When the Suffragettes was fighting for women's rights a hundred years ago, the highest paid director at Universal Studio's was a woman. Now women have the right to vote, but… what happened to women in film?
The Suffragette movement in Britain is legendary, and it's about time the struggle made its way to the movie screen. And when could be a better time to remember women's struggles than now, with all the recent attention on the inequality of men and women in film worldwide.
1916 - Women thriving in film
Ironically, at the time of the Suffragette movement, women were thriving in film. The early film industry, before it became the industry of today, followed a theatrical model, which fostered an equal work culture where everyone, both men and women, helped behind the scenes in a variety of jobs. Film was a new medium, and the doors of Hollywood were not only open to women but also immigrants and minorities, basically to all groups of people not welcome in the more established work areas higher on the income ladder, which were reserved for the white christian male.
In 1916, multi-talented female filmmaker Lois Weber was Universal Studio's highest paying director. But as movie budgets rose and star salaries skyrocketed, it gave birth to the studio system and the movie industry remade itself in the image of a modern American male dominated business. In the 1920's women gradually disappeared from most areas but wardrobe, décor and script. In front of the camera they became glamorous movie stars directed by men, who's importance increased as history made them auteurs.
What happened to women in film?
Fast forward a hundred years, and what has changed? Women got their vote, but still to this day haven't been able to reclaim their positions in the film industry. Women are not even represented onscreen in fair numbers. While women make up half of the movie audience, only 30% of women are displayed on the screen, while a meager 7% directed the top grossing films in the US 2014.
For actresses it's a double dip; women are represented in less numbers then are true to society, and the few female characters portrayed are often reduced to sex-objects or male side-kicks, which may explain why there are so few roles for women over 40. To which extent women are objectified in film can actually be measured with the Bechdel-Wallace Test. To pass it, a movie must have at least a) two women in it (with names), b) who talk to each other c) about something besides a man. Surprisingly few films pass this test, and even worse, many of the films targeted at children lack female characters entirely.
Red carpet glitz, glamour and high heels
Women reduced to sex-objects were sadly illustrated on Cannes' red carpet this year, famous for its old-fashioned glitz and glamour, when a group of women in their 50's, some of them with medical conditions, were denied access to Todd Hayne's “Carol” because they were not wearing high heals. They wore formal flat shoes with rhinestones on them, but the festival did confirm to Screen Daily that it is obligatory for all women to wear high heels to red carpet screenings. Even Asif Kapadia, director of the Amy Winehouse documentary, “Amy”, which also premiered in Cannes, tweeted that his wife had initially been denied entry to the screening because of her footwear, but was eventually allowed in. However, Cannes’ director, Thierry Frémaux, later denied in a tweet that high heels are obligatory, so the policy doesn't seem to be quite clear within the organization itself. Cannes has been criticized since many years for the small amount of female directors in the program, reaching an all time low in 2012 when not one single film by a female director was competing for the prestigious Palm d'Or.
2015 – the year of women fighting back
But 2015 is also the year of women fighting back. Meryl Streep is combating ageism and sexism by funding the “Writer's Lab” for women writers over 40, which is run by New York Women in Film and Television and IRIS, a collective of women filmmakers. Geena Davis is the co-founder of Bentonville Film Festival which opened in May in Arkansas to provide “a platform to significantly increase the commercial value of content produced by minorities and women [and] provides ongoing and turnkey distribution opportunities for its festival content and creators for global reach.”
And when big Hollywood names enters the debate, people listen. Jennifer Lawrence just published an essay addressing the wage gap between male and female leads. She found out through a hacked Sony account that she got paid half of what the leading men earned for their work in “American Hustle”, which she attributes to bad negotiation skills due to a fear of being difficult. “I saw the payroll on the Internet and realized every man I was working with definitely didn’t worry about being “difficult” or “spoiled.” [It is] an element of my personality that I’ve been working against for years, and based on the statistics, I don’t think I’m the only woman with this issue. Are we socially conditioned to behave this way? We’ve only been able to vote for what, 90 years?” This made Bradley Cooper, a name on Forbes list of the highest paid actors, promise Reuters to “team up with female co-stars to negotiate salaries before any film he is interested in working on goes into production.”
