The essay presents three snapshots revolving around the issues of gender in film. These frames are not enough to make a moving image, they are only juxtapositions. Besides not being comprehensive, it does not deal with wider issues of diversity like race, class, age or sexual orientation.
The Age of Guy-Blaché
Women were not only on the screen from the earliest years of film but also shaped cinema from behind the scenes. Similar to the beginning of other modern art forms, film had three decades of fluidity and experimentation, which not only meant variability in form but also in gender.
The first film by a female director was Alice Guy-Blaché’s The Fairy of the Cabbages in 1896 which was also one of the earliest narrative films. Guy-Blaché went on to direct or supervise nearly 700 silent films (including 22 features) before 1920 and formed her own production company in the USA. In her memoirs she wrote: “I have often been asked why I chose so unfeminine a career.” Another name to note among the many is Lois Weber’s. Besides being one of the highest paid directors of the time, she was also a pioneer of film language (especially split screen storytelling) and she was the first woman to direct a feature film in 1914. Many of her 135 films focused on social issues controversial at the time.
Screenwriting was also a field open to women: around half of all silent film scenarios were written by female writers. One well known writer was Frances Marion who wrote over 300 hundred scripts, won two Oscars, and even wrote a book on her craft. About the tasks and the extent of creative control screenwriters had at the time, she said in 1919: “Stories, working scenarios ready for the director to proceed, tarrying with him through every scene as it is filmed; editing and cutting the complete product and title-writing every bit of it.”
For a few years these jobs were not gender-typed but later they were implicitly labelled for men and women. One of the fields deemed feminine was that of the editor. Margaret Booth, evolving from joiner (aka patcher) to negative cutter for D.W. Griffith, and later cutter, was one of the first to be credited with the modern term film editor. From the late 1920s, she became supervising film editor at MGM, overseeing final versions of all the studio’s films until 1968. Genderising jobs already had an excluding effect: for example camera was a masculine area with prejudices against the skills of women. Though there were a few female “crank turners”, most of them could only devote time for this craft while being an actress most of the time.
In 1923, women were present in 29 jobs of the industry – not counting the actress. Parallel to the development of the corporate structure of the studio system, the numbers of women thinned out by 1925, because “professionalization is implicitly masculinization”.
The Age of China Girls
Before the early ‘90s, glamorous looking women appeared on the same film reels as the biggest stars – yet audiences never saw them. Anonymously, they fade into obscurity with decaying film stocks.
China Girls or Leader Ladies are photos of women taken by lab technicians – mostly men –, inserted into the beginning of film reel leaders, used as standards for consistent colors and tones. These few frames of quality control contain a color bar besides the girl whose complexion served as a flesh tone reference. With an implicit male point of view, a male gaze, the photos often show women lit and presented to reflect the glamour of stars – in reality, most of them were workers of the film studio.
Shoes by Lois Weber (Credit: Film Forum)
After inserting them into the master print, lab workers sent the copies to cinemas worldwide. Then the projectionists, who also happened to be male usually, used the frames to see where the actual movie begins. Completing a circle of voyeurous camaraderie between men, often they were cut out and ended up in collections or being used as pinup girls. Still, less experienced projectionists have also screened that part of the film and the audiences got to see something that was not meant for them. Even though probably perceived only subconsciously, the moviegoers saw flashes of these women – on the margins of film, used for establishing the looks of others, unknown, but with the whole film depending on them.
In the words of former projectionist Jean Bourbonnais: “The voiceless workers of a proto sex-industry, entertaining mostly male lab technicians over the course of the working hours, similar to the pin-ups or sexy girl calendars found in most car repair shops or other blue collar male-dominated fields of work, China Girls are there to brighten up a gloomy day.”
The Age of Harvey Weinstein
Today, the gender gap in the industry is acknowledged by many. Since October, even a larger momentum of change can be felt. Still, it is worth taking a look at the numbers – to know, to remember.
Out of the top grossing 250 American films of 2017, 11% had women as directors (an increase from the 7% in 2016 but the same as it was in 2000), 11% had women as screenwriters, 25% as producers, 16% as editors. 4% of the films employed camerawomen (same as in 1998), and 3% had music composed by women.
Between 1994 and 2013, the top 2,000 American movies employed women in the following numbers: directors (5% of the films), screenwriters (10.9%), producers (9.7%), editors (13.7%), composers (2.3%), cinematographers (1,8%). 78.6% of the films had female casting directors and 77.5% had female costume designers. 57.2% of the people in the makeup departments of the films were women.
Independent films shown at major US festivals in 2016–17 were in 29% directed by women (an increase of 7% from 2008–09), in 26% written by women (again, increased by 7%), in 32% produced by (almost the same since 2008), in 22% edited by, in 11% shot by, and in 9% they had music composed by women.
Attenberg by Athina Rachel Tsangari
An assessment of films made in seven European countries between 2006–2013 shows that in average 21% had a female director and 84% of the funds went into films with a male director. Films made in the UK in the 2005-2014 period had female directors (14%), screenwriters (14,6%), producers (25,7%), editors (14,4%), cinematographers (6,2%), composers (6%), casting directors (66,7%), costume directors (78,8%). More than 80% of the people working in the departments of makeup and costume were female.
Looking at the programme of the Berlinale from 1980 to 2016, out of 9,947 films 2,276 (22,88%) had a female director – there was a noticeable increase between the periods 1980-2001 (19,53%) and 2002–2016 (27,38%). Short films shown at 10 major festivals including Cannes and the Berlinale between 2010–14, had female directors in 32%. Over 4 years, the only increase was in the animation genre.
Women seem to be banished not only from most crew positions (except those thought of as “feminine”) but from creating narrative films in general: they have much better chances in directing documentaries. Even when they make narrative movies, they are welcome mostly in the genres of musical, romance, and drama. But for some reason, it seems women are still silent: out of 450 films from the 2010s, more than two thirds had men speaking 60% or more of the dialogue.
All in all, the number of women in key roles have been basically the same since 1998. And if we would still think of this as some kind of progress: why do women today have less presence and freedom in film than a 100 years ago?
The phenomenon is not exclusive to film. But as people have more access to knowledge, technology and distribution than ever, wouldn’t it be a positive step to have more female voices in cinema? There are many arguments for having a more diverse industry but maybe we should turn the question around and ask ourselves: why wouldn’t we want a more diverse cinema?
Read more in the World of Young Cinema – The Berlinale 2018 Issue