film

Why Women ­in Hollywood Can't Get Film Financing

Want to be angry? Of course you do! Then enjoy reading this article about how women totally can’t be trusted with the vote money to make movies. Here’s a sample to get you psyched for it:

Dori Sperko, who’d been dabbling in Hollywood funding since selling her Florida-based payroll services company several years ago, told the table about three films she’d considered investing in that morning. “I automatically passed on the movie with the woman producer team attached,” she said. “I just feel like you can’t trust women you don’t know, but you can trust a man.” Sperko shrugged and sipped her cocktail. “It is what it is.”

More seriously, while that—along with several other choice bits from the article—is infuriating, some of the female filmmakers Sandler quotes need to grow up. Exhibit A: Jill Soloway, director of Afternoon Delight, about a “bored housewife looking to spice up her sex life”.

“Currently, if the [moviegoing] experience doesn’t make a man feel necessary, then there’s the feeling it’s going to be a boner kill at the box office,” says Soloway, who won the director’s prize at Sundance for Afternoon Delight, a film about, yes, another bored housewife looking to spice up her sex life. To help financiers widen the definition of what might be in their self-interest, she says, “we need to show that women actually want to see movies about unlikable women.”

I’ve got news for you, Jill: you could make that exact same movie with a man in the lead role and still no one would want to see it. The market for indie dramas about bored suburbanites is niche at best, and it’s not just women who hate movies featuring unlikable people. We’re fooling ourselves if we think otherwise.

If directors want big box office results and resultingly bigger budgets for their next projects, they need to make movies with more mainstream appeal. This applies to both men and women.

On flipside of the nonsense coin, we have Christine Vachon, producer of several critically-acclaimed indies (Boys Don’t Cry and Far From Heaven, for example), asserting Hollywood’s level playing field:

She’s not convinced the barriers to female filmmaking exist. She agrees that “good work rises to the top,” and adds: “Listen, I can’t do what I do with a chip on my shoulder.”

I’ll agree about the chip on her shoulder, but Hollywood is not a true meritocracy, and it’s nonsense to suggest that it is. I suspect Vachon’s own success is blinding her to the barriers other women face when attempting to make their own movies.

The film business has a woman problem, no doubt. I just wish Lauren Sandler had put a little more critical analysis into her writing of this article.

Via Women and Hollywood.

♀ I Find Your Lack of Sense Disturbing

 Photograph by  Qsimple  via  Photopin  ( cc )

Photograph by Qsimple via Photopin (cc)

Earlier this month Wired published a piece by Laura Hudson called “Leia Is Not Enough”, on the dearth of notable female characters in the Star Wars saga in particular and movies generally. It’s a great article, and you should go read it right now, but in case you don’t, here’s the crux:

As great a character as Leia was, however, she was functionally the lone representative of the female gender in a larger Star Wars universe where every other character moving the plot forward was a man. It’s even sadder when you consider that the dearth of women who play important roles (or any role at all) in the classic George Lucas films from the late ’70s and early ’80s echoes a problem we still have today: Women are dramatically under-represented in films and media.

And they’re even more poorly represented in roles where they are driving forces, not just ancillary characters or love interests for male heroes.

If you’ve never really noticed the absence of women in Star Wars (or movies at large), consider yourself living proof of how the limiting narratives of culture and media can warp our expectations, to the point where the presence of one woman in a cast of dozens of memorable male characters can seem like perfect equality.

A few days later, Noah Berlatsky of The Atlantic’s new “The Sexes” section published a critique of Hudson’s article. While he agrees with her broader point that Hollywood needs to better represent the female sex in mainstream movies, he thinks Star Wars itself needs to push beyond the boundaries of the gender binary, so simply including more major female characters will not suffice.

Star Wars’s lack of women seems linked to a deliberate lack of interest in women. The film franchise is designed to be a series of male genre pictures, and for proof, all you need to do is look at the innovative, non-traditional approaches to gender other sci-fi works have taken—which Star Wars and other Hollywood films avoid.

I won’t deny that seeing some gender-bending science fiction would be interesting, but Berlatsky’s logic is flawed for two reasons. Firstly, he argues that Star Wars faces an obstacle to broader female appeal fundamental to its genre, which he identifies as “boys’ adventure”. Critics have generally agreed that Star Wars is essentially a Western set in space, with accompanying technology. It’s about gunslingers, and everyone knows only boys like movies about gunslingers, amirite? Of course not, and Berlatsky knows that’s stupid, so before proceeding he pays lip service to the idea that girls are allowed to like action movies, too.

