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2019 At the Movies: A Celebration of Women

Neon; Sony; A24; STX

Imagine that before you left for the holidays, you accidentally left a sticky bun on the counter.  You return home from your extended vacation feeling both re-energized and completely exhausted, and stumble into the kitchen to find -- GASP! -- dozens of ants authoritatively orchestrating and executing the recovery of stale sticky bun bits. The ants have undoubtedly lived in the dark corners of your cabinets since before you moved in, but you didn’t pay them mind until they were marching one-by-one (hurrah! hurrah!) across your countertop. That’s how I feel about women in film in 2019.

For decades, women have been on the edges of filmmaking. The woman credited with being the first female director, Alice Guy-Blaché, made her first film in the late 1800’s. In the early 1900’s women were editing films (Anne Bauchens, Cleopatra), writing screenplays (Sarah Y. Mason, Little Women), and co-founding production companies (Mary Pickford, United Artists). But many of those opportunities were few and far between, and even today, women hold less than a quarter of non-acting roles. For instance, a study by the Women’s Media Center found that out of the 250 top-grossing domestic films of 2015-16, women made up only 17 percent of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers. Thirty-five percent of films had either one or no women in each of those roles, compared to 2 percent that had one or no men.  It is not surprising, then, that women have also been underrepresented at the Academy Awards. Only five women have ever been nominated for Best Director in the 90+ years the Academy Awards have been around. The first and only woman to actually win an Academy Award for Best Director was Katheryn Bigelow, who was honored for her direction of the 2009 film The Hurt Locker. Only six women have been nominated for Best Original Score (for 9 different films). Three have been nominated for Best Visual Effects. And it was only two years ago that a woman was, for the first time ever, nominated for Best Cinematography (Rachel Morrison for 2017’s Mudbound).  Another annual study by Women’s Media Center found that in last year’s Oscars (2019), women made up only 25 percent of the non-acting Academy Award nominees. They were completely shut out of the Directing, Cinematography, and Editing categories, and only one woman received a nod in each of the Writing categories. This year’s Academy Awards will likely follow that trend. Here are the possible female nominees in a few of the non-acting categories traditionally dominated by men (Directing, Original and Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing, and Score), according to the experts at Gold Derby: Director (Five Nominees)

  • Greta Gerwig, Little Women 

Adapted Screenplay (Five Nominees)

  • Greta Gerwig, Adapted Screenplay, Little Women

  • Lorene Scafaria, Adapted Screenplay, Hustlers

Original Screenplay (Five Nominees)

  • Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, Katie Silberman, Original Screenplay, Booksmart

  • Lulu Wang, Original Screenplay, The Farewell

  • Krysty Wilson-Cairns, Original Screenplay (co-writer), 1917

Cinematography (Five Nominees)

  • Claire Mathon, Cinematography, Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Film Editing (Five Nominees)

  • Thelma Schoonmaker, Film Editing, The Irishman

  • Jennifer Lame, Film Editing, Marriage Story

  • Teresa Font, Film Editing, Pain and Glory

Score (Five Nominees)

  • Hildur Guꝺnadóttir, Score, Joker

Even if each of these women received a nomination for the above categories (a highly unlikely proposition), women would still have secured only 37 percent of the nomination slots. I think it’s more likely that women will be nominated in a maximum of five of the thirty open slots (17 percent): Gerwig for Best Director and Adapted Screenplay, Wang for Original Screenplay, and Schoonmaker and Lame for Film Editing. The problem of women in film is magnified for women of color, who receive even fewer opportunities and less recognition. A 2020 study published by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that of the 57 individual female directors across 1,300 top-grossing films from 2007 to 2019 (an already sad number), only 11 were women of color. That’s less than one percent of the total. In 2019, there were four (of twelve) female directors of color. Another Annenberg report found that in 2018, 39 of the 100 top films depicted a female lead or co-lead, but only 11 of the female actors were of an underrepresented racial or ethnic group. Thirty-three of the top 100 films that year had no Black or African-American women, 54 percent had no Asian or Asian-American women, and 70 percent had no Latina characters. LGBT women are also largely left off screen; only 11 of the top 100 films of 2018 had one or more LGBT women. Underrepresentation of women in non-acting roles is only half of the story. Women are also often cast in roles in which they play overwrought emotional partners (think Anne Hathaway in Dark Waters), or background housewives and disappointed daughters with little to do (The Irishman). They often play characters that at some point wear sexy attire (as in 29 percent of the top 2018 films) or are at least partially nude (as in 27 percent of the top 2018 films). In short, women are often portrayed as stereotypes - the sexy waitress or the obedient wife - just as often as they are shown as characters with complex motivations and desires. But as I said, this year is the year of ants and sticky buns. Although there is much to lament about the progress of women in film overall, and especially during awards season, there’s a lot to be thankful for. The ants are visibly marching across the Academy’s counter, in full force. Even if they can’t carry the whole sticky bun home, their impact on 2019 films is plain:

  • Four critically acclaimed films - Little Women, The Farewell, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and Hustlers - were written and directed by women (Greta Gerwig, Lulu Wang, Céline Sciamma, and Lorene Scafaria) and are told from a woman’s perspective. 

  • Two other lauded films, High Life and Atlantics, were directed and written by women (Claire Denis and Mati Diop, respectively). Anna Boden also co-directed and co-wrote Captain Marvel.

  • Alma Har’el and Olivia Wilde each directed her first full-length feature (Honey Boy and Booksmart). Booksmart was co-authored by four women.

  • At least five acclaimed films were shot by female cinematographers: Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Atlantics (both by Claire Mathon), The Farewell (Anna Franquesa Solano), And Then We Danced (Lisabi Fridell), and Honey Boy (Natasha Braier).

  • Parasite and Us each had gender parity among their main characters, and primarily featured actors of color. 

  • Knives Out and Atlantics starred ethnic or racial minority women (Ana de Armas and Mame Bineta Sane).

  • Hildur Guðnadóttir composed the score for Joker, Fatima Al Qadiri composed the score for Atlantics, and Pinar Toprak composed the score for Captain Marvel.

And those were just the movies I saw. Above and beyond the non-acting stats, films this year highlighted the emotional depth and complexity of female characters. Portrait of a Lady on Fire was a beautiful and moving story of two women who fall in love in late 1700’s France. Waves gave us insight into a young girl’s journey through grief and healing. Little Women represented a brilliant new take on the classic tale of four women growing up in the Civil War era. Marriage Story showed us the complexities of divorce from the perspectives of both partners, acknowledging the wife’s desire to follow her own path in life. A Hidden Life focused not just on the travails and woes of a male conscientious objector, but the impact of that decision on his hardworking and spirited wife. And Hustlers allowed us to see behind the flashy pole-dancing and skimpy costumes of a strip club, showing the women in a way that appreciated and acknowledged them as people rather than objects.  We have a long way to go to achieve gender equality in film, and in writing and portraying female characters who are as nuanced as their male counterparts. But we should celebrate the excellent artistic achievements of the women who contributed to films in 2019. And we should look forward to a time when the women take up permanent residence on the cinematic counter, eating sticky buns to their hearts’ content.


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