Home - T Singapore

The Road Ahead for Women in the Film Industry

By Kames Narayanan

A behind the scenes look at a film set from the yesteryears, where a woman sits in a position of power amongst men.
Everett Collection
A behind the scenes look at a film set from the yesteryears, where a woman sits in a position of power amongst men.

Throughout cinematic history, there has existed an observable gap in the disparities between men and women in the film industry. Yet, for a long time, conversations pertaining to equality have but only teetered around the crux of the problem at hand. The year 2018, however, was a defining one, as it resurfaced inequalities that have long been swept under the proverbial rug.

The statistics add up in support of the feminine cause where the film industry is concerned. According to an annual study published last year by the University of Southern California Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, which dissects representations of gender, race, ethnicity, LGBT and disability in entertainment, the ratio of male characters to female ones in the top 100 movies in 2017 were outnumbered more than two to one. The dismal numbers dwindle even further in an investigation into the proportion of female directors — the same study also found that out of 1,100 films across 2007- 2017, a paltry 43 were directed by women. It took more than a century since the first woman who directed a film for another to win the best director award at the annual Oscars — Alice Guy-Blaché became the first woman to direct a film in 1896 and Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win the Oscar in 2010. The large gap between the two dates is an indicator of the slow rate at which change has progressed. 

If power is found in numbers, women in the film landscape inherently have the odds stacked against them. The barrier of entry barely scrapes the surface of a convoluted predicament. The history-making #MeToo movement, came to full blown effect in 2017 when two New York Times journalists, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, released an exposé on years of sexual harassment allegations against prominent Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. The report reopened the claims against Weinstein, which he had previously put to bed with money. Subsequently, more and more women in the film industry stepped forward with their salacious encounters with Weinstein, eventually, resulting in a loss of his position at the movie and television studio he co-founded. What the Weinstein scandal also brought to light was the longstanding power imbalance skewed to the disadvantage of women.

Going by the numbers, the representation of women onscreen is filtered, predominantly, through the lens of men. The result, as eloquently summed up in Laura Mulvey’s eminent 1975 essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, is a dominating male gaze. By definition, the male gaze suggests a sexualised way of viewing that empowers men and objectifies women. The unabashed onscreen voyeurism, gone largely unacknowledged for years, has played out to greatly demean a starlet’s acting prowess — the roles assigned to women lesser than that of their male counterparts.

From old Hollywood classics to contemporary films, the gaze has remained transfixed. In Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 classic, Vertigo, the male lead forms an obsession with the female character Madeleine Elster, purely based on her looks. Fast forward to the 2000s, the female leads in American filmmaker Michael Bay’s Transformer franchise are undeniably exploited for their sexual magnetism — a scene of Megan Fox leaning low into the hood of a car in a cropped tank top and jeans riding low on her waist stands as a blatant case in point.

Considering the anecdotal case studies and quantitative statistics, the cards may seemingly be stacked against plausible shifts in the role of women in the world of cinema. Yet, the contemporary state of affairs in the last five years offer a reason to hanker onto hope for gradual change. When Patricia Arquette won the Oscar for best supporting actress in 2015, for the movie "Boyhood", her acceptance speech marked a watershed moment. The actress took the opportunity to call attention to to the gender bias inflicted on the incomes of Tinseltown starlets on live television and in front of the very industry players who perpetuate the prejudice. “It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for the women in the United States of America,” proclaimed Arquette.

The actress’s passionate address opened up the dialogue in rallying for equal pay. Later in the same year, Jennifer Lawrence penned a piece in Lena Dunham’s weekly online feminist newsletter, Lenny Letter. Lawrence was but one of the Hollywood A-listers who had discovered she was significantly undercut for her roles in comparison to her male co-stars when the 2014 Sony hack leaks revealed individual salaries. “Why Do I Make Less Than My Male Co-Stars” read the title — a comprehensive precis to the narrative that followed.

