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2009: A Turning Point for Women in Hollywood?

March 2, 2010

Image courtesy of Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Back in June, I wrote about Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow and the significance of acknowledging her gender in the discussion of her work. Now, months later, Bigelow is the fourth woman in history to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director. In five days from now, we will find out whether she will be the first woman to win the prestigious honor. From the looks of it, she certainly has a strong chance — and either way, she’s already made history by being the first woman to win the highest honor at the DGA Awards.

On top of Bigelow’s accomplishments, 2009 was a year that proved that women watch movies. Specifically, the high box office sales earned by The Twilight Saga: New Moon and The Blind Side demonstrated that Hollywood films geared toward women are commercially viable and disproved the long-held industry stereotype that women never go to the movies.

The question now becomes: what does this mean for women in the film industry as a whole? Do the personal accomplishments and box office successes of 2009 prove that we’ve reached a turning point for women in the film industry? Or are these simply flukes that bear little meaning for the average woman trying to climb the professional ladder in Hollywood today?

Before we get too excited about Bigelow and The Blind Side, there is no question that we still have a long way to go before we can say that Hollywood’s glass ceiling is broken. As Melissa Silverstein of Women & Hollywood wrote last week, opportunities for women in film, as a whole, are not looking good:

Women directors are now at 7% down from 9% in 2008 and is the same percentage as it was in 1987 (the year that Dirty Dancing and Baby Boom were released and Cher won her Oscar for Moonstruck.) So while we’ve all been talking about the prominent women who were recognized this past year, the opportunities for women to direct declined.

Silverstein continues by listing additional statistics, such as only 8% of screenwriters are women, and only 2% of cinematographers are women.

The New York Times has more:

Of the almost 600 new movies that will be reviewed in The New York Times by the end of 2009, about 60 were directed by women, or 10 percent. Some are foreign directors, like Claire Denis (“35 Shots of Rum”) and Lucrecia Martel (“The Headless Woman”); others are documentary filmmakers, including Agnès Varda (“The Beaches of Agnès”) and Aviva Kempner (“Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg”). Many received modest releases; I bet you never heard about, much less saw, most of them.

…Only a handful of female directors picked up their paychecks from one of the six major Hollywood studios and their remaining divisions this year…Paramount Pictures and Warner Brothers Pictures, meanwhile, did not release a single film directed by a woman. Not one.

These facts are critical to the discussion of the status of women in the film industry. Just as Bigelow did not become an industry sensation overnight (The Hurt Locker marks her first Academy Award nomination, and she has been directing films for nearly thirty years), the vast majority of women trying to earn a living in Hollywood, let alone trying to win Oscars, are still struggling. The film industry is still overwhelmingly male-dominated, and the few notable women who have made it to the next level have not significantly altered the environment for the rest of the women in that business.

All that being said, if Bigelow makes Academy Award history, we might start to notice more changes. If nothing else, the recognition of her work may inspire more young women to pursue careers in filmmaking. As Silverstein points out:

The visual of seeing Bigelow on the Oscar circuit and on TV and having a woman’s name and picture up on the screen when the five directing nominees are announced matters greatly.  Young girls (and boys) across the country and the world will see that yes, a woman can be recognized as one of the best in a field that has for 82 years been so male dominated.  One working director told Scott Feinberg that he hasn’t been to the ceremony in years but he is going this year and is bringing his daughter because they both want to be a part of history.

That point cannot be overstated. Women do need to be encouraged and see that it’s possible to break into the industry and be successful. On a personal level, I remember noticing the sharp decline of other women in my classes during my four years as a student in film school. During my first semester, the genders were equally mixed, but as I advanced to higher level classes, I noticed that I was one of only two or three women in each of my production classes. My friends noticed similar trends in their classes as well. That is not an encouraging picture. With any luck, Bigelow’s successes will empower more women to study and pursue film professionally, so that we will see more gender diversity in the classroom and on set.

