Why AWFJ’s List?

0 Flares 0 Flares ×

Carrie Rickey addresses guests at AWFJ’s List launch:

For the most part I blithely surfed feminism’s second wave. Now, confronted with certain sadistic statistics, I wonder why, despite the sea change for women over the last half century, there are precious few of us behind the camera– or up there on screen– to show our daughters and nieces how they might surf that third wave.

Two numbers stick in my craw. 6.5 and 29.

6.5—repeat after me– 6.5 — is the percentage of the top-250 feature films directed by American women in 2006.

29 – repeat after me, 29 –is the percentage of women we see on the big screen.

Put another way, men direct more than 93 percent of what we see at the multiplex and at the arthouse, and male characters outnumber females on screen by a ratio of more than two to one. And we all know that when only one in three of the people we see on the big screen is female, we come to believe that women are a minority– when in fact they are the majority.

As I never get tired of reminding my readers and my stepdaughter, who is with us today, such an imbalance gives us 1) a distorted image of the world and 2) militates against equal employment opportunities for women.

While the numbers are dispiriting, they don’t tell the whole story. So let me consider them through a personal prism.

Used to be when I was a tween– the current age of our younger daughter– I dreamed of becoming the first woman president. Not an uncommon fantasy for a girl whose mom told her she could be anything she wanted to be. This was the same Mom, a talented sculptor trying to get representation in ‘60s Los Angeles, who cried herself to sleep because gallery owners ridiculed her as a suburban mother who didn’t fit the artist profile. She wasn’t a hard-drinking, womanizing boho male who could offer collectors a taste of an alternate lifestyle.

This is one reason that 40 years later, when a woman in the Oval Office is a distinct possibility, my dream is gender equality in the House, the Senate and in Hollywood.

40 years ago– when I was going to be the first woman president and Mom was going to be the first woman artist repped by Ferus Galley– the Senate had two women and Congress twelve, respectively two and three percent of those institutions’ members.

Around that time there were two active female directors, Ida Lupino and Shirley Clarke, who represented about one percent of filmmakers and made movies so beneath the radar that I didn’t know there were woman directors until I was in grad school. (BTW, tomorrow night on TCM you can see four of the eight film features Lupino directed.)

Today we have 13 women in the Senate, 62 in congress – 13 percent and 15 percent, respectively – but, and here’s that number again, only 6.5 percent making the top 250 box office films. Women constitute roughly 14 percent of our legislators, yet less than half that percentage legislates our movie dreams.

In that 6.5 percent is Nancy Meyers, maker of the sidesplitting “What Women Want,” “Something’s Gotta Give” and “The Holiday”– lively comedies with serious undertones that have grossed about a billion dollars globally. In that 6.5 percent is Deepa Mehta who, to make her exquisite Oscar-nominated film, “Water,” about the treatment of Indian widows under Hindu fundamentalism, had to shoot it in Sri Lanka lest she become a political casualty of that very Hindu fundamentalism she was criticizing. In that 6.5 percent is Sanaa Hamri, whose vibrant film, “Something New,” proposed that love is colorblind. You know the names of some of the other 6.5ers – Nora Ephron, Amy Heckerling, Kasi Lemmons, Penny Marshall, Julie Taymor and Elaine May– who, after “Ishtar,” effectively bowed out of directing and is the most sought-after of script doctors, partiallly responsible for the success of movies as disparate as “Tootsie” and “Working Girl.”

Not among the 6.5 percent are the makers of three of the five Oscar-nominated documentaries of 2006, “Deliver Us from Evil,” “Jesus Camp” and “My Country, My Country”– all extraordinary films. They are not factored in because like so many films made by or focusing on women, they are not widely distributed and therefore don’t gross enough to make it into the box office top-250.

So, why is there better female representation in Washington than Hollywood?

One answer: politically speaking, feminists have put their money where their mouths are. EMILY’s List and the Wish List have been engines for change in Washington and they have produced dramatic results.

Another answer is that despite the fact that as recently as a year ago, four out of seven of the studio production units were led by women, the films that get the big budgets and marketing dollars are the “Spider-Mans,” not the “Little Womens,” the “Harry Potters,” not the “Nancy Drews,” the “X-Mens” rather than the “Fridas.”

And why is this? Women are flexible when it comes to identifying with male protagonists, men less so when it comes to identifying with females. I remember hearing JK Rowling interviewed on the radio a few years back and she said that Harry Potter well might have been Harriet, but for the editors who told her boys won’t read about girl heroes.

I don’t know whether this is the way girls and boys are hardwired or whether it’s the way they’re socialized. But I do know that when a two-year old girl steps into Daddy’s shoes or picks up Daddy’s golf club everyone laughs approvingly and when a two year old boy steps into Mommy’s heels or picks up Mommy’s lipstick the vibe isn’t always so approving. Maybe boys don’t crossidentify with female heroines because they learn early in life that playing with female stuff makes them less male.

Still, I think that the American electorate may be more evolved than Hollywood thinks it is. If men vote for women, it follows that they will vote with their box office dollars for movies with women. Right?

This sounds logical. But in Hollywood, logic doesn’t always prevail. A few years back when I was gathering material for an article about this topic, five different producers told me The Joke.

It’s a She Said/He said. And I’m going to ask Glenn Kenny to come up here and read this with me.