“Not too long ago, however, this kind of information exchange was discouraged by the status quo, the executives in the board room who used secrecy to protect their own interests: if A employee doesn’t know how much B employee is making, they might be able to save money on how much they have to pay people overall”, said Lainey Lui, the founder of LaineyGossip.com and a host on CTV’s The Social & Etalk, in an earlier interview with T Singapore. Since the revelations, the initial call for equal pay has evolved from voices speaking out in silos to a unison proclamation for change.

ShutterstockAt the Cannes Film Festival 2018, Hollywood starlets rallied together for a red carpet protest.
At the Cannes Film Festival 2018, Hollywood starlets rallied together for a red carpet protest.

At the Cannes Film Festival last year, industry luminaries like Cate Blanchett, Kristen Stewart and Salma Hayek made history with a monumental red carpet protest. Their points of contention: equal wages and the push for a safe working environment. Banding together as a unit for the departure of women in Hollywood from its oppressive state has propelled gradual but promising shifts in the past two years.

In February this year, Paramount Pictures released a statement that read, “We recognise that, as an industry, we need to afford more opportunities to female film directors, and at Paramount we have publicly committed to doing a better job.” The giant in the film- making industry further proved its commitment with the implementation of new regulations. “As part of the development and green light process, our productions will be required to complete a plan designed to enhance access and opportunities for groups historically underrepresented in the media industry. Special attention will be paid to our storylines, our talent in front of and behind the camera, our vendors and our shooting locations,” the statement continued.

The reasons to hold on to optimism do not end here. Amongst the 15 movies slated for release by Universal Studios this year, four are directed by women and out of the 15 from Warner Bros., three are from women. The relentless drive to establish a future in film that is fair for all has also taken actress Michelle Williams, a champion for the cause, to the U.S Congress earlier this year to appeal for a vote on a law to close the gender pay gap. To put things into perspective, it came to light that Williams was reportedly paid less than one-tenth of one per cent than her onscreen co-star Mark Wahlberg to reshoot the scenes for her film “All the Money in the World”.

While addressing these inequalities and advocating a shift in the industry are steps in the right direction, “this radical underrepresentation is unlikely to be remedied by the voluntary efforts of a few individuals or a single studio,” noted Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University in an interview with The New York Times. “Without a large-scale effort mounted by the major players — the studios, talent agencies, guilds, and associations — we are unlikely to see meaningful change,” she continued.

This then draws the attention to the tireless initiatives of the Women in Film (WIF) Los Angeles. Founded in 1973 by publisher and editor-in-chief of The Hollywood Reporter, Tichi Wilkerson Kassel, WIF “advocates for and advances the careers of women working in the screen industries to achieve parity and transform culture” — over the years, championing its causes through employing meaningful partnerships as a vehicle. Amongst them, a longstanding partnership with Italian luxury house Max Mara (also a champion of female causes) in acknowledgement of up-and-coming female game-changers in the industry. Inaugurated in 2006, the WIF Max Mara Face of the Future Award has in the past toasted to Hollywood’s leading ladies including Katie Holmes, Chloë Grace Moretz and Zoe Saldana amongst others. The latest of which, has been awarded to Australian stage and film actress Elizabeth Debicki who has previously won praise for role in the highly acclaimed “The Great Gatsby” (2013). Debicki was christened this year’s awardee in a garden party at Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont in a gathering of other like-minded starlets who share a unified vision for the future of women. The acknowledgement of women’s work, as important as any call to action, is instrumental to pushing the narratives of women in film forward.

Here, T Singapore speaks to WIF president, Amy Baer, and this year’s Face of the Future recipient Elizabeth Debicki on the road ahead for women in the film industry.

Everett CollectionFrom left: Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton and Jane Fonda star in "9 to 5" (1980), an iconic comedic film where the narrative sees the trio seeking revenge against their sexist superior.
From left: Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton and Jane Fonda star in "9 to 5" (1980), an iconic comedic film where the narrative sees the trio seeking revenge against their sexist superior.