In a year from now, how will we regard 2009 in terms of the progress made for women in film? Will Bigelow, New Moon and The Blind Side have finally cracked the ceiling for women in the industry, or will be in the same place we are now, hoping for better luck next year? It’s impossible to say right now, and chances are it’ll be a mixed bag. But I do believe that, if Bigelow wins her Academy Award next weekend, we will start to notice changes for women in Hollywood. And even if she doesn’t, she will have come very, very close, and that may be enough to make her an inspiration.

9 Comments
  1. Christine permalink
    March 2, 2010 9:34 am

    This blog entry had me searching for articles on a similar subject–but I was interested in finding out about the percentage of female producers and production managers. I’ve never seen an article focusing on those roles–just the argument on the lack of female directors.

    In my film/TV production experience so far (a ridiculously itty-bitty sliver of the industry as a whole, granted), women have made up a hefty percentage of the producers and UPMs. I was looking up the stats, and of the 100 top-grossing films for 2007, 20% of producers on those were women. In TV, they made up 38% of producers that year. Not 50/50 by any means, but still a solid standing when compared to the stats for directors and writers.

    I guess my qualm with all of these recent connected articles is that people equate “filmmaker” with only “director” or “writer.” I think it’s equally insulting to ignore the women who prove capable of running entire productions and hiring the directors.

    • Carrie Polansky permalink
      March 2, 2010 10:04 am

      If you read the first post by Melissa Silverstein that I link, you’ll find the following stats about ’09:

      1) Women make up 17% of all Executive Producers; and
      2) Women make up 23% of all Producers.

      Not too different from the ’07 stats you list. And, certainly, it’s a more solid number than writers, directors, editors and cinematographers…but I wouldn’t exactly call it a shining example of equality, either.

      Here’s another piece that I just found that talks about producers as well: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/stacy-smith/female-directors-writers_b_480848.html

      As for the bulk of the discourse centering exclusively around directors and writers…you’re absolutely right in saying that it’s not fair to other women who work in the industry. I wish we lived in a world in which average folks knew the names of key grips and 2nd assistant directors and production designers (male and female) the way they know the names of directors and writers. But sadly, it’s just a fact that writers and directors (and a few huge producing moguls, like Harvey Weinstein) are the most visible behind-the-scenes professionals in Hollywood. And it happens to be in those most visible positions where women are the least represented. So it might not be accurate to say that women are underrepresented in all areas of film, and it’s unfair to say so if it’s not true…but if women are primarily underrepresented as writers and directors, that merits discussion. And if women are really underrepresented in all areas of the industry, perhaps we can draw attention to that fact by highlighting those who are most visible.

      • Christine permalink
        March 2, 2010 10:40 am

        Fair point, of course–but a lot of that visibility for directors comes down to press coverage (including thoughtful articles like yours!). 😉

  2. Christine permalink
    March 2, 2010 9:50 am

    Oh, cool–I also found the source you cited in the earlier article, saying that in 2008 women made up 25% of production managers and 44% of production supervisors (the highest percentage among the job positions listed). Still inequal, but definitely higher stats that shouldn’t be igored.

    • Carrie Polansky permalink
      March 2, 2010 10:07 am

      Whoops — I missed this reply when I was responding to your first comment. But yes, there definitely are more stats available about women in production positions! Glad that helped!

  3. March 5, 2010 6:24 pm

    Can you simply imagine that men have more talent in this scope?

    Can you exclude it?

    Have you thought about the ideology of “Women’s discrimination”?

    What about male nursery-school teachers?

    It is one necessity of the “gender”-ideology to explain the sex differences “culturally”. So we can construct much discrimination. Of course only concerning women. Okay?

    • March 6, 2010 6:45 am

      If nursery-school teachers were as well-respected and well-paid as Hollywood directors, you can be sure that the social construction of masculinity (yes, we talk about that too :-O) would shift to allow more men to take up such posts.

      BTW, if you have some mechanism for measuring talent that exists outside of cultural and social factors, by all means, share it. The impossibility of creating such a mechanism–unless you can have fetuses start directing films–should suggest the irrelevance of your initial question.

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