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Counting the Women

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by Melissa Silverstein
June 21, 2013 2:00 PM
7 Comments
  • |

Last Friday, NPR writer Linda Holmes duly infuriated the masses by actually going out and counting the movies about women and the movies directed by women that were playing in her neighborhood.  Linda lives in a Washington DC, a city, with lots of movie choices and still the reality was stark.  

561 or 90% were stories about men.  

31 are pairings/couples or ensembles of men and women

25 are showings of movies about women or girls

1 was directed by a woman

Keep in mind these are not the numbers of movies, these are the amount of screenings you could go to on that given day.

She also points out that "there are nearly six times as many showings of Man Of Steel alone as there are of all the films about women put together."

Fucking depressing.

I finally got to see The East.  Walking out my friend and I were commenting about how refreshing it was to see  a smart and interesting film where the main protagonist was a woman.  And there was also other several great parts for women.  This was shocking to us BECAUSE WE NEVER SEE THAT.   These movies don't exist and that is beyond upsetting.  Here was an ambitious female character who thought she knew exactly what she was doing with her life and it turned out that she really wasn't sure of anything.  It is no surprise that the film was co-written by a woman -- Brit Marling -- who plays the main lead.  She's consistently writing parts for herself as other women are doing now too.

But Linda's experiment has stayed with me all week and I would love take it to the next level.  We should all count.  I think we should all look at what is playing in our neighborhoods this weekend and see how many women there are.  Pick a day and count.  Having these numbers is empowering as well as depressing.  It makes us realize we are not alone in thinking that women are missing, cause guess what, they are.

As Linda said:

I want to stress this again: In many, many parts of the country right now, if you want to go to see a movie in the theater and see a current movie about a woman - any story about any woman that isn't a documentary or a cartoon - you can't. You cannot. There are not any. You cannot take yourself to one, take your friend to one, take your daughter to one.

There are not any.

It is time we all noticed and called this what it is: a cultural crisis.

At the Movies, The Women Are Gone (NPR)

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7 Comments

  • Kate Kaminski | July 3, 2013 12:01 PMReply

    I'm compiling anecdotal data on how screenwriters (as well as writers in general) choose the gender of their protagonists, which is unsurprisingly overwhelmingly male. What is most disheartening , however, is not that the automatic default choice for men is a male protagonist but, in fact, that so many women writers choose to write men. Just a sampling of what some of these writers say:

    "I prefer writing male characters because I find most female characters these days insufferable."
    [and in reply, another wrote]: "I feel that way, too, even though it makes me feel guilty. I'm a female, I shouldn't propagate the whole bias against female protags that media has, but I don't feel as if I should have to write female characters just because I'm female either."

    And...

    "I am another female who tends to write male protags. Maybe it's more comfortable for me because I feel a lot of pressure writing females for some reason. (Yeah, I know it's stupid, but I can't really help feeling that way.) Also, it might have a little to do with the fact that I am attracted to males."

    This is just a tiny sampling of what I'm "hearing" from women (and men) who post to discussions about the issue of gender in choosing protagonists. I don't fault these women--as a screenwriter, I have written as many male protagonists as female. And I don't want women writers to feel limited in their choice of protagonist. However, what disturbs me is that it's possible that these writers--of either gender--can't see the potential of a female protagonist simply because female protagonists have slowly...almost irrevocably...disappeared from the screen.

    If you go digging--in cinema or literature--you can certainly find contemporary examples of truly dimensional female characters in both media, but you have to be willing to dig deeply. (I'm also in the midst of compiling a completely subjective list of films that feature complex female protagonists from 1960 to the present--the current count is at 74. The first is Holly Golightly, the latest is Frances Ha.)

    For me, it always comes down to this very limited--and limiting--idea that women characters only come in a few flavors/colors/stripes. One male writer posted rather astutely that "There's this idea that guys don't want to see a movie w/a female protagonist, but it's more that people think guys don't want to *identify* w/a female protagonist." Apparently, identification with female protagonists--the all important "relatability" factor--is difficult for both men and women writers. It seems to me this is due, at least in part, to this limited view of the potential of female characters to drive a story.