The series is devoted to battles, adventure, politics, more adventure, and more battles. Girls certainly can—and certainly do!—like all of those things.

Then he undoes it:

But the fact remains that the genre has historically been focused on boys. Which means that it has been a lot more concerned with providing points of identification for guys than with points of identification for girls. It’s not an accident that it’s Leia rather than Han who ends up in the swimsuit and chains, right? […]

Genre and gender, then, are tied up together. Sci-fi imagines different worlds—but those different worlds are governed in no small part by particular narrative expectations. The galaxy isn’t as far away, nor as teeming with possibilities as it looks.

This makes no sense, even within the context of Berlatsky’s own argument, because just a few sentences before this he takes care to point out that sci-fi opens up new worlds free from the cultural baggage of our own:

If Star Wars were the Western that it in many ways imitates, then of course you wouldn’t necessarily expect there to be lots of female gunfighters, because gender roles back in the time period when Westerns are often set restricted what women could do. But Star Wars isn’t a Western; it’s a science-fiction story, which means anything goes.

So, to review: even though Star Wars belongs to a genre that typically panders to boys, it could change the rules of that genre because it’s also sci-fi, and sci-fi has no boundaries, but it can’t change the rules of that genre because of our cultural boundaries. Also, even though girls can and do like action/adventure, Westerns, gunslingers, and the like, girls will never really like Star Wars because that genre is for boys.

This is all nonsense. A film, or series of films, doesn’t have to pander to boys[1] just because other films in its genre traditionally have; in fact, Star Wars has already stretched the boundaries of the Western/adventure movie genre by setting it in space. The way that Star Wars actually panders to men is by casting mostly men; women would probably like Star Wars better if they saw more women doing all the gunslinging.

Having backhandedly reinforced gender stereotypes, Berlatsky proceeds to argue that Star Wars should emulate other, edgier works of science fiction literature by playing with the boundaries of gender itself.

Way back in 1969, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness imagined a planet where the human-descended inhabitants had only one sex; it is only during the monthly mating time that they take on gender identities and sexual urges. In Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy (1987–2000), a post-apocalyptic Earth is invaded by aliens with three genders. There are males, there are females, and there are ooloi, a sex of genetic mixers and manipulators, who are able to mate with, and thereby reengineer, human men and women. More recently, Brian K. Vaughn and Pia Guerra’s comic book series Y: The Last Man imagined a world in which a plague had wiped out all males on earth except one.

Those stories all sound cool and interesting. I wouldn’t be at all upset if Star Wars ventured into exploring this sort of territory, and I don’t think there’s anything stopping the producers from doing so. The series could include elements like this without straying from the action/adventure genre, although Berlatsky does not appear to think so:

You could certainly argue, I suppose, that the public wants space opera and not gender exploration—Han Solo shooting storm troopers rather than tentacle brain intercourse with aliens. To me, though, looking around, it doesn’t seem especially clear that violence sells better than sex.

Firstly, I think this underestimates the Star Wars franchise, which is more than dumb, schlocky action; the films’ ability to include substantial thematic material without needing to compromise the fun contributes to their lasting appeal.[2] Secondly, the sort of gender exploration Berlatsky seems to be advocating isn’t “sex”; it’s sociology. Watching ooloi re-engineer humans through sexual intercourse would be fascinating, but it wouldn’t get me turned on. I don’t think it’s prurience that keeps mainstream sci-fi movies from engaging with these kinds of subjects.

In any case, this whole argument that Star Wars needs to push the envelope on genre misrepresents the mainstream of feminist goals. We don’t need androgyny, asexuality, or polyamory to be portrayed as the norm; we mostly just need equality between the sexes. Putting more women in the roles typically occupied by men would go a long way toward achieving that. If “anything goes” in sci-fi, Star Wars can certainly do a simple thing like cast more women.

This whole article is such a mess, it’s hard not to think that Berlatsky manufactured a controversy just so he would have something print in response to Hudson’s article.[3] It wouldn’t be totally surprising for him to opportunistically miss the point of a feminist message. Even if his criticism is genuine, though, I disagree entirely. We don’t need every work of literature to accomplish every worthwhile goal. Star Wars does not need to engage in hard-core gender-bending; it can just be a good space opera, but it should be an egalitarian one; considering the scope of the Star Wars universe, gender parity seems a reasonable baseline to require. And people—particularly those who, like Berlatsky, write specifically about sexual politics—need to stop reinforcing stereotypes about what women do and don’t like; that sort of behavior is why we need feminism in the first place.


