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Commentary, Movies, Oscars

Always the Bridesmaid: Gender Bias in Hollywood

Changeling. Volver. The Devil Wears Prada. La Vie en Rose. Notes on a Scandal. Dreamgirls. Bridesmaids. Little Children. Rachel Getting Married. My Week with Marilyn. Julie & Julia. Vicky Christina Barcelona. Doubt. Blue Valentine. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

All of these movies have been released since 2006. Every one of them was critically acclaimed, and each of them features at least one breathtaking, show-stopping, heart-pounding, award-nominated acting performance. They are all centered on a female main character. And none of them were nominated for Best Picture.

How can this be?

Obviously, award nominations aren’t the be-all and end-all of Hollywood perception, but there’s something disturbing about the trend exemplified by the films above: that female-driven movies may be recognized for their acting but are less likely than male-driven films to be recognized for their overall quality. This isn’t to say that there aren’t exceptions; Black Swan, The Kids Are All Right, and this year’s The Help are just a few of them. But take a look at the list of nominees for Best Actor over the years, and then take a look at the Best Actress nominees. The Best Actor list is filled with movies that were also nominated for Best Picture and achieved a pretty significant degree of notoriety. The Best Actress list is filled with undervalued gems and a bunch of movies you’ve probably never even heard of.

Ida Lupino, director of such films as THE HITCH-HIKER (1953).

This trend is but one facet of a broader gender disparity that permeates Hollywood, from the relative salaries of the top-paid actors and actresses to the membership of many of the major guilds. As with many other industries, women in the film industry have historically been relegated to the role of a permanent underclass that lacks the creative input and decision-making ability of their male counterparts. Pioneers like famed actress/director Ida Lupino may have set the stage for later advances, but unfortunately these breakthroughs have been few and far between. But why, in this era of increasingly equal opportunity, has this continued to be the case? It’s not a simple question to answer, and many others have tried.

While the inequities evident in past awards seasons are merely symptomatic of greater gender inequalities in Hollywood, my hope is that the examination of this issue can be a useful entry point for the discussion of the broader and more pressing issues at stake. As such, consider the following my humble attempt, with full knowledge that it’s virtually impossible to account for all of the disparate factors that contribute to these injustices, to answer the following question: why do female-driven movies get such little love from critics groups, awards organizations, and sometimes even movie-going audiences, in spite of the fact that 50% of the population (and theoretically 50% of the viewing public) are women?

First, let’s return to the female-driven movies I listed at the beginning of the article. Here’s the harshest fact you’ll find in my exploration of gender inequality in Hollywood, and it’s emblematic of the biggest single issue preventing movies starring women from achieving greater critical and popular success: of the 15 movies I mentioned, 14 of them were directed by men. (The one exception is Julie & Julia, directed by Nora Ephron.) Let me make another list to further the point:

Juno. The Help. The Queen. Little Miss Sunshine. The Kids Are All Right. Atonement. The Reader. Precious. An Education. Winter’s Bone. Black Swan.

Natalie Portman in BLACK SWAN.

These are the exceptions to the rule. All of these films have been released since 2006, feature female characters in central roles, and bucked the trend by being both feted for their high level of quality and nominated for Best Picture. And of the 11 films listed, 7.5 of them were directed by men. (Lisa Cholodenko directed The Kids Are All Right, Lone Scherfig directed An Education, Debra Granik directed Winter’s Bone, and Valerie Faris co-directed Little Miss Sunshine with Jonathan Dayton.) It’s a rate that’s a bit better than the films on the snubbed list – shock of shocks, movies about women that are actually directed by women are better than those that are directed by men – but that’s still an awful lot of male directors.

By now I’m sure you get the point: that there are relatively few female-driven movies being celebrated by Hollywood, and most of them are directed by men. But why is the fact that directors are overwhelmingly male bad news for female-driven films? Because despite the above examples to the contrary, generally speaking, men tend to make movies about other men. (I’d make a list to prove my point, but it would be longer than the rest of the article.) This, to me, is the key reason why there aren’t more films about women being made. It probably seems like an obvious point, but it’s incredibly important.

(This isn’t to say that men can’t make great movies about female characters and vice versa. They can, as many of the movies listed above demonstrate. They just don’t come around as often as male-directed/male-centric movies.)

The amazing Kathryn Bigelow. THE HURT LOCKER's great, but I like NEAR DARK even better. (It's an 80s vampire movie... what are you waiting for?)

At present, only 13.4% of the Directors Guild of America members are women. Only four women have ever been nominated for an Academy Award for directing, and only one – Kathryn Bigelow, for The Hurt Locker the year before last – has ever won. (The other nominees were Lina Wertmüller for 1975’s Seven Beauties, Jane Campion for 1993’s The Piano, and Sofia Coppola for 2003’s Lost in Translation.) While these distinguished artists represent the cream of the crop of female directors, the fact remains that there just aren’t that many female directors working in Hollywood. And the same holds true for screenwriters and just about every other job in film production besides acting.

