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Women Still Struggling For Equity Behind The Camera

Published: March 15, 2016

If history is any indication, women in the film industry—particularly behind the camera—still have a lot of catching up to do.

“This is a conversation people have been having a lot in the last three years and the media has been picking up these stories in terms of the inequity of women behind the camera compared to men behind the camera,” said Film and Electronic Arts’ Jonathan Wysocki, who teaches “Women in History of U.S. Film” at CSULB.

In general, women are underrepresented when it comes to the industry’s creative positions, which is the impetus for the term “celluloid ceiling,” a variant on the employment discrimination term “glass ceiling.” A report by that name, “The Celluloid Ceiling,” is the longest-running and most comprehensive study of women’s behind-the scenes employment in film and is sponsored by San Diego State’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film. The report noted that in 2015 women comprised just 19 percent of individuals employed in “creative positions” on the top 250 domestic grossing films—directors (9 percent), writers (11 percent), producers (26 percent), executive producers (20 percent), editors (22 percent) and cinematographers (6 percent).

Believe it or not, however, it wasn’t always that way, according to Wysocki.

Alice Guy-Blaché, a French filmmaker who immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s was, noted Wysocki, the first and only woman to own and run her own movie studio.

“No woman has ever owned a film studio,” he said. “They’ve been presidents of studios, but never owned one.” Being 2016, that may be hard to believe, but Wysocki explains why, in part, that is probably so.

“One of the ways to tell the behind-the-camera part of women in the history of U.S. film is that the bigger the business got, the less opportunities women had. The more money that was at stake, the fewer roles women were allowed to play behind the camera,” he said.

During the silent era, women were writing, producing and directing, giving them a lot more control over motion pictures. However, by the late 1930s and early 1940s, the film industry exploded and became the No. 1 medium in the world. The powerful Hollywood machine began making hundreds of films a year, yet fewer women were allowed to participate at production’s highest levels.

“It was kind of a boys’ club and the boys decided it was their ballgame,” he said. “In a way, it’s still the same today.”

Hollywood’s male-dominated industry, said Wysocki, clearly reveals itself in the films it chooses to produce.

“If everyone in the board room is a bunch of guys, they are more than likely going to hire more guys and make films about guys,” he said. “They see themselves and they have more trust in that reflection. Men are producing, men are directing and men are writing, so—surprise, surprise—you have a lot of stories about men. I guess that’s only natural, but it kind of reflects this skewed vision of what American society really looks like.”

Throughout history, however, there have been exceptions. Dorothy Arzner (pictured on Inside CSULB’s home page) was the only women during what is considered the “Golden Age of Hollywood” (1930s and 1940s) entrusted to direct big studio pictures.

Dorothy Arzner
Dorothy Arzner

“She was an ‘out’ lesbian who wore suits to work and smoked cigars and hung out with the boys,” said Wysocki. “It’s interesting that the person who was let into the room was the person who took on the masculinity that made the guys comfortable and made them think she could handle a big, expensive motion picture.”

And then there was film star Ida Lupino, who directed indie films in the 1950s and went on to direct television in the 1960s. She took a much different approach to gain her success, playing on her femininity.

“She had everyone on the set call her ‘mom’ because she felt that, as a woman, guys were not going to take her seriously,” said Wysocki, “but if they saw her as a mother figure and thought of their own mothers and thought of the respect they had for them, she felt she could gain their respect to be a female director. So she and Arsner were successful, but everyone else in between was not allowed a seat at the table and it just never went back to the way it was during the silent era when woman had more opportunities.”

Even the influential women’s movement in the 1960s and 1970s didn’t seem to move the needle in Hollywood.

“You got a small smattering of feminist films during that time period, but in general, Hollywood just ignored the women’s movement,” said Wysocki. “You get some exceptions, but for the most part the 60s and 70s were pretty much a wasteland for female directors in Hollywood. You find women directing documentaries, experimental and indie films during these decades, but not studio pictures.”

Change can be slow, which is obvious when you look at the number of women employed behind the scenes in the film industry. Wysocki acknowledges there is a way to go, but sees encouraging signs the tide may be shifting.

“People are hoping we get to a more equitable stage where we don’t have to have these conversations anymore,” he said, “but I feel like we have a long way to go. The good thing is that I’m seeing a lot more public conversations and people are more aware of the inequity than I have seen in a long time. For some reason it’s been newsworthy recently, which is great. But it’s hard to say if that will translate into action.

“What will change things,” he added, “is getting more women into positions of power and getting women to tell their own stories because then they will reflect themselves and I’m all for that.”