Synopsis: Documentary on women in film, features interviews with women directors and actors. (Streaming on Netflix.)
Field Trip. Ah, a blessed break from classroom drudgery. School trips to museums, historic sites and plays. In elementary school, I attended a performance based on the life of young Helen Keller who had lost her sight and hearing in infancy from an infection. As a youngster she had a teacher, Anne Sullivan (herself visually impaired) who helped her communicate using a tactile sort of sign language. Helen grew up, attended college and became a disability advocate and social policy progressive. Helen & Anne: Two incredible women. Women can do anything!
Flash forward to a middle school trip to an art museum. I was particularly drawn to the Impressionist works. I lingered among the Degas, Pissarro, Monet and Renoir paintings until last call for the gift shop. It wasn’t until I was admiring a Mary Cassatt pastel that I was struck by the fact that virtually all of the artists were men. Why was that? I reasoned that it wouldn’t be for lack of talent because in my school experience, the most talented kids in art class were just as likely to be boys or girls. I figured it must be that (before reliable birth control) women had been too busy caring for children to have time to paint or sculpt.*
Years later, I stumbled on art historian Linda Nochlin’s groundbreaking essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” The piece covers a lot of ground in the Western art world, but one thing stood out to me: men blocking women from studying at art academies. From the late Renaissance through the late nineteenth century, women were barred from enrollment because it would have been flouting societal norms to allow women into figure drawing ie, sketching nude male models. I thought artists were in the business of flouting societal norms! In any event, persons who were not trained in the academies were unwelcome to exhibit at the famous Salons where artists found buyers and patrons.**
Well, that was a lonng time ago. Surely other, more modern artistic mediums like film, don’t have such a discriminatory past. Time to look into that with the documentary This Changes Everything, a quick moving investigation into the experiences of women as actors and directors in the industry. And plenty of statistics to back up charges of discrimination.
This Changes Everything features interviews with Tracee Ellis Ross, Reese Witherspoon, Chloe Grace Moretz, Taraji P. Henson, Shonda Rhimes, Sandra Oh, Jessica Chastain, Amandla Stenberg and the holiest of holies: MERYL STREEP.
Geena Davis also appears repeatedly (ahem, she is an executive producer of TCE) with stats from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Here’s one bit of datum from the institute: 80% of media consumed worldwide is created in the United States. That’s quite a cultural export. So what sorts of messages are being sent out by this powerhouse of WEIRD ( Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic)?
I expected that the 1960’s cultural revolution and women’s liberation would have a pronounced effect on movies. Instead, even into the 1980’s, women were used, as screenwriter-director Callie Khouri (Thelma and Louise, Nashville) reports, for ornamentation. Her background was in music video production; cut to clips of a hair metal band motorcycling to numerous strip clubs. Now I’m understanding what inspired her to write a movie about two heroines who won’t take any s**t.
Late 20th century hits include many male-directed movies with a male hero, like Lethal Weapon, Beverly Hills Cop, Dances with Wolves and The Fugitive. Even the movies with women leads, like Moonstruck and Notting Hill, were directed by men. Exhibit A for Non-Progress: Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) starring Leo DiCaprio and a heavily objectified Margot Robbie.
And while women are minimized onscreen, they’re barely present behind the camera. Director Maria Giese recounts that her film class (UCLA, circa 1991) was split evenly between men and women. But as peers like Alexander Payne and David O. Russell received offers, she and other women graduates could hardly get agency representation. Forget the glass ceiling, the women weren’t even allowed in the building.
This Changes Everything gets into some surprising Silent Era Hollywood history… The early industry was actually full of women screenwriters and even producers and directors. Lois Weber , a true auteur, directed and wrote over a hundred films. Strangely enough, it was talkies that pushed women film makers aside. Costs went way up for construction of sound stages, sound tech equipment and modification of theaters for sound. And banks (run by men, no surprise) weren’t going to lend money to studios who would let women helm movies. Before you know it, they’ll be spending everything on sparkly necklaces and fancy hats!
As the maxim goes, money talks and the expectation was that if women made films that made money everything would change. Notable money makers directed by women include Clueless (Amy Heckerling), Bend it Like Beckham (Gurinder Chadha), Twilight (Catherine Hardwicke), Frozen (Jennifer Lee) and Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins). Meaning more jobs for women directors?
Not so fast… In 2020, women accounted for 18% of directors in the 250 top grossing films (Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film). And 2017 stats show that, in the 100 top grossing films, male characters outnumber female characters 2 to 1.
Harking back to our discussion of the exclusion of women artists from European Salons, we can look at the Director’s Guild of America. The DGA represents its members’ economic and creative interests as well as providing health and pension plans. In 1967-68, women’s membership in this career bolstering group was at 1% . In 1979, the Women’s Steering Committee (the Original Six) within the guild presented research that showed women directors were hired for just 0.5% of the jobs in TV and film. Harumph! WOMEN ARE HALF OF THE WORLD’S POPULATION!
Let’s finish on a relative upswing… women directors are getting more representation (25% in the DGA) and more accolades (Oscars for Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker, 2010 & Chloe Zhao for Nomadland,2021).<<BIG SMILES>>
Wait, what? The director of This Changes Everything is a man?! Tom Donahue (Casting By, Thank You for Your Service) seems to be a fine director and ally against discrimination, but this is beyond ironic. Women directors need opportunities to make a living too!
* According to the New York Times, since 2008, only 11% of all work acquired by the US’ top museums was created by women artists.
** Women artists were typically aristocrats (lots of leisure time), nuns (no kids to care for), or working artists’ daughters (they learned from assisting dad).
P.S. Actor-screenwriter Brit Marling, who appears briefly in TCE, wrote a brilliant opinion piece, “I Don’t Want to Be the Strong Female Lead” wherein she rejects “new” roles for women that rely on propagating male violence and perpetuating the male gaze in film. Right, I question whether the leather-jump-suited hottie who coldly mows down other human beings is “progress.”
Movie Loon Movie Review Shortcut:
Cut to the Chase: An informative look at discrimination in Hollywood.
Humor Highlight: The dark humor of having a man direct a movie that includes plenty of footage of women directors talking about how they can’t get hired.