As I see it, there are three main consequences resulting from the fact that most directors are men, and they each help to explain the relative scarcity of awards-caliber, female-centric films. They are:

1) Quality

If most directors are men, and we accept the premise that men generally prefer to make movies about male characters, it follows that there would be relatively few movies about women being made in Hollywood. One need look no further than the movies currently playing at your local multiplex to find evidence of this. Few movies with female main characters, then, means that there are even fewer good movies with female main characters. This, in part, could account for the relative lack of success that female-driven movies have had at the Oscars and other awards competitions – some of the movies just aren’t very good (*cough*, The Iron Lady, *cough*), and there aren’t many of them to begin with. It’s a problem of sample size.

2) Perception

The fact that only 13.4% of DGA members are women means that only 13.4% of DGA voters are women. I don’t know the numbers for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but I doubt the percentage would be much better. It seems logical that, as a group, male directors would be more inclined to vote for movies with male characters because they’re easier for the voters to identify with. With this in mind, it’s no surprise that male-centric films tend to win all of the awards.

You mean they're releasing even more superhero movies in 2012? You don't say.

3) Perpetuation

This is probably the greatest obstacle to overcome. Hollywood is a copycat town. If movie studios identify something as having been successful, they’re going to drive that sucker into the ground and squeeze every penny out of it that they can. X-Men (2000), a superhero movie, made a whole bunch of money in its first few weeks of release, so since then we’ve seen X2 (2003), X-Men United (2003), X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), X-Men: First Class (2011), Spider-Man (2002), Spider-Man 2 (2004), Spider-Man 3 (2007), Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), Iron Man (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), Fantastic Four (2005), Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007), Hulk (2003), The Incredible Hulk (2007), Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), Thor (2011) – you get the idea. (The scary thing: this wasn’t even close to an exhaustive list.)

As a result of this tendency, Hollywood studios can be seen as being very conservative in the types of movies they make. With millions or even billions of dollars at stake, they make the best bets they can given past trends. And if most successful movies have male main characters, then the studios will make sure that most future movies will also have male main characters. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle that is extremely difficult to break.

So that’s the best I can do to explain why things are the way they are. But it doesn’t answer the core question that dictates all of this other stuff: where are all the female directors? That’s something I can’t really answer, but I will say this: there may be hope for the future. I know from my own personal experiences that many of the best and brightest film students out there are women, and they come from a generation that will happily (and with great force) take a sledgehammer to any glass ceiling that may be blocking their way. (I proudly call many of these women my friends.)

And recent events in film and television also show signs of gradual improvement. This past year, Hollywood was stunned by the success of Bridesmaids, a film that proves that audiences – both male and female – can and will find women funny. (This was apparently news to studio executives. Sigh.) And on TV, a slew of female-oriented comedies and dramas have taken the broadcast networks by storm, including New Girl (created by Liz Meriwether), Are You There, Chelsea? (developed by Dottie Zicklin and Julie Ann Larson), Whitney (created by Whitney Cummings), 2 Broke Girls (also co-created by Whitney Cummings), Suburgatory (created by Emily Kapnek), and the new show Smash (created by Theresa Rebeck). These shows prove that things can change, and we can only hope that the increasing success of female-driven narratives will lead to greater opportunities for actresses, female writers, and, yes, female directors in the future.

Good luck, ladies. I know I’ll be watching.


Your homework for tonight: watch a female-centric movie! (You too, guys.) Of the movies I mention in this article, Juno, Black Swan, and Blue Valentine get my highest recommendation; they’d all be candidates for a list of my personal favorite movies of the last decade (which is something I might actually publish one day… stay tuned). And check out some of the films that were actually directed by women — Winter’s Bone and An Education are massively under-appreciated. (I’m assuming you’ve already seen The Hurt Locker by now, right?)


About A.J. Simpson

Creator and moderator of I Wonder if You Wonder.


2 thoughts on “Always the Bridesmaid: Gender Bias in Hollywood

  1. The sad fact is that many of the best directors working in the world today- Catherine Breillat, Claire Denis, Chantal Akerman, Kelly Reichardt- are women, but the films they make simply fly over the heads of the not-too-impressive-intellect of the Academy or the respective Guilds. (Not to mention, three out of the four listed are foreign and therefore have that mountain to cross as well.) I know it’s Awards Seasons (The self-congratulatory nature of which seems to extend to approximately eleven months of the year.) but I’d rather audiences responded to the films of these talents rather than care whether an industry forum of incompetence honors their worth with a useless doorstop trophy.

    Posted by chandlerswainreviews | February 9, 2012, 6:01 am
    • I couldn’t agree more. Breillat and Denis in particular are personal favorites of mine, and I wish more people would check out their movies. My focus on awards really has more to do with Hollywood than my own preferences — as I’ve written about in other articles on the site, I try not to give the awards too much credence because of the very limited types of movies they tend to celebrate (no foreign movies, few genre movies, etc.), but the sad fact is that they ARE a huge deal in Hollywood and can therefore be a handy way to gauge Hollywood’s comfort level with certain things (like female directors and female-driven films, in this case).

      Posted by A.J. Simpson | February 9, 2012, 10:25 am

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