It’s Time To Smash Through The Celluloid Ceiling: 2017 was a disheartening year for women in film, but does 2018 offer a glimmer of hope?

“As long as women make up only 20 percent of Congress, as long as senior movie studio execs are 93 percent male, and only four percent of studio films are directed by women; as long as the President of the United States, the VP, the Speaker of the House, the President Pro Tem, the Secretaries of State, of the Treasury, of Defense, are all men—you have to go seven layers down to find a woman, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, on the succession plan—then I’d say, Yes, we need ‘women’s media.’ We need as many ‘women in’ gatherings that we can dream up.”

Ava DuVernay, 22nd Annual ELLE Women in Hollywood Awards


Last year served as a stark reminder that the foundations of Hollywood are rotting. The abuse of women in the industry has always been the elephant in the room, whether it be the pay disparity highlighted yearly by actresses or the disgusting stories of sexual assault and intimidation which have been dripping out daily. If Hollywood is rotting, Harvey Weinstein represents the maggot. Over 30 women have now come forward with accusations of sexual assault, intimidation and rape against a guy who was once the most powerful man in Hollywood. Somehow, in a career spanning nearly 50 years, this went unnoticed, or more than likely ignored (here’s looking at you, Quentin). But as we all know, he is not the only man to have been accused. Oscar winners Dustin Hoffman and Casey Affleck, James Franco, Jeffrey Tambor, Louis C.K. and Pixar president John Lasseter have all got allegations to their names.


Unfortunately, this isn’t anything new. You can go back as far as 96 years ago when ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, one of the biggest silent film stars of the era, sexually assaulted and consequently killed 26-year-old actress Virginia Rappe. Child actress Shirley Temple, whose talent and success at a young age meant she was once accused of being a 30-year dwarf, was sexually assaulted at the age of 11. Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe and Joan Collins all endured endless ‘casting couch’ assaults. The elephant isn’t just in the room, it’s gathered dust over the decades, and now Donald Trump is riding it. However, with every awful story that comes out of Hollywood, the message is now clear – women will no longer be ignored.


Be that as it may, this is not the only challenge that women in film face. For 20 years Martha M. Lauzen, director of The Center for The Study of Women in Television and Film, has studied women’s roles in the industry. Her annual paper The Celluloid Ceiling documents the numbers and percentages of behind the scenes employment of women on the top 100, 250, and 500 films of the year. It is one of the most important and revealing documents of research on cinema, and one that does not get the spotlight it so thoroughly deserves. But before I delve into her findings, I think it is important to recognise some of the more positive steps made in the industry last year.


Image result for wonder woman

The number three box office film of last year, Wonder Woman, is probably one of the more important cultural touch points of recent times. For years Hollywood could not figure out how to transfer the empowering comic book figure to the screen. Since 1996, male directors Ivan Reitman and Joss Whedon had at one point been attached to the project, and George Miller and Paul Feig both wanted the chance. Thankfully the job landed with Patty Jenkins to direct Gal Gadot in the titular role. Jenkins, who directed Charlize Theron to an Oscar with her debut feature Monster in 2004, was labelled as a ‘gamble’ by The Hollywood Reporter. Yet somehow Rian Johnson, a man whose first two films earned under 20% of the box office that Monster did, landed the role of directing Star Wars: The Last Jedi, a decision met with exaltation by Hollywood. Double standards – yet another hurdle for women in film.


The superhero genre is a landscape where, more often than not, the woman’s role is to be submissive to the powers of the male hero, and ultimately fall for them romantically or be saved by their wondrous powers. Here, however, was Gal Gadot leading a film which fights against many of the stereotyped sexist tropes that its very own genre had encouraged. It’s no surprise that cinematic comic powerhouse Marvel Studios are pushing along a Captain Marvel movie starring Oscar winner Brie Larson, and are in advanced talks to finally give Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow the standalone film she so thoroughly deserves. The frustrating conclusion is that it needed evidence to do so. The power of Wonder Woman also led to a shattering of the fourth wall. Brett Ratner, the sleazy Hollywood director of Rush Hour fame, a producer on Wonder Woman, has been accused of numerous accounts of sexual assault. As a consequence, rumours started to surface that star Gal Gadot refused to sign onto the sequel unless he was removed from his role. Whilst she may have said in subsequent interviews that this was not true, soon after these rumours, he was removed. I only wish her lasso of truth had played a part in the removal.


Wonder Woman would only be the second female-led superhero movie, since the noughties boom of the genre, to go into production (2005’s Elektra being the other). According to Boxofficemojo, It went onto become the third highest grossing film of 2017, the 22nd highest grossing film of all time domestically, 67th highest globally and has gone onto be the 6th highest grossing superhero film of all time. In an industry and genre dominated by men, this is no mean feat, but its success should come as no surprise. The only surprise was the lack of Oscar nominations.  