Jumius Wong: Can you tell me more about your role as the new president of WIF, which you took up last year?

Amy Baer: We are a non-profit organisation that advocates for parity and advances the careers of women of the screen industry. And my role as board president is to coordinate the board as we supervise the organisation as a non-profit. So, we work together and I help steer directors of initiatives and policies and any kind of public statements that we are going to make. But we really work to empower the organisation itself, because we have a tremendous staff and they have done a remarkable job at their initiatives and programmes.

JW: What do you hope to achieve during your time at WIF?

AB: My biggest focus as board president is to push the organisation towards a bigger community, to a bigger network of women in the screen industry. I think it is really important. I think it is something that men have done traditionally better than women. And with community, comes opportunity. If you are in a community of people and there is opportunity, you are in the proximity of opportunity. It becomes a virtuous cycle. So, I think my focus for the next three years of my term is to really broaden and deepen that sense of community of women in the screen industry.

JW: Can you briefly tell me about the work that WIF is doing?

AB: We have some legacy programmes, which are programmes [that] have existed for quite some time. We have a film finishing fund, where we grant funds to small budget films or narrative documentaries. We have programmes where we create opportunities for women in all jobs across production to get hands on experience making short films. We have an episodic writing lab. We also have a feature film screenwriting lab which through a process of application, we select a diverse cohort of women, to work with actual working writers in the industry to develop their materials, and then we help them find representation. We are very successful with that. And then, obviously there is the film financing lab, where we bring women together for a couple of days to help them find financing for their films and documentaries.

JW: Max Mara has been presenting the WIF Gala for 17 years. How has having such a long-term partnership helped advance the organisation’s causes?

AB: They have been an extraordinary partner, and I think that there are two components to it. Number one being that they have been such an anchor for us, helping us to really develop the programming and the advocacy programme that we are now down the road with.

And the other is I think that they represent so much... the values are so much in alignment with the values and mission statements of WIF. You know, they are an entrepreneurial, family-run, prestige label and they honour women. And the clothing they create for women speaks to that kind of women. So, I think they are very aligned with us in terms of mission as well as resources. We are very grateful [to] them.

ShutterstockAmy Baer, the recently- appointed president at Women in Film.
Amy Baer, the recently- appointed president at Women in Film.

JW: What kind of progress do you think the film industry has made so far in terms of gender parity?

AB: It is definitely changing. Slow and steady. But change is slow, no matter how you affect change politically, socially, and culturally. It tends to be two steps forward and then one step back. I think that you are still dealing with an industry that is run by men. I think those men have become way more conscious, but then again it goes back to how men a do better job at being in proximity to each other. When it comes time to hiring or creating an opportunity or filling an opportunity, men just instinctively look to other men. And I also think that for a long time, there wasn’t a belief that content for women is good business. I think that that has since been dispelled.

JW: So, in your experience, what has changed in Hollywood since? And what hasn’t?

AB: A lot has changed. The fundamental thing that hasn’t changed is that it is not fifty-fifty. We (women) are 51 per cent of the population, we are four per cent of the directors of major releases, we are 16 per cent of the people who have studio production deals, 23 per cent of the people who have television deals. The single biggest issue that hasn’t changed is that there isn’t parity. I think what has changed is that there is consciousness, without which, you cannot make and implement change. I think that strides have been made — you see it across the board.

But it is incremental and we cannot settle with what we have gotten. That is, I think the biggest difference. We have to keep speaking to the importance of parity because it reflects culture and it reflects good business. And it is not just good businesses so that you can make dollars out of movies. It is good business because it helps the economy. Because if you have a woman behind the camera, you can make a living working as a production designer, or a soundman. She can support herself, and that could support the economy. So it is good economics and good business.

JW: What do you think successful women can do for other women to help each other progress?

