The December Issue: Women in Film

This month, the New York Times seems to be rampant with features about women in film. It’s funny that it should seem that way, because in the past month, only two notable articles have been published on the subject. Two very lengthy, in-depth, and important articles, nonetheless.

This all came to my attention when my friend Brittany shared an incredible Jezebel interview with me. The women’s interests blog interviewed Manohla Dargis, the Times co-chief film critic. She had some strong and honest words for Hollywood’s rejection, or even fear (see this Washington Post article by Ann Hornaday) of women’s presence and influence in the film industry.

The Jezebel interview followed Dargis up on her own Times article on the subject, “Women in Film 2009 – At the Box Office but Not Directing.”

Basically, Dargis voices the truth: There’s a severe lack of women in Hollywood, and – in the film business – men are allowed to fail in ways that women are not. Take this quote from Dargis in the Jezebel interview:

Do you think that a woman would have been able to get forty million dollars to make a puppet movie the way that Wes Anderson has been able to make, bringing to bear all the publicity and advertising budget of Fox? After two movies that didn’t make a lot of money? I think this is true for a lot of black filmmakers too – they’re held to a higher standard. And an unfair standard. You can be a male filmmaker and if you’re perceived as a genius – a boy genius or a fully-formed adult genius – that you are allowed to fail in a way that a woman is not allowed to fail.

The first thoughts that went through my mind were something like – Hell yeah! and Wow, I’ve never actually heard someone in the industry say those things before. I think it’s simultaneously crucial and disheartening for a female film expert to come out and say these things. Because now that they’ve been said by someone who knows, it’s suddenly a harsh reality and not just something for us feminists to rant about amongst ourselves.

The day after the Jezebel-Dargis interview, another female Times writer wrote about women in film. Daphne Merkin’s “Can Anybody Make a Movie for Women?” is a seven-page cover article revolving around director Nancy Meyers (Something’s Gotta Give). With Meyers’ newest film It’s Complicated (starring Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin), critics seem to be noticing an “aimed towards middle-aged women” trend. They’re either annoyed by it and dismiss it, or they try to delve into it and give Meyers some credit, like Merkin.

Similar to Dargis, one of Merkin’s points is that women are condemned for certain techniques and choices that perhaps a male director would not be. For instance, on the flack Meyers gets for doing numerous takes during filming:

John Burnham, the I.C.M. agent, has a simpler, X-versus-Y-chromosome view of the whole thing. “If Mike Nichols said to do another take,” he crisply notes, “there would never be any issue.”

There’s another point that caught my attention concerning women directors’ aesthetic choices:

Meyers herself is unapologetic about creating sets that look as if they might be photographed in a shelter magazine, most notably the mouthwatering Hamptons house in Something’s Gotta Give, which did actually make an appearance in Architectural Digest. “The fact that there is nice fabric on the chairs is fun,” she says. [and later]…”I like that stuff.”

This reminds me of the general public’s rejection of Sofia Coppola’s extreme ornamental aesthetic in Marie Antoinette. (See my post defending the film from a few months back.) Men make pretty movies all the time. But when a woman does it, it’s suddenly “too feminine,” which automatically reads as: “not real film.” There are some films that we normally “wouldn’t know” were directed by women (see: “didn’t think a woman directed it because there are so few and this one didn’t look that ‘girly'”) – such as American Psycho, for instance. But can the “for women, by women” concept in film ever be taken seriously, without the eye-rolling and the “told ya so’s” of Hollywood and audiences?

Yes, some films directed towards women are awful in terms of “good film.” These, of course, would be the “chick flicks,” though I hate the term. And though I know plenty of men who love Meyers’ Something’s Gotta Give and her other films, she is being dubbed as the director of “postmenopausal chick flicks” (as Merkin says), or middle-aged women’s fairy tale love stories. Dargis says she enjoys Meyers’ films, but doesn’t think they’re necessarily “good as films”, while Merkin applauds the director for at least making middle-aged women be sexy and fall in love in movies. (And really, what other movies really care to set that kind of standard other than Meyers’?)

But until there are more options for women to see themselves reflected on the big screen, most of them will continue to flock to the “chick flicks.” As Dargis profoundly assesses:

There’s a reason that women go to movies like Mamma Mia. It’s a terrible movie… but women are starved for representation of themselves. I go back to Spike Lee and She’s Gotta Have It. I remember going to see it at the Quad in New York, surrounded by a black audience. People are starved for representations of themselves.

Minorities are starved for images they can relate to on the big screen. Images of themselves, which are largely absent in Hollywood. Damn. I had never really looked at it that way before, but it’s so hideously true.

As for women in film, I’m reminded of something my female film history teacher once said (and I apologize for the language): “They call them ‘chick flicks,’ but do you realize that all the other movies are ‘dick flicks’?”

Yes, the rest of them are. But let’s hold out and hope that one day we will be able to count female directors on more than just the fingers of one hand.