“If you, for instance, have a vagina,” remarked Mark Harris in his Feb. 2011 GQ article, then in the eyes of film studios and their marketing departments, you “are considered a niche audience that ... generally isn’t worth taking the time to figure out.” And evidently, gender aside, once you turn 30, you become “such an exhausting proposition in terms of selling a movie that, well, you might as well have a vagina.” Indeed, according to Harris, this hasty demographic shucking “leaves one quadrant—men under 25—at whom the majority of studio movies are aimed, the thinking being that they’ll eat just about anything that’s put in front of them as long as it’s spiked with the proper set of stimulants.” (Think “Boys With Toys.”)
Harris’s assertion seems not only to confirm every movie buff’s worst fears—that Transformers 12: Even More Explosions is, in fact, the future of cinema—but also to explain why directors who want to tell stories about women may have a hard time getting their feet in Hollywood’s door. “When we first started developing the script and taking it out and pitching, where we actually had access to people in Hollywood, we would constantly get this comment of, ‘Oh, it sounds really great, but you know how hard it is to get a drama with women made,’” says writer-director Jenny Deller, whose debut feature, Future Weather, chronicles a young environmental science enthusiast’s strained relationship with her grandmother after her mother skips town.
Deller isn’t alone. In fact, her experience fits with Smith’s most recent study, “Exploring Barriers and Opportunities for Independent Women Filmmakers.” Commissioned by the Sundance Institute, the report combines data from 2002 to 2012 with qualitative testimonials from 51 female filmmakers and executives about their experiences in the world of independent cinema. (The Athena Film Festival featured a panel discussion on the study with Smith and Sundance Institute Executive Director Keri Putnam, a full recording of which is available on the Athena website.) According to Smith’s findings, 43.1 percent of the interviewees “spontaneously mentioned” bumping up against “gendered financial barriers”—including, specifically, the fact that “female-helmed projects are perceived to lack commercial viability.”
Of course, this exclusion of women from marketing considerations seems fundamentally misguided, even in a purely pragmatic context: According to the Nielsen National Research Group’s 2012 American Moviegoing report, women have constituted almost exactly half of the American film audience for the past three years—51 percent, in fact, in 2012.
Meanwhile, there’s a way in which the “one quadrant” marketing model is equally bleak for the young men it supposedly prizes. Considered little more than an “ADD-addled, short-term-memory-lacking, easily excitable testosterone junkie,” according to Harris, the average teenage boy’s taste for drivel essentially becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. “There are an enormous number of men who do not feel that the kind of role models of the patriarchy are of any value to them—who feel as oppressed by it as anyone else, and their voices also, I think, are underrepresented,” Riker says. “It is limiting, and it’s destructive.”
Riker goes on to describe an experience he had at a special preview screening of The Girl on the Tuesday before it went up at Athena: “At the end, a man, who was probably 60 years old, came up to me. And he said, ‘These women dragged me here, because, you probably know— I mean, you read about this film, as a man, you’re not really going to want to go. But I’m so happy I came to see it, because, you know, I’m a wannabe.’ I think what he meant is, ‘I want to be sensitive. I want to be someone who is interested in the emotional journey of life.’ He asked me to think about how I can speak about the film so men might be interested in going to see it.”
Riker’s story seems to exemplify the ways in which demographic branding can ultimately become predictive— how terms like “chick flick” and the marketing strategies behind them close off not only the production but also the reception of women’s stories, as the feedback loop of gendered film analysis spins us ever further away from the basic truth that one’s taste isn’t encoded in one’s chromosomes.
For one of the more graceful phrasings of this argument I’ve heard, I’ll turn to the Sept. 17, 2009, episode of The Onion’s “Hater Podcast” with Amelie Gillette. In response to Michelle Orange’s Sept. 3, 2009, New York Times piece, “Taking Back the Knife: Girls Gone Gory,” which notes an apparent surge in popularity of scarier fare among the fairer sex, Gillette and her guest, Kelly Shea, wrack their brains as to why women could possibly enjoy horror movies. Do they sympathize with the traditional last-girl-standing? Are they just masochists? Or do they just want to snuggle closer to their dates when scared? Finally Gillette shows her hand: “I think I have this solved for them. Maybe women go see horror movies because they’re people. And people like horror movies.”
Of the myriad data points presented by Smith’s recent Sundance study, there’s one I keep coming back to: that 15.7 percent of the female filmmakers reported “stereotyping on set” as a barrier to their success. As such stereotypes seem to be at the heart of my inquiry, I ask Silverstein what exactly she thinks these 15.7 percent are referring to: “I think they mean ‘sexism,’” she says, matter-of-factly. “People need to think a woman can direct a big budget movie, that she can control a crew. I mean, there’s all this crazy stuff about, like, [how] guys on the set won’t listen to her.”
Indeed, perhaps some of the perceived “lack of commercial viability” Smith reported may stem from this fear that women can’t keep their crew disciplined enough to deliver on time and on budget. “To make a movie, you have to deal with other people’s money and a lot of it,” says comedian and filmmaker Bonnie McFarlane, director of Women Aren’t Funny, a documentary that examines that age-old entertainment stereotype. “People have to be aggressive—like, ‘I’m going to do this, I’m confident.’ And I think for women, once you are that person, people are a little scared of you. You can’t win either way. If you’re as confident and ballsy as a guy, you’re crazy, but if you’re not as confident and ballsy as a guy, they can’t trust you with doing the job.” It’s a classic female catch-22, of course: damned if you do, resigned to a Victorian fainting couch if you don’t.
“I definitely experienced what I thought was discrimination based on being a woman—but nothing that ever stopped me,” Deller says. “The film set is a culture that has been predominantly male for so long, guys can get used to that. Then, when a woman comes along, I think it can be a little—not so much threatening as different.”
“We’re still fighting for equal pay and equal opportunity,” Meyerson points out, speaking of women in every industry. “It’s certainly better than it’s ever been, but I think we have to prove ourselves maybe a little bit more.”
McFarlane picks up on another subtle indicator that we may not be able to tack a “post-” onto our feminism just yet. “I find it interesting that people are allowed to say ‘women aren’t funny,’” she reflects on the title of her film. “People have no problem saying it to my face. People are allowed to say, ‘Oh, here’s a woman trying to do a guy’s thing.’ But they wouldn’t say that about race. Shit would hit the fan.”
She’s right, I think, and I tell her so. I add that I think this is because—at least when it comes to what people will say out loud—essentialist, biological definitions of race have, mostly, gone the way of phrenology. Today, if you publicly claim that certain behaviors are hard-wired according to race, you’ll get called out on it—and rightly so. However, essentialist definitions of gender seem to persist, at least subtly, even in the most liberal of minds, without being tagged as fundamentally sexist. Notions of a “maternal instinct,” a “woman’s intuition”—the lurking, latent sense that, though it’s all well and good that modern convenience has allowed women to develop careers outside the home, were we to strip life down to base animal necessity, the female’s place is, fundamentally, to nurture. It’s encoded in her DNA. Prescribed to her by evolution. Sugar and spice, stretching back to the dawn of time.