Some of you may have seen the link I posted on Facebook and on the Bang2writers wall yesterday regarding women directors and how women “more likely to be members of the clergy, than direct a Hollywood movie”? Well, Bang2writer and DoP David Beaumont certainly did… and here’s his response. Enjoy!
OK, so I’m being pedantic, but strictly speaking this isn’t true! Well, no, it IS true but it’s irrelevant — since a MAN is also more likely to serve as a member of the clergy than direct a Hollywood movie. That’s simply because there are more churches in the world (millions; how many in your town?) than there are Hollywood movies being made at any given time (maybe 250 a year; how many in your town?).

The significant statistic is not that any given woman is more likely to be a vicar than that woman is to be a director, it’s the other way round: a vicar is more likely to be a woman than a director is to be a woman.

For my money though, even that comparison — 7% against 15% — is less striking than 7% against 93%. Fuck the clergy (as it were), with their paltry “twice as likely”; men are 15 times as likely to land a directing job as women.

WHY that should be the case (or at least “is”, if not necessarily “should be”), might be quite a lot more complicated than just straightforward sexist recruitment.

For example, I wonder how many moviegoers (or more importantly how many audience-dollar decisionmakers) are male? Who picks the film for the majority of cinema trips, who chooses the DVDs, who selects the TV subscription package or holds the remote control, who spends the most time in hotel rooms alone (and therefore watching pay-per-view movies on hotel TV), etc. My guess would be men — in which case the major movie studios would be failing in their duty not just to their audience but also to their shareholders if they didn’t skew their output in favour of a male audience; and it’s not unreasonable to suggest that male directors are generally more likely than female directors to connect with material geared towards a male audience. (Of course there will always be exceptions; compare the latest films of former husband & wife directors James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow: anyone wanna put a stereotypical male/female balance on ‘Pocohontas with elegant blue people’ versus ‘jarheads get drunk, fight, and gamble with their lives coz they love to blow shit up coz it’s far more rewarding than being a family man’?) In which case it is RIGHT that there should be more male than female directors.

Of course then there’s the deeper issue of why that audience-dollar decision-making power should be male dominated, and no doubt that’s largely down to the fact that historically more male-oriented movies have been produced… and suddenly the argument’s circular — or at least spirals through time. But which studio head is gonna be the first to say “fuck 100 years of industry success, I’m gonna re-invent the wheel because it’s the socially responsible thing to do”? How long wil they last, if they start advocating martyring the studio for the greater good? That’s just bad business.

Of course if there were precedents, even one-offs to suggest an opportunity before moving into a wholesale shift of emphasis right across the slate, then there’d be something that this (can I say “humanist” rather than “feminist”? Since we’re a predominantly female species then by default every human is a woman anyway, unless they’re part of the minority group; so we’re arguing in favour of the human race on average, rather than specifically advocating imbalance… actually no, I won’t get away with that — so I will stick to “crusading”) crusading studio head could cite to support the business logic of their policy.

But where are the precedents? Where are the big hit movies (and I mean relatively, not absolutely — ie bigger than all the others, not just “big” in their own right) that are “right for a female audience”? Where are the feminist chart-toppers?

There aren’t any.

“There aren’t any”. Let’s just read that back. And see how easy it is to believe. And look around the room and see how many other people aggree. And then punch ourselves in the face, hard, twice, for being so sexist as a society that not only can we not see the wood for the trees, but that the trees are so dense we don’t even believe the wood is there. Let’s take the entertainment world’s foremost feminist movie director, consider their last two major releases. How did they compare to the competition? Well, I’m going to cite ‘The Dark Knight’ as the highest-performing “masculist” film of all time, with a box office take of just over a billion dollars. So, how does our feminist’s work compare? Well, ‘Titanic’ did nearly twice as much, and ‘Avatar nearly three times as much.

[Quick stat break: there are 5 movies in history that have grossed over a billion dollars at the box office worldwide:

‘Pirates of the Caribbean 2′, with about $1.05b
‘The Dark Knight’, with $1.06b
‘Return of the King’, with $1.08b
‘Titanic’, with $1.80b
‘Avatar’, with $2.70b

To be fair I haven’t checked those numbers since last Summer, so those dollar values may have shifted a touch; but nothing else has entered the club yet.

Interesting to note: ‘The Dark Knight’ (which I tongue-in-cheek called “masculist”) did more of its worldwide gross in the USA than in the rest of the world combined; both ‘Avatar’ and ‘Titanic’ (which I’m calling “feminist”) did around twice as much internationally than at home (the USA). ‘Pirates’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’ (which both have different levels and degrees of prejudice within them, but are on the surface at least moderately well balanced, in the context of the rest of society) were both somewhere in the middle. Possible conclusion, in the light of this debate: Hollywood’s home audience, ie the market closest and most important to the most powerful movie-makers on the planet, are significantly more “masculist” than the global average. However more popular male-oriented films are than female-oriented films here in the UK or elsewhere around the world, in America that difference is TWICE as big. Male gravity is twice as strong around the commercial mindset we’re suggesting they need to escape from than it is here.

