ZOJE STAGE is a 2008 Fellow in Screenwriting from the New York Foundation for the Arts. She is writer/director/producer of the upcoming feature film "The Machine Who Loved." Her knowledge of, and passion for, the issue of gender equality in film is amazing. It became very clear to me that rather than have me stumbling forth with little revelations as I learn more; it's a good idea to have Zoje guest write an article-- because what she has to say is informative, fascinating, and important -- and a million miles more eloquent than I could possibly manage.
By Zoje Stage
The subject of women's opportunities in the film industry is of great interest to me, and it is something I have spent a lot of time thinking about. I have a personal mission to help make people aware of gender inequality in general - as an extension of how it relates to the film industry.
There is a huge underlying problem as to why women do not have equal opportunities:
The history of humanity is based on gender inequality and the intentional suppression of women. As time has gone on, things have changed in many parts of the world - creating the illusion that, for the most part, men and women live in an equal-opportunity world. But in reality, this just isn’t the case.
The structures that define human civilization were designed by men, to better, praise, or entertain other men. Do we have any clue how a government would be run if the world had evolved with true gender equality? Do we know what a building might look like? Do we even know how a story might be told?
Everything about how we - men and women - live is dependent upon us all accepting that the male-created models are what we can and should strive for. In addition, there has been a systemic injustice done to women across the centuries in that, even when women were able to accomplish significant things in fields not truly open to them, the historians of the day dismissed their efforts - and subsequently, much of the history of women and their contributions have been erased or forgotten.
Literally, the contributions of women have been ERASED from the collective consciousness of human history!
I encourage you to visit the Brooklyn Museum in Brooklyn, New York. Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party is permanently installed there. Go look at the hundreds of names of important women from throughout the ages and ponder why you have never heard of most of them.
Our collective vision of the world has been seen - and recorded - through men's eyes.
Are you familiar with Alice Guy Blaché?
When contemporary filmmakers engage in discussions about why women filmmakers - writers, directors, producers - are not better represented in the film industry, someone (usually male) attempts to explain it away by stating that women simply aren't interested in making the kinds of high concept, blockbuster films that their male counterparts like to make. There is an assumption that women prefer softer stories, girly stories, comedies. In short, there is an assumption that women would prefer to make crap.
In reality, if women filmmakers existed in the EXACT same numbers as male filmmakers you would see proportionally more blockbusters - and proportionally more of everything else. From good films to bad films. You would see women making horror films, thrillers, adventure films, etc. And another thing would happen if women filmmakers existed entirely proportional to male filmmakers:
You would see a broader interpretation of human experience.
People would become familiar with "other" types of stories - the stories of the silenced half of human history. I believe, over time, these stories would be embraced. These stories would become just as ubiquitous as male buddy films and little boy coming-of-age films. Just as toddlers are trained what to eat by their parents, an audience is trained what to like based on what is fed to them. Give them a broader diet and they will embrace a more well-balanced offering!
When murmurings began about the lack of a single woman director in the running for this year's Palme d'Or at Cannes, as usual people failed to really understand the significance. People snarkily suggested that some of us would prefer to see good films by men go unaccepted, or lesser films by women be included. That was not the issue at all. One does not achieve equality by suppressing others, or accepting a lower standard. But when such things happen it gives us all a chance to examine the world we live in.
Here is an example of how people in a decision making position will pick material that is familiar to them - a reverse gender scenario:
In 2009 I won the first Screenplay Live! Screenwriting Competition, and then got to direct my winning script as a staged reading at the 360/365 George Eastman House Film Festival. My script was about a past-middle aged woman and, obviously, it was written by a woman. The presiding judge was a past-middle aged woman. A few weeks ago I attended the reading of the 2010 winning script from the same contest. It was written by a woman, and was about two adult sisters and their aging mother. The presiding judge was the same past-middle aged woman as last year.
The lesson here? Of course we all, if given the choice, will pick material that is familiar to us, that resonates with us.
The tragedy is that women have been so silenced throughout history that there is little recognition or appreciation of our voices. And not enough women in power to truly influence the selection, development, and programming process.
There had been an argument on an online board last year concerning the Pixar film "Up" - and how some people lamented that Pixar had yet to make a true adventure film with a girl in the leading role. Pixar has had girls in supporting roles, and we've all seen gender-stereotyped lead girls in tons of animated films. But this was an argument about the specific lack of ADVENTURE stories where girls are the leaders. One particular comment really struck me:
A man wrote that his young son - who has been around girls and women his whole life - would be fully able to relate to a story about a girl. He wondered why it seemed more likely to the powers-that-be that his young son could better relate to a character portrayed as a truck, or a fish.
Eventually, consensus on the Pixar debate seemed to conclude that the directors, animators, and writers at Pixar are predominantly men, and that they aren't trying to be sexist, they are merely creating stories that they personally can relate to.
On an individual basis I do not believe that I am often discriminated against. I know a lot of men who dig my work and respect what I do. But there is still a collective, insidious perception that if I am a woman then my work is only going to be understood by other women. Never mind that I have been utterly transformed by the work of men! We can, if given the opportunity, relate to each other, learn from each other, embrace each other - we live in this world together. Men have made extraordinary contributions to the world, there is no question about that - and we women have embraced your vision. But, again, the perception exists that the female perspective is somehow not interesting to men. A producer even suggested trying to market my sci-fi/drama feature as a "chick flick" to tap into that ready market! (I explained in no uncertain terms that "chick flick" is synonymous with "crap only women like" and that I never wanted to hear the words uttered again.)
One obvious thing that needs to happen is we need to have more women in decision-making positions - as selection panelists at film festivals, as development executives, as directors. Very, very slowly this is starting to happen - but too slowly. When Kathryn Bigelow picked up the Academy's Best Director Oscar I wept - but only partly because I was happy. I was also really pissed that it took the Academy 80+ years to see exceptional directing talent in someone without a penis. Since the beginning of film, women have been an integral part of this industry. But we happen to live in a world that refuses to document our existence, or value our work as much as that of men.
There was an op-ed piece in The New York Times this year during awards season that suggested, with dark humor, to end the practice of recognizing Best Actor and Best Actress. After all, talent is NOT gender specific. I got into an argument about this with a male actor (and friend) who was adamantly opposed to the idea, on the grounds that there would be half as many acting awards given out! It seems ludicrous to counter that argument by suggesting they add MORE categories - like Best Woman Editor, Best Woman Composer, Best Woman Screenwriter, etc. That would be offensive! And where would it lead? Best Asian Director? Best Black Costume Designer?
But the point is... Talent is not gender specific. Or ethnicity specific. Or anything else. Talent is talent. And we still live in a world that can't quite fully embrace that. Women ARE already equal in terms of what we are capable of doing. But there is an underlying perception that has not caught up to that.
The men of the world still tend to make higher salaries than women. So men have more money to spend on movies. So more movies are made to attract the male audience. One might conclude that this cycle will not change until there is gender equality EVERYWHERE -- where women earn an equal salary, and are represented and respected in all of the fields where they wish to have influence.
So the solution to gender inequality in the film business is, not so simply, to reach a global state of gender equality. It is a world worth striving for.