Thelma and Louise 2

Towards the end of my Masters thesis (which is currently under examination) I have a section called “Thelma and Louise are not enough!”. It may as well have been “Bridget Jones is not enough!” or “Carrie Bradshaw is not enough” “Ellen Riply is not enough” or any number of “positive” representations of women in film. It came out as both acknowledgement of these films importance and accomplishments but also an exasperated, throw your hands in the air, kind of moment. So much of the literature of popular feminist film focuses on these few films. In a way it makes sense to, the films seem to do something different with their representation of women, but in other ways, concentrating on these films gives them more meaning than they probably deserve. This isn’t because they are illustrative of bad films (although I find Sex and the City, as film and TV series, to be representative of the worst of Western culture) but that existing literature fails to place them within the context of a film industry which is nothing short of a misogynist patriarchy. And by this I am not referring to the films that it produces which are misogynist, of which there are many, but in the way it operates as an industry. It isn’t that we don’t know that Hollywood is male dominated, but many scholars of post-feminism and popular culture write as if we didn’t know that. Furthermore, some, even leaders in the field such as Yvonne Tasker, just get the matter wrong. For example, in a very short chapter on production Tasker claims:

women are now working in the American film industry as directors and producers, as well as in the more established roles of screenwriters and performers, on a scale unprecedented within classical Hollywood … how might feminist scholarship … make sense of the developing visibility of women in the popular American cinema? (Tasker, 1998, p. 198)

The problem here is that “developing visibility of women” is not representative of the actual trends of actual participation. If we accepted that visibility is equal to participation then it is far easier to let the established patriarchy within Hollywood stay put so long as it occasionally tosses out a woman’s name here and there (Kathryn Bigelow!) and lots of women appear on screens, at events, in the news or otherwise as a celebrity object.  The other problem with Tasker’s claim is that it potentially leads feminist scholarship in the wrong direction. I had a moment of doubt when she said that women are established “on a scale unprecedented” in Hollywood. For a little time I worried she might have meant unprecedentedly low. Because if she had meant that, she might be half-way correct. The truth is that historically speaking, Hollywood has less women working in creative labour now than it did in the pre-studio era (Mahar, 2008). Of course it isn’t just Tasker and nor am I trying to say that she is in anyway a problem or that feminist media studies should stop looking on screen. Rather, my claim is that you’ll be looking at the same old shit while the production culture in Hollywood is ethically compromised. As Modleski argues, this kind of situation, where men are solely responsible for representation of women and feminism and where men re-situate themselves in feminist discourse and narrative (e.g Three Men and a Baby which usurps feminist discourses around domestic labour and makes it a discourse about men), is problematically “feminism without women”. Women and feminism are still under the male gaze even if what appears on the screen appears to have dispensed with that perspective, and even when the films are made by women because it is the industry, not the film-makers, that decides what gets the go ahead. What ends up in multiplexes is inevitably something that has had the stamp of approval from an operating industrial patriarchy. Without going into the detail here, my thesis argues that this leads to a situation where the kind of feminism that makes it onto the big screen is the kind that can operate within patriarchy without contradicting it, which is to say, “post-feminism”.

But enough of that! The main thing I want to look at in this post are some of the results of the empirical research I did. The thesis looked at a collection of 700 films from 1980 to 2009, taking the top 20 grossing films of each year, and examining the roles of Director, Writer and Producer. This research builds upon the work of Martha Lauzen who produces an annual report but on a larger scale (top 250 grossing films). Lauzen’s reports also sometimes look at more nuanced categories such as below-the-line (trade) labour or films in the festival circuit etc . Fortunately for me, my smaller sample size allowed me to go a bit further back in time, and also produced some interesting results about industry “proximity”, but more on that later. I coded for gender on each film (including anyone who publically identified as trans/genderqueer – there was one, though she only began publicly identifying recently). Final note: these are charts from my draft so are a bit rough around the edges. If/when the thesis is passed, I’ll post the whole thing and the raw data and probably submit for a journal publication.

The first chart kind of sets the scene with a nice wall of red. Across the X-axis we have the last 30 odd years. Y-Axis is number of films out of the yearly sample of 20. As is pretty damned obvious, it is almost exclusively men. There isn’t much more to say about that.