So how come we don’t see ‘Avatar’ as a feminist movie? How come we don’t see James Cameron as a feminist director? Well, coz he’s a bloke, and there are guns & scifi & stuff in it.


‘Avatar': the lead is a man, but he works for a woman: a woman who is the most respected (if not actually the most directly obeyed) human in the film. Na’vi society worships a mother goddess, and the women hold as much political power as the men; women can be warriors, (in the other tribes we meet at the end) we see they can be chiefs, the Amatikaya (which I’m sure I have spelt wrong!) are ruled over by one male and female authority figure, with a male and a female in waiting. The female characters are all as strong, as interesteing and as influential — within their social/professional circumstances, and to the plot — as the men (and in fact the majority of positive decisions are taken by women). ‘Avatar’ also passes the Bechdel test (look it up).

‘Titanic‘: the central character (the one around whose life story the movie is based) is a woman. She is the one who grows the most through the movie, has the greatest character arc; her life’s female influencers are as significant as the male ones. There are as many instances of her saving the life of a man as there are instances of a man saving her. The 1912 story has a positive ending because the woman (not a man) survives, and it is made abundantly clear to us that her life is a success because she has made it so in her own terms (she has not led the life of feminine humility, inferiority and servitude to masculine superiority and chauvanist ideals into which she was born and raised). She is the most proactive, the most interesting, and the one with the strongest character. (Jack Dawson might feel like “the hero, but look at what he actually achieves: he tries to get laid, he runs around, he dies.) ‘Titanic’ also passes the Bechdel Test.

‘Aliens': it’s scifi gun-toting action macho bullshit, right? Just coz it’s got Sigourney Weaver in doesn’t make it a chick flick! Simplistic to the point of untruth, and irrelevant anyway. (Fuck “chickflicks”; why should women have to aspire to be “chicks”?) When you cut right to the chase, this is a film about two mothers competing for the life of a little girl. There are a number of secondary male characters there as well — some good, some bad, but all of them weaker, smaller, lesser people than Ripley, or lesser aliens than the queen; and even at their less heroic level of existence, there is always at least one female character in their midst (the female exec who plays the most active role in the corporate investigation at the start; Vasquez, who can easily hold her own with any of the male marines; Newt’s mother (if you watch the Director’s cut) and the other female colonists, who are just as active on LV426 as the men) to match them. Nowhere and at no point in ‘Aliens’ is any male more decisive, important or influential than a female. By ‘Alien3′ the franchise had descended into parody. Ripley’s character becoming a characature (even more so by ‘Resurrection’); in the original ‘Alien’ Ripley is basically just a whiney bitch who really only qualifies as the “hero” coz she’s the last one standing (watch it again closely and there’s a lot of subtle sexism in that film, even if you don’t necessarily want to call it “a sexist movie”); but when James Cameron took his turn with the franchise, both the franchise itself and the Ripley character peaked, as I’m sure the vast majority of fans would agree. ‘Aliens’ also passes the Bechdel test.

‘The Abyss': the central character here is male, but still there are a striking number of parallels with ‘Aliens’ (and his other work) in terms of the character heirarchy. Who designed and built the rig these tough oil-drillers (only one of whom is a woman, but that woman is as valid and repected among her peers as any of her peers) work on? A woman. Who makes the majority the positive, proactive decisions on the goodies’ side? The woman. Who’s the character whose arrival, history, attitude and authority has the greatest non-plot-essential impact on our cast? The woman. Who sacrifices their life for the greater good? Yes, the male hero, but also yes, the woman — and neither are sacrificed by the story, since both are deemed worthy by the “natural justice of storytelling” to be brought back. And yes, the woman needs the man to bring her back to life, but he could only do that because the woman had already extensively saved his arse in the previous action sequence.

‘Terminator 2′: Well… anyone who’s ever seen this movie and actually needs me to write this paragraph needs their head examined! Sarah Connor is an iconic feminist character in ways Lara Croft doesn’t even know how to dream of. She out-Ripleys Ripley 😉 (NOTE FROM LVH: Hmmm, do we really want to start another ruck on this? Oh go on then… Read my post, “The Spectre of Sarah Connor” here! LOL).