AB: I think the biggest thing we can do for each other is to talk to each other. I think that the more we share with each other, opportunities, support and encouragement. The more we ask each other [for help], the more we are able to move each other, and all of us as women in the industry, forward. If you are not talking, you feel alone. And the reality is we are going through very similar things as women in the screen industry. That’s why for me, the most important thing I am focusing on this year with the organisation as the centre for community, is to really broaden that community.

Max MaraElizabeth Debicki, the winner of this year's WIF Max Mara Face of the Future Award joins past winners like Chloë Grace Moretz and Zoe Saldana.
Elizabeth Debicki, the winner of this year's WIF Max Mara Face of the Future Award joins past winners like Chloë Grace Moretz and Zoe Saldana.

Kames Narayanan: How do you feel about joining the amazing line-up of Face of the Future awardees before you?

Elizabeth Debicki: It is an honour because when I think of all the women who have received the awards, I have so much respect for them. They are so unique and each of them are powerful, creative beacons in the industry. They all conduct themselves and their careers with so much strength, grace, and dignity. It is really an honour and very affirming.

KN: When you first got the news that you were going to be the winner of this award, do you remember the first thing that came to your mind? 

ED: Well, my publicist called me, and I was really excited. And I immediately started thinking about the Max Mara show. Well, to be honest, I am really such a huge fan and I have never seen a show before and it is always so lovely to come to Milan.

KN: What did you think of the show?

ED: I thought it was a really exquisite show. I have to say that the women just looked so beautiful and really strong on the catwalk. I’ve loved Max Mara for many years since I can remember so, I am biased I guess, but I am already sold. But for me, it was even more beautiful than what I have seen before. It was really elevated.

KN: What is your earliest memory of the brand? 

ED: The first time I bought a coat from Max Mara, I was going to fly to London. It was a really big deal and my sister was with me. We thought about it and tried [it] on. When I eventually bought it, I was actually quite empowered by it. It has since travelled around the world with me on many jobs. Max Mara doesn’t get old. It is a timeless fashion piece.

KN: Speaking of timelessness, what then does being a face of the future mean to you?

ED: I think it is a responsibility for sure. It is a lovely responsibility. I suppose at the moment, around the world, there is very good progress about women taking their places, [making their] voices [heard], and rewriting the wrongs. In my industry, it is about being bold about the choices that you make and the way you are representing women on screen and on stage.

So, to see [people] brave enough to do what needs to be done gives me hope. You know, I take that responsibility seriously and I feel supported to do that by an award like this. It feels like I have a really lovely back up supporting me in going forward and trying to make things work.

KN: As you mentioned, with this award, comes great responsibility. What is the message you hope to send?

ED: I think the message I always want to send out to women is about feeling good in their own skin and recognising how deeply beautiful and unique they are. So much of our strength comes from really getting into contact with who we really are. And that takes courage. We have so much to learn from each other, so I suppose the message I want to give is for every woman to know how important she is and how unique she is, and trust each other while looking forward.

KN: In fashion and entertainment, the objectification of women has always been a topic that people have always talked about. How do you personally navigate instances like these? 

ED: I am very fortunate to work with a beautiful team of people who I count as colleagues and friends. I feel like we collaborate to make sure that I never have to be visible in my job more than I feel comfortable. Because I think that if you feel comfortable in your skin, then you are able to be confident. It is just about working with people who have known me and try to achieve the same goals and the same kind of image.

KN: What are some of the projects you have lined up for you?

ED: I am starting to do more work with a really beautiful organisation that I hugely support. It’s called Women for Women International. It is run by some really amazing women and they have incredible programmes in developing countries, such as the Congo and Kosovo, where they really work to empower women to [strive for] sustainable sources of incomes.

I met one of the women who runs the UK [section], and she is a really extraordinary person. I went to Kosovo for a year and a half previously, and that was pretty eye-opening, to do the work from the ground [up]. It was really inspiring.