This second graph is a little more interesting. I’ve plotted both my results (in blue) with those of Martha Lauzen. We’re now working with percentages rather than numbers of films. One of the interesting things that this chart allowed me to check out was the issue of abstract “proximity” to Hollywood. Lauzen’s results show a slightly hire rate of participation although they follow the approximate trends. This made me wonder whether the sample size meant anything, that is, rather than being simply more accurate, did the larger sample size have its own bias. Turns out it is likely that it did. The kinds of studios that get their films in the top 20 are the big block buster institutions that make up the heart of industrial Hollywood. Very quickly down the list of top grossing films the names of the studios and “talent” become a little more on the fringe, and by the time you get to rankings at 150+ they are entering the realms of obscurity for most people. This seemed to suggest that the closer to the (financial/cultural) heart of Hollywood the more intense the gendered divisions of labour. This theory had some (limited) predictive value – another research had done a single report of the top 100 grossing films in 2007. Her results sat between Lauzen’s and mine, as the theory suggested. The idea is further backed up by the much higher rates across all three categories Lauzen discovered when she reported on the festival circuit which features many more truly independent cinema (between 100-300% higher).


The rates of participation for writing and producing are both slightly higher than for directing, with producing being the highers overall (apologies if the charts are a bit small, you can open them in a tab of their own to view full size). Closer examination of the dataset showed that there was a correlation between the gender of the producer and the gender of the other two roles. This didn’t hold in the other directions, so it seems to suggest that the producer plays a much bigger part in affecting increased participation than other roles. This is interesting because often government programs (e.g in Australia – which has almost identical problems!) focus on funding writers and (even more often) directors as a means to boost women’s participation. This outcome raises the possibility that targeting producers might have a much greater effect. In all three charts there is a distinctive bubble in the mid-late 1990’s and early 2000’s. This is largely caused by the hurricane of awesome Nora fucking Ephron. Ephron single handedly skews that entire period by contributing almost everything to women’s participation rates. Ephron wrote and directed a number of hugely popular (and relatively cheap!) films. Unlike your Bays, Scotts and Camerons who get huge box office returns with huge budgets, Ephron got the former without the latter. Also unlike the Bays, Scotts and Camerons, when she had two less successful (but still highly profitable!) films she founds the door to Hollywood closed on her. This is a commonly reported experience for successful female directors who see a great deal more forgiveness and latitude given to the “golden boys” of Hollywood than is given to the women.

Take away Ephron, and the story of the last 30 years is almost zero participation, with a slow decline in directing. This is why I am cautious about Bigelow. We’re about due for another female director. And if the past is anything to go by, it will just be another. Not ten or twenty more, but just one. If that.


This final chart shows the percentage of films where there was at least one woman in at least one role. In the previous examples, the role had to be exclusively held by a woman. In the chart below, the role could be shared. Even then, in the most charitable interpretation of the data, the rate peaks at 20% and is the trend is flat (it would be downward if not for Ephron!).


So, the situation doesn’t reflect an unprecedented scale of women working in cinema. In all three categories, the situation is no better than it was three decades ago. A final interesting thing that came out of the research. The biggest predictor for a film’s box office performance is not the gender of the writer, director or producer but the marketing budget. I found this really interesting. Because it just buries the idea that women aren’t in these roles because they don’t make profitable or popular films. Invariably they do both, and arguably they get investors a better return by making cheaper films that gross many times their budget. So, Hollywood isn’t filtering out women for financial reasons. And that kind of marks the limit of where my kind of empirical work can get you. What needs to happen from there is  that the ethnographers need to go into the process and work out if it isn’t a calculable financial decision, then what informs the process of exclusion? Vicki Meyer and John Caldwell are two have done this very recently and their work is pretty awesome. Meyer does an excellent job by tracing media production from the construction of the media (i.e building televisions in special free trade zones) to creative production. Caldwell has done some great work with those working trade in the industry (camera technicians etc) and with some above-the-line (creative) labour where he uncovers some evidence of a distinctly misogynist and sexist culture at work.

That is all I wanted to show for now!

Mahar, K.W. 2008, Women in Early Hollywood Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.
Tasker, Y. 1998.
Working Girls – Gender and Sexuality in Popular Culture. London; New York: Routledge.

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