Maybe some people are getting confused or annoyed by my apparent concept of “feminism”. As I suggested above it’s not actually about bias in favour of women — although we’re so vastly “masculist” as a society that we’d have to shift a hell of a long way in that direction to get balanced… which is why I allow myself to borrow that word to describe the concept (since “humanist” is already taken). Acid test, for a film: take all the characters in the movie, and swap their gender; do the characters still function? If the answer is yes, then we’re balanced; if it’s no, there is bias, which implies prejudice. If Sarah Connor was a man, the story would work just as well, and the character be just as believable, respectable/likeable (or not) as it is as a woman. The character is a flawed, damaged but heroic HUMAN (who happens to have a gender, because all humans do), rather than being a gender stereotype first, who is then pigeon-holed into a character that we as a (blindly, intensely chauvanist) society believe that such a stereotype should be allowed to have.

So, back to the original point: we need precedents? Feminist (or at the very least non-masculist) films that have had box office success? Let’s open our eyes and recognise the two most successful films of all time. So how do women directors make themselves successful? Make action movies! That’s what people watch; and in fact they’re FAR more impressed (by a factor of 3, ticket-wise) by feminist character plots than masculist ones. Social justice is one thing, business is another; the charts show us that. Gender imbalance and commercial success are clearly only linked by coincidence, or lack of vision — on the part of writers and directors more so than producers and execs. Make the studios money, and they will have you make more films.

Be James Cameron. Even be Kathryn Bigelow if you like. Build it, and they will come.


(Thanks to Bang2writer Maura McHugh)

The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film

2007: Whose Stories Are We Telling?

2009: Rewriting an All-Too-Familiar Story?
Gender Disparity On Screen and Behind the Camera in Family Films

Women & Hollywood: Sexism Watch – The Black List

Women & Hollywood: Sexism Watch – The Black List for Directors

Also: if you’re my friend on Facebook, you can see my original posting of the LA Times Article and David’s original comments, along with Elizabeth Ditty’s and Maura’s HERE.


There’s certainly some interesting ideas in David’s response here on the directing front, THOUGH my main concern (besides James Cameron being lauded on my blog, haha) is: is it wise to categorise films as “masculine” or “feminine”?

Also, whilst it’s certainly obvious people *want* to watch action movies, that surely doesn’t mean anyone who wants to be successful SHOULD, regardless of their own genre preferences (or gender, now you come to mention it). If story is king/queen (and I believe it is), then surely shoe-horning yourself into making action movies *just* to get noticed is unwise. I’m also not of the belief that success automatically means monetary gain – if it did, then 99.9% of us in this industry (male OR female) are abject failures in achieving a living wage, never mind fame and fortune on the levels of Cameron et al.

But if I may deviate from the main issue here towards audience and commerce, I am unconvinced by David’s notion that males DRIVE economic purchases (like cinema tickets, DVDs and the like which of course feed into the viability of film production), though my approach is admittedly as unscientific as David’s – just personal experience, plus hearing the stories of other women and who hold the purse strings in their houses (PLEASE NOTE: this is not a value judgement, just an observation).

But *if* women do hold the purse strings MORE OFTEN, then why aren’t we taken seriously as our male counterparts of consumers of movies like the fabled 15-25 year old male demographic? If we don’t go to the movies, is it because there simply isn’t anything that INTERESTS us? If we don’t make purchases or hires of DVDs as often, is it because we’re not interested – or because we’re voting with our feet, “we don’t want THIS content”? I’m particularly unconvinced by the latter – though I go to the cinema infrequently (based on price, more than anything else), I get DVDs every single week and I liken my struggle to find content I want to watch as the triumph of hope over experience. I like action movies as much as the next wo/man, but must admit I would like to see more action heroines with more “female/feminist” goals that don’t automatically revolve around being raped, saving a child or being a male ally in some way.

I’m not convinced male and female interests in terms of genre ARE poles apart at all. I actually think women just (just!) want to see 3D, differentiated female characters we can relate to –in any film. What’s more, I believe absolutely there is strong evidence – rounded up in Maura’s links, in fact – that women are being PASSED OVER for such jobs behind the camera, so balance is not being achieved on this issue at best.

When I consider the “great” male characters, I’m struck immediately by how varied they are. Yet I don’t see that variation in their female character counterparts. This seems a shame. Women make up a potential 51% of the potential audience in the Western World, yet still the majority of films feature male protagonists, with what *may* be considered androcentric narratives, with much of the female POV sidelined, regardless of genre.

Taking on board David’s last point “Build it and they will come”, surely if there were MORE varied female characters, on less automatically androcentric adventures, the female audience would come flocking and thus this would be GOOD for business? I honestly don’t see why there’s not room for all on the spectrum in terms of audience – or indeed in terms of who makes these films.

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5 Responses to Guest Post: Response to LA Times’ Women Directing Article by David Beaumont

  1. ditty says:

    I think you're on target with the "build it & they will come" notion, Lucy. Women have proven time and again that they WILL turn out for movies that are aimed squarely at them.