  1. Okay, can we stop saying “boys”? It’s belittling to grown men (and women) who love Star Wars and other action/adventure movies of the kind. From now one, we’ll be using “men” to describe male fans of Star Wars in this post.  ↩

  2. I really question whether Berlatsky even likes or knows much about Star Wars.  ↩

  3. Because, obviously, simply agreeing or building on her point would just not be journalist-y enough.  ↩

Romantic Comedies Aren't What They Used to Be. Good.

Responding to this lament on the state of the romantic comedy, Alyssa Rosenberg of XX Factor attributes the genre’s recent lackluster quality to a failure to mine the depth of human romance:

The genuinely strong romantic comedies of the last decade or so have ventured inward for obstacles, rather than inventing ludicrous external ones. In romantic comedies as in third-wave feminism, the proliferation of choices has forced protagonists to figure out what they really want, leaving indecision, self-doubt, and even arrested development as rich fodder.

She goes on to cite Bridesmaids, which is not technically a romantic comedy (although it has a love interest for its main character), and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, a rom-com hybrid. I’d venture to include other hybrids, such as bromances like Baby Mama or I Love You, Man or romantic dramedies like Friends With Kids as examples of funny, successful movies built on realistic, relatable characters instead of outrageous or kooky premises.

Leia Is Not Enough

Laura Hudson at Wired explains the problem with the dearth of major, three-dimensional female characters in film, particularly sci-fi/fantasy film:

Criticisms about representations of gender (or race and other diversity) are often countered in fandom by sociological or scientific analyses attempting to explain why the inequality happens according to the internal logic of the fictional world. As though there is any real reason that anything happens in a story except that someone chose to write it that way.

Fiction is not Darwinian: It contains no impartial process of evolution that dispassionately produces the events of a fictional universe. Fiction is miraculously, fundamentally Creationist. When we make worlds, we become gods. And gods are responsible for the things they create, particularly when they create them in their own image.

As Tracy Jordan would say, “Tell it to me in Star Wars”.

Ellen Page to Direct

After making her mark on features from Juno to Inception, Ellen Page will make her directing debut on Miss Stevens, and she’s got Anna Faris attached to play the title role.[…]

Faris will play a teacher whose life is in disarray when she chaperones a group of high schoolers on a weekend trip to a state drama competition. There, through the admiration and humanity of her students, she rediscovers her own self-worth.

Did you know Ellen Page is a member of Mensa? I’m totally seeing this movie.

Tina Fey to Possibly Star in Muppets Movie

Rumor has it Fey will play a Russian gulag prison guard, in what sounds like a pretty dark idea for a Muppets movie. Still, I think the correct response to this news is: “Eeeeeeeeee!”

Via The Mary Sue.

The Bechdel Test

With regard to any given film, the test, named for cartoonist Alison Bechdel, asks the following three questions:

  1. Does the movie have at least two female characters?
  2. Do they talk to each other?
  3. Do they talk to each other about something other than a man?

Failing any one question fails the test.

Quite a few of my own screenplays fail this test. Of course, I mostly write romantic comedies.

Sundance Has Equal Number of Female and Male Directors

The first post of the year is a happy one!

For the first time ever, the famous Sundance Film Festival will feature an equal number of men and women in the U.S. Dramatic Competition category… This is huge news considering what an important launching pad Sundance is for getting independent films and films by first-time directors distributed as well as more media attention.

The Censorship of "Mean Girls"

Ramou Sarr of Hello Giggles watched Mean Girls on MTV and was displeased to discover that the channel had bleeped out the words “homosexual”, “gay”, “lesbian”, and “vagina”.

It was particularly interesting that in a movie whose message was about the problematic ways in which young women behave towards one another, “lesbian” and “vagina” were censored, but “whore” and “slut” were not. This is sending an incredibly complicated message to viewers. We’re encouraged to not use words like “homosexual,” even if we self-identify that way, and to be ashamed to call our vaginas vaginas, but you’ve got free rein to call girls sluts and whores, folks!

I’m especially baffled by the removal of “homosexual”, which has come to be a fairly clinical word now that self-identified homosexuals prefer to call themselves “gay”.