Of the top 250 grossing films of 2015, nearly 90 per cent were written by men – meaning way less interesting roles are being written for women
Sometime last year, with nearly 50 films, an Academy Award and a Golden Globe under her belt, Sandra Bullock reached the end of her tether.
Fed up with the scripts she was being sent – the doting wife, the humourless killjoy, the love interest who exists solely to help a man reach an emotional epiphany – she decided to change tack. She asked her agent to send her scripts in which the lead was a man. Suddenly, she was met with a barrage of interesting, complex, and endlessly varied roles. One role in particular, in a political drama called Our Brand Is Crisis, stood out. There was just one problem - it was earmarked for George Clooney.
Bullock didn’t give up though. She knew that there was no reason for this character – an accomplished, well-respected political consultant who struggles with mental health issues and addiction – to be a man. “I did as my mother did,” she told Zoe Kazan in an interview for Glamour. “I put my blinders on and blazed forward.” As it turned out, Clooney had no intention of taking on the role anyway, and John Bodine became Jane.
But why are roles like this not being written for women in the first place? Why must an Oscar-winning actress sift through George Clooney’s reject bin for scraps in order to find a fully-formed character? Well, perhaps it’s because most of the people writing these scripts are men too. According to a study published this week, of the top 250 grossing films of 2015, nearly 90 per cent were written by men. In fact, there are fewer women writing major Hollywood films now than there were in 1998. It seems, when looking for inspiration for their next big screen hero, writers simply gaze for a while into the nearest mirror.
Ready for some more bad news? The vicious cycle doesn’t end there. Of those aforementioned 250 films, only 9 per cent were directed by women. And this is more than just a catastrophic problem in its own right – it affects the entire make-up of a film’s creative team. Because once there’s a man in the director’s chair, he tends to surround himself with – you guessed it – more men. On films with male directors, women comprised 10 per cent of writers. On the rare occasion the film executives trusted a woman with the director job (presumably after several men and a nine-year-old boy had turned it down) that percentage leapt to 53 per cent.
Because when women manage to climb to the top, they lower a ladder down after them. Take the Bechdel Test. It’s arguably quite a reductive way to investigate a film’s gender relations – if it features at least two women who talk to each other about something besides a man, it passes - but it’s also a useful one. Of the 200 highest grossing films of the last twenty years, the ones with an all-male writing team failed the test over half the time. That’s right, more than 50 per cent of the time, the most talented, well-paid writers in the world were unable to write a scene where two women had a chat about literally anything other than a man. The films with all female writers passed every time. Of course, there were only eight films whose writers were all women, because – well, we’ve been through that.
“Why are roles like this not being written for women in the first place? Why must an Oscar-winning actress sift through George Clooney’s reject bin for scraps in order to find a fully-formed character?”
And so to the Oscars. The crème de la crème of movies. The barometer for what deserves to be seen, and recognised, and lauded. The award that people’s careers are building towards all their lives. Yep, it’s mostly just blokes. Rewarding other blokes. For films about blokes. 76 per cent of Oscar voters are men, and a horrifying 94 per cent of them are white. Their failing to recognise Ava DuVernay for Selma last year was just the tip of the patriarchal iceberg. It’s probably wise to refrain from bombarding you with more statistics – suffice it to say they’re deeply depressing – but at this point, I’m surprised the Best Actress category isn’t awash with male nominees.
The cautious optimism ahead of today’s Oscar nominations announcement was misplaced too. Not only are they dazzlingly, indefensibly white, there’s also no women up for Best Director (where is Celine Sciamma’s nod for Girlhood?) – and none of the Best Picture nominees were directed by women either. Women fare a tiny bit better in the two screenplay categories, but it’s still fairly depressing stuff.
With so many layers of underrepresentation, it becomes easy for each one to pass the burden of responsibility to the other. Sexism in the film industry is an insidious thing, one that’s always excusing itself, often impossible to pin down. "It’s not that you would go to a meeting and someone would say, 'We’re not going to make this film because it’s about women',” explained The Falling director Carol Morley on The Film Programme last month. “It’s to do with the idea of what people think will sell, what people think people want. The stories I’ve always wanted to tell, by definition of being about women, are threatening. They threaten the status quo.”
If stories about women threaten the status quo, perhaps they fare better away from the mainstream? There’s certainly some truth in this. Morley’s The Falling is an exquisitely crafted film about a fainting epidemic in a 1960s all-girls school. Amongst its heightened aestheticism and carefully choreographed set pieces lies universal themes of friendship, adolescent sexuality, and inter-generational dynamics.
Marielle Heller’s Diary Of A Teenage Girl proved extremely popular, despite the fact that its 18 certificate excluded much of its target audience, while Ana Lily Amirpour’s extraordinary A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night – which declared itself the world’s first “Iranian vampire western” (it’s nowhere near as pretentious as it sounds) – was a beautifully subtle, consistently unnerving masterpiece. Films with complex female characters, helmed by female directors and writers do exist, and they always will – it’s just that you’ve got to work really hard to find them. Because even the world of independent films is hardly a haven of gender parity. “Independent film is not full of women making films,” insists Morley, “or women being in the films. It's not."
Elizabeth Karlsen, a film producer who most recently worked on Todd Haynes’ Carol, agrees. “I was at an awards ceremony recently that was an independent awards ceremony,” she told The Film Programme (again, a conversation in which the women making the art, rather than those financing it, were asked to be accountable for the lack of opportunity), “and I would say 90 per cent of the people who went up on-stage were men, in films that were in stories about men.”
There are so many different hurdles, in so many different sectors of the film industry, that need to be overcome in order to improve things for women both in front of, and behind the cameras – not to mention female film-goers who yearn for better representation. So many, in fact, that it’s impossible to hold any one thing accountable. But that doesn’t mean equality is no-one’s responsibility. It means it’s everyone’s.