    I'll again point to the first SEX & THE CITY movie; regardless of what you think of the film itself, the fact that so many women turned out to see it speaks volumes. Also worth pointing out is MAMMA MIA!, which went toe to toe with THE DARK KNIGHT of all films and did amazingly well. Another film with well-drawn female characters at the center of the story is JUNO — and it has the bonus of having been written by a woman, too.

    I'm always pleased when I see smart actresses like Natalie Portman setting up production companies because it gives me hope that we'll get more films like what you're suggesting. Even though it followed fairly generic rom-com plotlines, NO STRINGS ATTACHED (also written by a woman) at least gave us some rom-com women with life (and lives outside of wanting to fall in love and get married). Between her and others like Drew Barrymore, I think there's hope yet.

  2. Lucy V says:

    Indeed – I don't actually like movies like SATC or Mamma Mia, but there's no doubt women turned out in droves to see them. I'm reminded of the Rom Com "explosion" in the 90s over here, surely women must have gone to see the likes of Notting Hill, Love Actually and Four Weddings & A Funeral for starters? Seems bizarre to me this appears to have been forgotten, as producers and distributors seem to chase after Frat Pack/Bromance-style Rom Coms instead. Rom Coms will never be my fave genre by a long shot, but why can't there be as many more "traditional" ones as there once were? Who decided people – male or female – didn't want them anymore? An argument could be made for genres simply moving on, yet other genres have stuff that never goes away – the "serial killer in the woods" remains a staple of horror, year in, year out, for example.

  3. jazad says:

    Another well-documented issue is that of female protagonists. It seems once they reach a certain age, 40+, give or take a couple, they are put out to pasture, replaced by the younger archetype.
    Whatever happened to Rene' Russo, Michelle Pfeiffer,etc.? While old leather-face himself, Bob Redford would be cast to play a male lead in a NY minute.
    Maybe this is a stretch, but as much as I love Clint Eastwood, now nearly 81, I wouldn't be surprised to see him in a Warner Bros movie where his love interest was Rachel McAdams. Conversely, if you cast an older female lead with a younger male, it becomes an issue… and you have 'Harold And Maude.'

  4. Lucy V says:

    I was heartened to see Margot Kidder, the original love interest of Indiana Jones, in the latest one – but this doesn't seem to be the norm. Also there seems to be those actresses that somehow bypass what you say Jazad – Meryl Streep the most obvious, but Julia Roberts must be over 40 now I should think? But again, it's not the norm and it seems weird that Hollywood want women to believe men can be sexy however old they are, yet women have a shelf life that appears to get less and less. It's no surprise so many big Hollywood actresses of yesteryear – Geena Davis, Glenn Close, et al – end up in TV.

  5. cellulord says:

    (I think you mean Karen Allen … sorry, no one likes a smart arse).

    I agree, Marion Ravenwood was an excellent character who, despite her origins in the "Oh, Flash" school of pulp, was a remarkably positive role for kids to see.

    She starts the film running her own business (and out-drinking the men) then Indy comes along and destroys her business (thanks for that) so she invites herself along to get some payback.

    Even when Belloq tries to oppress her with the stupid ballgown, she only puts it on as a ploy to escape but, interestingly, once it's on, she spends the rest of the film as a hostage.

    Even so, she is a far less stereotypical, far more progressive character than the whinging, useless and spectacularly blonde Willie Scott in 'Temple of Doom'.

    As for actresses disappearing from the screen – all actors have peaks and troughs in their careers … can anyone name ONE film Jack Nicholson made between The Shining in 1980 and The Witches of Eastwick in 1987? Or anything that Clint made between Sudden Impact in 1983 and Unforgoven in 1992?

    They were working constantly … but nothing really stands out. However, when they 'came back', their careers were bigger than ever.

    On the other hand, are male actors as likely to take a career breaks to have kids? Maybe that explains why female actors disappear for a while.

    Now, how's this for a sweeping generalisation: Given the proportion of younger and maler (!) writers actually getting scripts made – for this spurious 16-24 male-skewed demographic that distributors seem to prefer – are these young male writers going to have the chance and/or life experience to write roles for actresses over forty – when, in all likelihood, their only experience of such women will be their own mothers?

    Is that why older women, when they do come back to work after a break, only get to play mothers … unless they write the scripts themselves?

    Thankfully, there are more positive, interesting and mold-breaking roles for women now than (probably) ever before – if you look for them on the art-house and straight-to-video shelves.

    Sadly, in the tent-pole movies, it seems that women are still only there if they're size zero, under 25 and content to be rescued.

    Being a bloke, I have no real vested interest in this, but I have spent years trying to make my female film students understand why *they* should be getting angry about this state of affairs!

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