    Story drivers continue to be seen almost solely in terms of action (meaning, can she shoot a gun, take down a man with a karate chop, etc.)--see "Hunger Games" and "The Heat." This is where the money is, according to...well, everyone. And thus women are still relegated to narrowly defined options in terms of their viability as protagonists.

    But...if/when female characters are allowed to express the full range of HUMAN attributes (as their male counterparts are --not just those narrow gender attributes assigned us, or those patently male attributes grafted onto us--then writers may begin to see that either/or is a viable option and not simply "default" to a male protagonist. It's quite possible too that the money would follow...

    Needless to say, I don't want women to be "gone" from movies and I certainly would like to see more films being written and produced in which the protagonist is female and written in all 3 dimensions. That's a movie I want to see.

  • Jen | June 23, 2013 7:48 AMReply

    I've just discovered your blog (where have I been...?!) and this is fascinating, and perfectly timed with an essay I'm putting together about gender inequality on screen and behind the camera. As Lynn Reed says (above) I have been more and more dissatisfied about going to the movies... a past time that I once adored. And it's because of the blatant misrepresentation of ladies on screen, or the sheer invisibility of them.

    I just tallied up the films showing in my home town (I'm in Australia) and shock! horror! there is one film with female leads - The Heat (which I think I'll go and see :) And that is from a selection of 18 films. And we are not in the midst of school holidays, or summer... so there you have it. A fine selection of one.

    I also checked the 'Gold Class' screenings (the extra special experience with the recliner chairs and seating for around 10 people) and of the five films, The Heat was also in there. I was a tad surprised by that. However, before we get all excited, it is only screen once this week; the other four films (Fast & Furious 6; Man of Steel; Great Gatsby; Hangover Pt 3) are each screening between 6 and 11 times this week. Again, a fine selection of one screening.

  • Melissa Silverstein | June 24, 2013 12:36 PM

    Glad you found us. Welcome.

  • Lynn Reed | June 22, 2013 7:24 PMReply

    Thanks for writing about Linda's article (and for all you do here on your blog). Her screen count stats have stuck with me as well.

    I became a writer because I realized Hollywood was no longer making films for me and my friends. I used to watch movies all the time -- used to look forward to seeing new films, but now the things I want to see are so few and far between I get out of the habit. And I don't live in New York or LA so I have the same multiplex problem Linda writer about.

    Shameless self-promotion moment -- I'm working with a group of friends to produce an indie film from a script I wrote -- female protagonist, lots of great roles for women, female director coming on board very soon.

    Can one small indie make a difference? I don't know. But I know I have to do what I can to bring more women's stories to the screen. I'll need the support of lots of good folks who care about these numbers.

    Thanks for fighting the good fight.

  • zbudapest | June 22, 2013 12:03 AMReply

    Males simply think that they represent all of humanity. Not so. They act out in movies and in life all it is "sperm wars" A cellular scenario. . Sperm attack each other after arriving in the vagina and kill millions of other sperms. No reason. . Blocker sperms encircle the sperms still moving until their tail falls off. Only 1 percent is interested going for the egg. These are the egg getters. Then they go through all kinds of challenges to get to the egg. Once there they have arrived in the "waiting room" around the egg, which decides to let them in or not. If the immune system of the sperm is diverse enough from the eggs ,the egg removes cells underneath the waiting sperm and let him penetrate. Most often they die waiting and no conception occurs.
    Male movies are all about this 'conflict" the hunt, the anger, the killings ,the explosions and the death . Big booms, big struggle, nobody wins. Tons of money is spent on the same old themes.
    Cellular is not good enough cultural, and it didn't give space for the females ,because in the end we choose. Thats to hard to accept.

  • Star | June 25, 2013 8:22 AM

    Apparently mental hospitals allow internet access to their patients.

  • Beth | June 21, 2013 4:57 PMReply

    There are literally no showings of women-led or directed films where I am. None. None today. None for the whole of next week.

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