Her side of the story: He was in an odd mood when I got to the bar. I thought he might be annoyed because I was late. I could tell something was wrong. I tried to cheer him up, tell jokes. Still, this affect was flat. I thought maybe it was low blood sugar, but even after we had burgers, he was physically but not emotionally there. Was he trying to break up with me? When he asked if I wanted to come home with him, I assumed we could talk about it. But when we got to his place, he switched on the TV. Couldn’t he see my emotional turmoil? I went to bed. He joined me there about 10 minutes later. We had sex and I figured he would open up after sharing an intimate experience, but he just rolled over and went to sleep. He didn’t even notice how upset I was. Why is he playing mind games?

Now, Glenn, please read his side of the story: Played badly today – shot 93. Felt kinda tired. Got laid, though.

Four male producers told The Joke to prove the point that women can’t tell a story. The female producer told it to prove the point that women are sensitive to different aspcts of a story. Men want the temperature, women the microclimates. Admit it, sometimes you just want the hero to take a shortcut. But sometimes you want her to take the scenic route.

One of the male producers added that female brain chemistry made women lousy directors. Now, I’ve seen thousands of movies by men and hundreds by women and I agree, in general, the pacing and spatial relationships in movies by women are different. Men tend to shoot the decisive moment in transfigured time, accelerating the tension through rapidfire editing or exalting the moment through slo-motion– as we see in Ed Harris’ “Pollock,” where when artist Jackson Pollock discovers his signature drip style. Women tend to shoot the decisive moment in real time, preserving the emotional intensity– as we see in Julie Taymor’s “Frida,” when the bed-ridden Frida Kahlo discovers in her immobility a new subject – her own broken body. Yes, there is a difference when a woman is behind the camera; but the difference is not qualitative, it’s stylistic. When Robert Towne looks at the women’s locker room in “Personal Best,” he eroticizes disembodied breasts and buttocks. When Gurinder Chadha looks at the woman’s locker room in “Bend it Like Beckham,” she matter of-factly sees women’s full bodies built for power and speed. When Martin Scorsese looks at Jack Nicholson in “The Departed,” he sees a pasha enjoying his prerogatives with concubines and subjects; when Nancy Meyers looks at Jack Nicholson in “Something’s Gotta Give” it is as a man who’s lost his mojo and has to reconstruct himself before he can recover it.

I think we can all agree that the movies – and the culture – needs both Scorsese’s and Meyers’ perspectives.

Like The Joke, my explanation of how I have come to this place today has not taken the expressway, but the back road.

It is with my particular history that one afternoon in January, Oscar nominations in one hand and a ballot from the American Film Institute in another, that I experienced what surfers call Extreme Wipeout. In the Academy nominations, three out of the five documentary nominees were directed by women, ditto two out of five foreign film nominees. That’s 60 percent and 40 percent. Nice numbers. Then I looked at the AFI ballot, where of the 400 films that supposedly defined America only 4.5 of them were directed by women, a smidge over 1 percent.

I called Jennifer Merin at AWFJ and bitched: did you see this AFI ballot? Can you believe this BS is still happening in 2007? Why, as an alternative, doesn’t AWFJ celebrate the movies in which women are central, movies in many cases written and directed by women?

And here we are, with a woman-friendly top 100 for list-crazy American movie geeks and their daughters.

(I confess that I did another thing, too: I called the Philadelphia head of the EEOC – the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission – and asked if the EEOC could investigate the underrepresentation of women filmmakers in Hollywood. The answer is yes, but someone has to file a complaint with the LA district office and no female director or producer or screenwriter I know of would jeopardize her professional standing by being that plaintiff.)

Now, because I don’t want to give you with the impression that there has been little progress for women in Hollywood over the past 50 years, let me consider the evolution of what is, for obvious reasons, my favorite female stereotype: the dumb blonde.

“Gentleman Prefer Blondes,” 1953, screenplay by Charles Lederer:

Lorelei Lee, played by Marilyn Monroe, struggles to put a tiara around her neck and is shown that it’s worn like a halo, she squeals, “I JUST LOVE finding new places to wear diamonds.”

“Private Benjamin,” 1980, screenplay by Nancy Meyers and Charles Shyer: Judy Benjamin, played by Goldie Hawn, in the afterglow of her first orgasm: “Now I know what I’ve been faking all these years.”

“Working Girl,” 1988, script doctored by Elaine May: Tess McGill, played by Melanie Griffith, gets complimented by Harrison Ford, who says he usually doesn’t meet professional women like her, and retorts,

“I’ve got a head for business and a bod for sin – is there anything wrong with that?

“Clueless,” 1995, written and directed by Amy Heckerling: Cher Horowitz, played by Alicia Sllverstone, recognizing her frivolous ways and reflects, “I needed a makeover. But this time, I’d make over my soul.”

And finally, “Legally Blonde,” (1999), screenplay by Karen McCullah Lutz and and Kirsten Smith: Elle Woods, played by Reese Witherspoon, says to the guy who jilted her for being a Marilyn and not a Jackie, and who then wants to get back together after she surpasses him at Harvard Law….“If I’m going to have my own law firm by the time I’m 30, I need a boyfriend who’s not such a complete bonehead!”

When a woman is behind the screenplay or the camera, there is a difference.

0 Flares Twitter 0 Facebook 0 0 Flares ×

Carrie Rickey (Archived Contributor)

Carrie Rickey has been The Philadelphia Inquirer's film critic for 21 years and writes the newspaper's Flickgrrl blog. She has reviewed films as diverse as "Water" and "The Waterboy," profiled celebrities from Lillian Gish to Will Smith, and reported on technological beakthroughs from the video revolution to the rise of movies on demand. Her reviews are syndicated nationwide and she is a regular contributor to Entertainment Weekly, MSNBC and NPR. Rickey's essays appear in numerous anthologies, including "The Rolling Stone History of Rock & Roll," "The American Century," and the Library of America's "American Movie Critics."