Image result for ava duvernay

Last year was also the year where Ava DuVernay (of Selma fame) completed filming on the Disney produced A Wrinkle in Time. Off the back of her imperative Netflix documentary The 13th, DuVernay, who prior to signing onto the film turned down the chance to direct Black Panther, has become the first woman of colour to be given a +$100 million budget and only the second woman behind, you guessed it, Patty Jenkins for Wonder Woman. The film starring 2020 presidential candidate Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon and relative newcomer Storm Reid in the lead role will most likely be one of the biggest films of 2018. Proving once again that Hollywood’s sexist trepidation is archaic.


We also recently saw Greta Gerwig receive the plaudits and potentially much-deserved accolades for her semi-autobiographical film Lady Bird. Having been an actress in over 40 productions, Gerwig has achieved so much success in her 34 years of life yet is often labelled as an ‘indie darling’ or referred to as the ‘queen of mumblecore’. Both are characterisations that somewhat undermine her success, putting her in a box in which she can be defined, assessed within the walls and regulated. Alongside her 40 acting credits, she has produced three films, and written on five, including critically lauded films such as Frances Ha! and Mistress America. With Lady Bird, a film she both wrote and directed, Gerwig has become only the fifth woman ever nominated for best director. The fifth woman in 90 years of awards. To reduce the numbers even further (I apologise for inducing a depression), if she wins she will become only the second woman to have ever won the award.


The last few years have also seen a rise in female directors producing stellar and critically acclaimed work in horror. Recent films such as Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook and Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night are two superb examples of this. But last year also saw one of the best modern horror films of recent years released – Raw. From first-time film director Julia Ducournau, Raw is an unsettling tale of cannibalism in a veterinary school. A film released to the overblown storylines of people fainting at festival screenings and the like, the film is evidently not for the faint-hearted. At times funny, and at times gross, Raw does not hold back and nor should it. Horror has often been a genre where the woman’s role is to be violated and often murdered in increasingly sadistic ways. Here, Ducournau wants to prove the point that in the same way men get pleasure out of horror films, women can and should experience this too. When speaking to Rolling Stone Magazine she told an anecdote that illustrated her point brilliantly:


“A young guy in a festival audience told me that it was nice to have women in the genre because it brought some ‘softness’. Softness? Have you seen my movie? When you make horror, it’s the expression of a form of violence that you feel inside of you – and it’s important we recognize that women feel violence and anger as well.”


Image result for lynne ramsay

So now in 2018, where do women stand? Going back to The Celluloid Ceiling makes for some disheartening reading. Last year, women comprised 18% of all directors, writers, producers, editors and cinematographers working on the top 250 domestic (American box office) films. Whilst this is an increase of 1% on 2016, this increase means we are unchanged from the year 1998. So 20 years on, and very little has changed in the industry as a whole. I’ll delve even deeper. Last year, only 1% of these films hired ten or more women in those roles. To put that number into perspective, 70% of the films hired ten or more men. And even deeper. In 2017, 30% of these films employed 0-1 women in those roles, whilst 0% hired 0-1 men in those roles, meaning that out of 250 films there were at least two men hired, whereas in 75 films a woman may not have even been on the production.


Most worrying is that 83% of the films had no women writers on, and there was a 2% decline from 2016 to 11% of female writers working on the top 250 films. This makes it difficult to tell female stories on the screen, and even more dangerously leaves the role of writing female parts nearly solely to men. Don’t get me wrong, some men can write great female roles (see: Fargo, Alien), but the disparity is incredibly discouraging and it is no wonder that the female audience struggles to truly see their representation on screen. How many times do you roll your eyes at the woman’s role in a sex scene? Their role in a horror film? There are numerous examples, and Laura Mulvey’s brilliant essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ otherwise known as ‘The Male Gaze’ will continue to be fact until we see an increase in female writers.


When Lauzen expands her research to the top 500 films, you can see the disparity widen in terms of genre. The genre that most represents women behind the scenes are documentaries with 30%, but in comparison, the action genre is at 13% and horror is at 18%. Working with facts seems to be permissible, but apparently, we daren’t let women have an imagination. If this has you suitably sad, then I want to now end with the positives.


The numbers above show that in the last 20 years the industry has consistently fluctuated back and forth, whilst never actually committing to a permanent change. However, with the current state of the industry and each brave story that comes out of the shithole that currently is Hollywood, a change should be on the horizon. Last year directors such as Patty Jenkins and Greta Gerwig meant that women accounted for 11% of directors working on the top 250 films, which is up 4% from 2016. Within those films, the roles of producers and executive producers accounted for 25% and 19% of women working off-screen respectively. It is these roles, along with that of the director, who possess the power to instigate recruitment changes for roles across the board. But more importantly, they need the plots and the opportunities to do so. The hunger for female-led stories is evident. The top three films at the domestic box office last year were all led by a female protagonist – Star Wars, Beauty and The Beast and Wonder Woman.


So perhaps through all the shit and all the negativity, we are finally going to see a positive change in Hollywood. Women’s roles in the industry are not the only battle of course – there is a major diversity struggle that must be addressed but hopefully we are moving away from celebrating the first woman to be nominated for best cinematography (Congratulations Rachel Morrison), and instead, we can begin to smash through the celluloid ceiling. After all, when you apply pressure to glass, it breaks.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s