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The following article attempts to narrowly steer between the rock of being inadvertently patronising and the hard place of accidental offensiveness. But bear with me and hopefully – unlike Aron Ralston – we’ll make it through in one piece.
The issue at stake is that female representation (or lack of) is still a major problem, with the patriarchal roots of Hollywood proving no exception. I won’t go into detail regarding the Bechdel Test (fortunately Mark Kermode’s timely blog has…) but it’s true that an alarming amount of films fail it. It’s not infallible and I have my own issues with it, but as an immediate cultural indicator it’s an important tool. Whilst women have wrestled a degree of opportunity through status, awards and critical acclaim (if not in income), nothing but complete equality is sufficient.
Let’s start with the good news. As far as actresses go, there were plenty of XX success stories last year and, notably, these covered a range of ages too. Maggie Smith, for instance, has enjoyed a couple of hefty roles post-Harry Potter, including Downton Abbey and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Anna Kendrick too continues her ascension to stardom – from Up in the Air to 50/50 followed by last year’s teen-sensation Pitch Perfect – whilst Anne Hathaway “did a Ledger” by taking on an unfancied role in Nolan’s Batman and turning the critical trepidation on its head (oh, and also won an Academy Award on the side for Les Mis). Meanwhile Chloe Moretz, Saoirse Ronan and Hailee Steinfeld – to name just three despite the myriad of others – are indicative of the bright future ahead.
But what about a lack of protagonists? Two of the male filmmakers doing the most to redress the balance in the past few decades were gay duo John Waters and Pedro Almodovar. Waters made a counterculture star out of Divine whilst Almodovar has also been lauded for centring films around female issues (most notably All About My Mother). Recently we’ve also seen ensemble casts made up predominantly of girls in comparable summer-heist-satires Spring Breakers and The Bling Ring (more of which momentarily). Animated studios, too, such as Pixar and Studio Ghibli are thankfully always pushing boundaries. Brave – despite its lukewarm reception – is Pixar’s most feminist film to date whereas Ghibli’s biggest films, including My Neighbour Totoro, Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, all have female child protagonists, a reassuring situation given their target audience.
But perhaps the best way of giving women a voice, instead of being limited to male suppositions, happens off-screen. This lack of female direction is the crux of it all. Both Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring and Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell have been in independent cinemas around the country recently, a real rarity but a positive sign. This warrants recognition for the female directors out there, and so here are brief introductions to five women who are changing the rules of the game as it’s played:
– Sarah Polley – Away From Her, Take This Waltz, Stories We Tell
An incredible talent, the filmmaker (and actress) – at just 34 – has already given us two fine fiction films and a provoking documentary. Her debut Away From Her remains her solitary masterpiece to date.
– Sofia Coppola – The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation, The Bling Ring
Well and truly out of the shadows of father Francis Ford, Coppola’s made several films with a synchronised sense of detachment and allure, including love-hate modern great Lost in Translation.
– Lynne Ramsay – Morvern Callar, We Need to Talk About Kevin
For as slow and frustrating Morvern Callar was, We Need To Talk About Kevin is every bit as deliberate and menacing. It’s spectacularly directed and a great adaptation.
– Kathryn Bigelow – The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty
Bigelow certainly makes the most traditionally “macho” films of the bunch with a clinical look at the events of war. Also made history by becoming the first female to win Best Director at the 82nd(!) Academy Awards with the former film.
– Kimberley Peirce – Boys Don’t Cry, Carrie*
Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry is equally devastating as Away from Her or We Need To Talk About Kevin. She’ll follow it up [properly] with the Carrie remake later this year featuring Chloe Moretz and Julianne Moore.
And so there it is – five women and yet only twenty or so films released between them over the years. Admittedly this isn’t a comprehensive list (Fish Tank‘s Andrea Arnalds the highest-profile omission), nor is it representative. It focuses on white, western women, but it identifies a problem which remains undoubtedly widespread. If you want to find a female auteur, this is about as close as you’ll get. In the male world of Hollywood, there are countless figures to have made dozens of films. So where are the rest of the success stories? Thankfully Jane Goldman is no longer thought of as “Jonathan Ross’s wife” but instead is known in her own right for being the brilliant co-writer of Stardust, Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class. Lana Wachowski – co-creator of The Matrix, co-director of Cloud Atlas and co-writer of V for Vendetta – is a rare example of a transgender icon in film. And Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right was a hit, though it took her years to get there. Essentially, these guys are few and far between.
And yet it’s not for a lack of moneymaking talent either. The likes of Anne Fletcher (27 Dresses, Step Up), Catherine Hardwicke (Twilight) and Nancy Meyers (The Parent Trap, What Women Want, The Holiday) have found commercial – if not critical – success, grossing staggering amounts. So if these guys are just as good at making studios filthy rich whilst the likes of Sarah Polley can make arty films that are as daring and subtle as anything else out there, then why not support these directors? There’s been talk recently of how audiences need to see Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim in order to be given future opportunities. But this, relatively speaking, is nonsense. Del Toro isn’t in trouble: women are. Peirce made just one film in the 15 years between Boys Don’t Cry and Carrie, let alone anything that cost tens or hundreds of millions.
So support directors that really deserve and need it. Only then will we finally begin to solve the rather straightforward yet lingering problems presented by the Bechdel Test.
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