As a recently decided film major midway through the fall of my sophomore year, I was sitting in the back of 511 Dodge Hall at Columbia University, idly doodling in the minutes before my Script Analysis class, when our professor cut through the ambient murmur with an announcement. He wanted to apologize, he said, for an unfairness he now perceived in his choice of films to screen. To us women specifically, he wanted to explain that, “as a heterosexual male,” he was naturally drawn toward Westerns and action films—what he called “Boys With Toys”—leaving out romantic comedies and, with them, he seemed to think, his female students. And he wanted to apologize for that. To me—the girl who was writing her final project on Quentin Tarantino.
A few weeks later, I was sitting in the same auditorium, this time for an elective on American Independent Cinema. That day, we were to examine the “Cinema of Women”—specifically, how female filmmakers had turned to independent modes of production as an alternative to male- dominated Hollywood. And, as an example of this phenomenon, our professor had chosen to screen Allison Anders’ Gas, Food, Lodging. For those who haven’t had the pleasure, the film begins with its young female protagonist proclaiming, in jubilant voiceover, “I knew what was missing from my life: a man!”—a sentiment that proceeds to echo throughout. When the lights came up and a few of us mumbled that the film didn’t seem particularly feminist, our professor countered by insisting that he had never meant to call Anders’ movie “feminist,” just “feminine”—that is, replete with a “feminine sensibility.” We had just watched a woman’s work unfold before us, a film that clearly had a concrete set of qualities different from a male-directed picture, and could we list them, please?
My intention in recounting these stories is not to smear these professors—not in the least. Looking back, I can see how, on some level, it was responsible for the first professor to acknowledge the ways in which his personal taste may have biased his screening choices, and the second was ultimately doing some real good by pointing out women as a minority group in Hollywood. Still, these anecdotes have stuck with me, if only because, in all my study of film, I’ve been unable to shake their common misconception—that is: “BOYS, GUNS; GIRLS, FEELINGS.” By applying gender stereotypes to cinema, my professors essentially put forth that “women’s film”—whether “made for,” “made about,” or “made by,” and especially if all three—was a fundamentally frilly affair, fit for emotional dramas and sappy scoring and arguments over who used the last tampon. (Note: This is an actual scene in Gas, Food, Lodging.)
Something in my gut tells me, as a female filmgoer and aspiring filmmaker, that this isn’t right. It’s the same something that twinges when I read studies like Martha M. Lauzen’s recently released “The Celluloid Ceiling,” which examines “behind the scenes employment of women on the top 250 films of 2012,” only to find that their participation in major creative positions comprised a measly 18 percent—directors, 5 percent. It’s the same something that gets piqued at news of the third annual Athena Film Festival, which took place at Barnard this past weekend—a four-day series of “feature films, documentaries and shorts that highlight women’s leadership in real life and the fictional world,” according to its website. And it’s the same something that ultimately leaves me asking: Just what constitutes a “woman’s film,” anyhow? And why is it that, even today, it’s still so hard to get them made?
On-Screen and In Real Life
If you’d like a snapshot of women’s on-screen presence in narrative film, I suggest you click over to BechdelTest.com. There, you’ll find the now infamous tripartite standard put forward by Alison Bechdel’s 1985 comic strip, “Dykes to Watch Out For”: Are there 1) more than two named women who 2) talk to each other about 3) something other than a man? This test is applied in detail to a list of almost 3,500 films, spanning from 1900 to today. Even a quick glimpse at the site’s stats page is sobering: Though it’s true that a majority of the films profiled pass all three tests, that majority is impressively slim. A whopping 46.08 percent fail to present female characters who meet these simple, humanizing criteria—including an alarming number of my favorites. Forget Tarantino, I’m talking The Princess Bride, Clerks, Trainspotting, Newsies, Groundhog Day, The Dark Knight, Citizen Kane.
If you’re interested in a more concentrated, current data set, you could also check out the research conducted by Stacy L. Smith of USC Annenberg. For example, in 2011, along with Marc Choueiti and Stephanie Gall, Smith found that, in the highest-grossing films of 2007, 2008, and 2009, “women represented only one-third of speaking characters”—29.9 percent, 32.8 percent, and 32.8 percent, respectively—and moreover, “only about one in six (16.8%) films depicted ‘gender balance’ (women in 45 to 54.9% of speaking roles).”
According to Melissa Silverstein, founder of the blog Women and Hollywood and co-founder of the Athena Film Festival, this dearth of fully realized females on-screen was part of what inspired her and co-founder Kathryn Kolbert to create the festival in the first place. While at an event to celebrate director Jane Campion, “she [Kathryn] and I had this conversation, based on the fact that a lot of the women at the event felt that they couldn’t get movies made that had strong female protagonists. After that, we just put our heads together and this is what we came up with.” Of course, Silverstein’s explanation of Athena’s origin also indicates the other side of its mission: to foster a strong female presence behind the camera, as well as in front of it. These two separate but parallel goals dovetail in the festival’s overall commitment to showcasing “women’s leadership.”
Despite Nemo’s inclement backdrop, the third annual installment of Silverstein and Kolbert’s brainchild went ahead as planned this past weekend. From Thursday, Feb. 7, to Sunday, Feb. 10, Barnard’s campus was host to a total of 21 feature-length films, 15 shorts, and six works in progress, in a mix of documentaries and narrative films—as well as director Q&As, panels, workshops for young filmmakers, and an award ceremony honoring, among others, accomplished producer Gale Anne Hurd. This year’s program featured an array of subjects, styles, and even languages—including Granny’s Got Game, a documentary about a North Carolina women’s basketball team for senior citizens; Hannah Arendt, a German biopic about the woman who introduced us to the “banality of evil”; Brave Miss World, a documentary about a former Miss World who, after experiencing sexual assault, took it upon herself to empower survivors across the globe; and Brave, last year’s Disney-Pixar release about a canny Scottish princess-cum-master archer.
Though Athena certainly foregrounds women’s accomplishments, that doesn’t mean it’s an all-woman affair; the diversity of its content extends behind the camera as well, implicitly busting the myth that it takes a woman to craft an empowering female narrative. For example, writer-director David Riker describes his film, The Girl, which focuses on the plight of a young mother helping illegal immigrants across the Texas border, as “the story of a woman’s journey towards a new sense of self-awareness and strength.” He adds, “I can’t think of a better place to have this preview screening before it opens. I love that it’s playing at a festival that is highlighting the lives and the struggles of women.”
For some, inclusion in Athena constitutes an even bigger ideological coup. “The LGBT film festivals always pick us up, but we love that this is a woman’s film festival that is about women and empowering women,” says Andrea Meyerson, director of I Stand Corrected, a documentary about acclaimed jazz bassist Jennifer Leitham. “I made a film about an extraordinary musician who happens to be transgender, not a film about a transgender person who happens to be a musician. And there’s a really big difference there.”
Festivals like Athena offer the opportunity for this kind of discourse away from the competitive Hollywood grind. “It’s not so much about opening weekend at the box office; it’s not about getting the next gig,” says Silverstein. “It’s really about trying to have a larger cultural conversation.” This mission resonates with the ever-expanding International Women’s Film Festival Network—including, for example, “You Cannot be Serious: A Discussion of the Status of Women Directors,” a panel that will take place in Berlin on Feb. 15 as part of the Berlin Film Festival. “Our objective for this meeting is to really plant the flag and let them know this is something we’re going to be paying attention to from now on,” says Silverstein. “This is a battle for gender equity. It is a feminist conversation.”
Carving out the space for dialogue is key—if only because so often, and especially in the film business, it’s money that does the talking.