Anna Serner and the Swedish model
But the real rock star of equality is Anna Serner, CEO of the Swedish Film Institute. When she joined in 2011, only 26% of the funding of film was awarded to women with an aim to raise it to 40%. However, Anna wouldn't settle for less than 50-50 and made sure the industry knew this goal along with threats of quotas shouldn't it be met by 2015. The goal was reached in 2014. As a result, in the last three years women have won 69% of the trophies at Swedish film awards and 40% of the top international awards presented to Swedish filmmakers. Given the fact that only 16% of all Oscar nominees ever have been women, Anna Serner's model is cheered around the world. She participated as a panelist in the Cannes seminar "Women Make Great Movies: Strategies for Success" targeting international film industry 7 but also lectures on grass root level like during her recent visit to Columbia University in New York, both events moderated by Melissa Silverstein of Women and Hollywood. New York Times published and article last month “How Swedish Cinema Gave Women Directors a Bigger Role” and quoted Anna saying “I just think that we’ve been longing for the female gaze, the female perspective. Right now it’s unique, which is a problem. Eventually, it should all balance out.”
The dramatic opening of “Suffragette”
Sarah Gavron's film “Suffragette” opened the BFI London Film Festival dramatically when more than a hundred feminist protesters stormed the red carpet as green and purple smoke bombs filled the air. When New York Film Critics Circle Chairman Marshall Fine interviewed producers Faye Ward and Alison Owen, writer Abi Morgan and director Sarah Gavron after the Hamptons International Film Festival's screening of “Suffragette”, their comments about the London protesters were in unison: “We loved it, we thought they were great, they were like the Suffragettes! We thought it was a fantastic moment of the spirit coming to life. It was predominantly the Sisters Uncut movement coming together and stood up and were fighting against cuts against organizations and supporting women who'd experienced domestic violence and I can't think of a better cause than that to fight for. That action took it away from being just a pure piece of red carpet fluff and made it into something way more important so we couldn't have staged it better. Once we drove up and saw the extraordinary colors of the smoke bombs they'd been letting off in the colors of the Suffragette flag, from the bottom of my heart I wanted to thank them so it was fantastic. If it wasn't Harvey Weinstein I'd expected him of arranging it quite frankly [audience laughs].”
Sisters Uncut organized the event using a Facebook page, where they explained how "The film depicts a struggle for women's rights that took place nearly 100 years ago, but we know that the struggle isn't over." 8 No, the struggle is by no means over. Not getting access to Cannes red carpet might seem trivial compared to the world of our grandmothers, who didn't have their basic rights to vote, to make decision over their own children or even their own bodies, but there's a huge range in between and equality should cover that whole range.
“We have invigorated our activism”
When Abi spoke of her research of the film she said that “the most sobering moment was when we looked at the declassified police records which were only opened in 2003, and that really showed the kind of systematic intimidation and torture of these women, and that's when you started to realize that so much of this history has been erased, and that this was an opportunity to re-interrogate and bring to the 21st century the story. For me that was really exciting, and to find the vivid and contemporary voices of these women, particularly the working class women, and those were the voices that felt very now and all they were dealing with like the equal pay issues, sexual violence at home and in the work place, custodial rights of their children, property rights, education... It struck so many cords that I think we all felt it was not just an early 20th century story, it was actually an early 21st century story. Ultimately we got the vote, and it highlighted that there are so many things we can do with the vote. We are so globally connected with the inequality across the world so we know that the fight goes on and in a way that it's quite empowering. You cannot ignore whats going on across the globe including within our own country and across every continent. We have invigorated our activism”.
“Suffragettes” is now showing in US theaters.
Annika Andersson as published on MovieZine November 11th 2015