexism. It’s a shameful aspect of the silver screen – a silver screen that is, perhaps, more than just a little rusted.

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