Girls on Film is a weekly column that tackles anything and everything pertaining to women and cinema. It can be found here every Thursday night, and be sure to follow the Girls on Film Twitter Feed for additional femme-con.
The other morning, I felt rather foolish as my Oscar hopes sunk; but the Academy always seems to manipulate us that way. We spend months trying to guess who they will pick for their top honors. We spend too much time calculating Oscar chances based on guild and critics’ awards, on journalistic buzz and Oscar-bait fair (I’m looking at you, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close). We log our top tens, we fervently champion the films and talent we love, and we become so invested in the outcome that when the wee hours of the morning hit and the Oscar nominees are announced, we’re inevitably disappointed because let’s be frank: The Academy Awards aren’t celebrating the best of the year. They’re celebrating friendships and networked connections, reiterations of the status quo, and those who adore the studio system, sprinkled with enough shocking picks that stand as disparate emblems of “diversity.” Nevertheless, they lure us in.
This year, a number of female contributions to cinema in 2011 were ignored, most pointedly, anything and everything to do with We Need to Talk About Kevin. Sure, the almost complete invisibility of the title during the months of awards chatter made Lynne Ramsay’s exclusion from the Best Director race no big surprise (though no less disappointing). But there was the added, acid-on-the-blade cut of watching a film (ELaIC) that can’t even manage half-fresh on Rotten Tomatoes’ quite forgiving roundup of reviews beating it out for a Best Film spot, for Tilda Swinton being completely ignored for her widely praised, Golden Globe-nominated performance. Mixed in with the wonderful Pariah by Dee Rees, Laryssa Kondracki’s The Whistleblower, Vera Farmiga’s Higher Ground, the writing and starring work of Brit Marling, and the other contributions by women in film in 2011, it’s obvious that the Bigelow Effect is not what we assumed it would be.
When Kathryn Bigelow became the first female filmmaker to win the Best Director Oscar in 2010, grand notions of the Bigelow Effect descended. The high from her win elicited hope that the glass ceiling was broken, starting a ripple effect that would rain goodness on female filmmakers, who would be able to move with greater ease and greater standing in Hollywood. It couldn’t happen immediately in 2010, though AfterEllen noted the “echo chamber” as Debra Granik and Lisa Cholodenko were ignored by the DGA’s. But 2011? After a year and a half, where women would have the time to ride the Bigelow ripples and make great strides, female contributions to the field have been all but ignored; the Bigelow Effect is no more useful than Trickle-Down Economics.
Sadly, it’s not just award ceremonies and THR roundtables that are wearing blinders. Dr. Martha Lauzen’s yearly look at women in the industry has hit, and she’s noted a sharp decline in female filmmakers. Through there are slight increases for female cinematographers, writers, and producers, women directors make up only 5% of the filmmakers in Hollywood. That’s 4% less than the numbers in 1998, and 2% less than the numbers from 2009 and 2010. Essentially, the real Bigelow Effect is a decline in the number of female filmmakers – not an increase, or even status-quo. (Overall for women, the numbers stay firmly below 20% inclusion -- see right.)
There is no ripple effect for women in Hollywood when the numbers decrease by almost half in 14 years. There are many reasons for this – the male-dominated studio system full of antiquated beliefs about female talent, opportunity, box office … but there is one particularly damning reason, one that I argue directly leads to a disappointingly negative Bigelow Effect rather than any sort of positive change: silence.
When Bigelow won her Oscar and refused to discuss the achievement in her speech and most of her interviews, it was equal parts understandable and unfortunate. Naturally, she wants to be seen as a filmmaker with no qualifiers, for her work to not be framed in any way different from her male colleagues. It’s something many of us want, but like any quest for equality, it can never happen without discourse, and silence plus invisibility leads to a whole different Bigelow Effect.
Most people in Hollywood are afraid to speak up, so the nature of the discourse is easily framed as a niche concern. The few women who share their experiences (most recently Carrie Certa and the exec who told her: “If you were a man, I would write the check right now”) are quickly ignored, or treated as women with sour grapes or anomalies of a greater whole. There is a certain underlying fear for their jobs; if strong work doesn’t garner success, calling out the flaws of the Hollywood elite sure won’t. But there’s also a deafening silence from those who enjoy the perks of Hollywood power.
This was no clearer felt than in The Hollywood Reporter roundtable, where only the slightest wisp of commentary emerged from the question about female filmmakers. One could almost hear the crickets as the group of men sat silently and waited for the next question. It was a sadly missed opportunity to hear men in the business honestly communicate with each other about the issue since, generally, there’s nothing more than radio silence. It was an opportunity to make it an unqualified issue and not just a “women’s issue.”
For the most part, actor Ryan Gosling has shouldered the responsibility of women-centric discourse, naturally leading him to become a pretty distinct feminist hero inspiring the site Feminist Ryan Gosling. One can only hope that one of the most beloved and influential actors in the Hollywood system, George Clooney, plans to follow suit. He made a good start earlier this month when he teamed up with Viola Davis for an interview with EW. Clooney noted: “There’s this strange thing that’s happened over the last 25 or 30 years where there’s this decision being made that women aren’t able to carry the box office... But it’s much harder to get a film with a woman lead made. When a man hits 40 is when roles just begin to happen. And for women it doesn’t happen. I find that to be a very concerning issue.” Being beloved by the Academy, the system, and just about everyone, Clooney is in a prime position to instigate change.
Complacency and silence obviously isn’t helping the situation, nor are the many filmmakers and Hollywood types who completely avoid talking about the issue. Invisibility in discourse leads to invisibility on the screen and in the public consciousness. The issue is such a mess these days that with almost total invisibility outside the actress categories, writers still think this is “the year of the woman." As much as I'd like to say we can just ignore the Academy and the oversight and continue on our way, it's still a good litmus test for women in Hollywood, and how far we need to go ... or how much farther we need to go than 14 years ago.
It would be rather unfortunate if the Bigelow Effect signifies nothing more than a declining presence of female filmmakers in the industry. It’s a legacy Ms. Bigelow doesn’t deserve.
A positive in all of this: The Sundance Institute has announced plans to help female filmmakers of narrative and documentary features help bust through the abysmal percentages.