Directing Marvels

Women film directors in the United States are carving out a space for themselves, but are yet to receive full recognition for their efforts.

In a popular American sketch comedy show “Portlandia,” Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein are seen hosting “the first ever Men’s Film Festival.” Seated in a small movie theater, the pair addresses an audience of “marginalized” men. “We’re in a crisis, you guys. I’m sure you know that. If you look at any newspaper, blog, television show…what do we hear about? Women in film.”

It is a satire, of course, making fun of any anxieties the prevailing culture may feel about women directors “overshadowing” their male counterparts. But, it also points to a real trend in Hollywood today: Women are emerging as film directors in increasing numbers.

Women directors have been breaking barriers in the U.S. film industry for decades, beginning with Dorothy Arzner, one of the first Hollywood female film directors, whose career spans from the 1920’s into the 1940’s—from the silent era to the talkies.

However, statistics show that despite the tremendous success of women directors and the media coverage they are now receiving, women are still largely underrepresented in the U.S. film industry. Research by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University shows that in 2017, only 11 percent of the highest-grossing 250 films were directed by women. It is a little better with independent films, where women directors took 28 percent of the share in 2016-17.

Also, women directors miss out on receiving acknowledgement for their work. This year’s Golden Globes, for instance, did not have even a single woman director nomination, as highlighted by actor and presenter Natalie Portman’s words, “Here are the all-male nominees,” for the best director award. In general, very few women are nominated for this category in major awards; fewer still win.

“Girl wonders [directors] have been considerably harder to come by, not because there haven’t been or aren’t incredibly talented women of all ages directing critically successful films and making important contributions to filmmaking, but because the mainstream film industry and its environs have been resistant to acknowledge the contributions of women who make films, or have excluded them from the discussion entirely,” says Martha M. Lauzen, author of the San Diego State University research report.

Despite this bleak picture, the success stories of female directors are inspiring. The recent successes range from Kathryn Bigelow’s Academy Award win in 2010 for her film, “The Hurt Locker,” to Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman,” which has made her the highest-paid female director in the history of U.S. films.

“I haven’t seen a lot of progress since when I started,” director Sofia Coppola told USA TODAY in an interview. “But at this moment, it feels like there’s a lot of talk and a shift. I’m really gratified that ‘Wonder Woman’ did so well. It feels like it’s going in a positive direction.”

Many academics are also focusing on the issues related to gender and cinema, especially the representation of women both in front of and behind the camera. One such academic is Dijana Jelača.

Jelača is a professor of film and media at Fordham University in New York. She is also the co-editor of “The Routledge Companion to Cinema and Gender” (2017).

Excerpts from an interview.

Do you see a shift in the U.S. film industry toward the inclusion of more women filmmakers?
I definitely see a shift. While some important milestones have been achieved—such as Patty Jenkins making history with the record-breaking run of “Wonder Woman”—the progress has been slow. Women are still vastly outnumbered by men in terms of directing movies. This is particularly the case when it comes to women of color. But, I am encouraged by the fact that, in recent years, directors such as Ava DuVernay (“Selma,” “A Wrinkle in Time”) and Dee Rees (“Pariah,” “Mudbound”) have come to prominence. A sustained effort to support their work needs to continue in order for long-term change to take root.


Is there a particularly more “feminine” versus “masculine” vision or perspective that is projected onto the screen by female and male directors?
I don’t think so. Which is not to say that female directors don’t bring their own perspective, which is often informed by their lived experiences as women. But it is difficult to generalize regarding decidedly “feminine” versus “masculine” visions and perspectives.

We can use the example of Kathryn Bigelow who, some might say, makes what could traditionally be referred to as “masculine” movies, even when they have women as their central protagonist. Bigelow’s work, therefore, directly challenges the stereotype that women cannot make such movies or that they are not interested in doing so.


Do you foresee more female directors being nominated and winning prestigious awards like the Academy Awards?
I certainly hope so. In this past year, in particular, there’s been a more sustained effort to bring the achievements of female directors to greater prominence through awards and recognitions.


Who are some of the U.S. female directors that you admire and think that they have created a path to follow for other female filmmakers?
I already mentioned Ava DuVernay and Dee Rees who, I think, are making very important, socially-engaged films, and are paving the way for other women of color. Their direct predecessor is, of course, Julie Dash, whose iconic film “Daughters of the Dust” was the first film directed by an African American woman to receive a theatrical run in the U.S. Among other female directors whose work I admire are Sofia Coppola and Kelly Reichardt. Each has developed her own unique style and sensibility that permeate all their films and earn them the title of “female auteurs.”

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It is certainly the case, then, that the inclusion of female film directors is on the rise. This diversity of vision can only be good for an industry where attendance numbers are down and audiences continually express an interest in seeing a greater variety of worlds and worldviews depicted in contemporary Hollywood cinema. Perhaps, we soon won’t need, as “Portlandia” has joked, a special festival “to celebrate the accomplishments of men filmmakers.”


Natasa Milas is a freelance writer based in New York City.