ARTICLE / SHORT READ
CUT TO [decade]
BY Tia Thomas
SPEAKING to IndieWire in 2017 about the idea of the "strong female character", actress Kate Winslet said: “To be ‘strong’ sometimes isn’t the most interesting thing. It is more interesting to be complicated, and vulnerable, and real, and terrified, and hopeful, and full of regret.” Two films that showcase this are LADYBIRD (Greta Gerwig 2017) and BOOKSMART (Olivia Wilde 2019).
One of the most significant things to come out of the film industry this last decade is the evolution and elevation of women, both behind the camera and in the characters portrayed on screen. In 2010, of the 250 highest grossing films, women accounted for only 7% of directors. By the end of the decade, this percentage rose to 15%. Obviously, 15% is still not a huge number of female directors, but the fact the numbers have doubled is progress at least. Historically, jobs like editing and screenwriting have generally been seen as more of a woman’s job, as opposed to cinematography and directing roles that apparently require “heavy lifting” and command. These generalisations have been detrimental to the progression of women in the industry. As Rebecca Wolff, producer at Grasp the Nettle Films, states: “It's at the higher levels of the industry...that I think it is much harder for women to get a fair deal...They are, by and large, not trusted at the helm of multi-million dollar projects and that has a trickle-down effect on the rest of the industry”. Female directors are seen as more of a risk by studios, whether they would admit to that or not.
In spite of this, 2017 was a comparatively good year for female directors. When WONDER WOMAN (Patty Jenkins 2017) was released, the film set a new record for a female-directed feature, earning $100 million in its opening weekend. Another success for women this year was the indie film LADYBIRD, which was nominated for five Academy Awards - including Best Picture - and Gerwig became the fifth woman ever to be nominated for the Best Director category.
LADYBIRD was Gerwig’s directorial debut, a tale about high-school senior Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), who struggles with her relationships as she prepares to leave her childhood home for college. At a glance, the film may appear as your typical coming-of-age tale, littered with friendship conflicts, losing virginity woes, prom and graduation. But at the core of the film is the clashing relationship between Lady Bird and her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf). The film is packed with emotional conflict, much of it hinging on this core mother-daughter relationship, as Lady Bird tries to assert her identity as a young adult. It is common territory for many mothers and daughters. Lady Bird is a rich female character in the way that Winslet defined: “terrified and hopeful.” She is terrified of being stuck in her hometown of Sacramento, complaining that she wishes she “could live through something” or “go where culture is like New York, or at least Connecticut or New Hampshire”. Yet, she is hopeful for the future she has imagined for herself and works hard to achieve her goals. She clashes against her mother with poor communication and misunderstanding, which is ultimately recognised too late.
The affecting mother-daughter relationship in LADYBIRD is encapsulated in the opening scene. They sit in the car, listening to John Steinbeck's GRAPES OF WRATH on tape, crying and connecting with each other. Within only a few lines of dialogue they are arguing, their moment is completely derailed and Lady Bird jumps out of the moving car. Gerwig says: “There’s a quality to fighting in cars where you're trapped. And it felt like it kind of gave the right tone for the movie, and it’s going for something that’s emotionally real”. It is exciting to see these emotionally real and recognisable female characters and relationships, rather than flat women simply reacting to men. As more women find their place in the industry and studios take more “risks” with female directors, there is hope for an influx of complicated, real women on screen.
Similarly, Olivia Wilde’s BOOKSMART showcases an empowering, positive relationship between two young women. Too often in teen flicks are young women put at each other’s throats, but here there are no cliques, no one at their school has a real mean attitude – everything is portrayed in a cheerful and unconcerned light. The two main characters, best friends Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein), have one major fight that is filmed by everyone. But it does not develop into anything. It does not go viral and there are no lasting feelings of shame or embarrassment. Their feelings are not over dramatised; it is more realistic and in the end their relationship is better for it.
During a protest staged at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, actress Cate Blanchett said: “Women are not a minority in the world. Yet the current state of our industry says otherwise”. 82 women walked the red carpet and stood on the stairs to represent the number of female directors who have climbed the stairs since the festival's opening in 1946, contrasting the 1,688 male directors who have climbed in the same period. Blanchett also drew attention to the famed Palme d’Or award, which has been given to 71 male directors, but only 2 female directors. This idea of the protest was to draw attention to this severe imbalance in the industry and to highlight how much harder it is for women to get recognition.
This decade has seen some landmark moments for women in film. It gave us the #MeToo movement. It gave us the first - although still only - woman in history to win Best Director at the Academy Awards (Kathryn Bigelow in 2010). Women represented on screen are changing too. The conversation is finally changing and the industry has taken some long overdue steps forward. 2020 has more female-led productions than before, with Cathy Yan directing BIRDS OF PREY (2020), Niki Caro directing the remake of Disney’s MULAN (2020), and Cate Shortland directing Marvel’s long-awaited BLACK WIDOW (2021). But this is just scratching the surface. We need better representation on screen, different races and ethnicity, different sexualities, different abilities, different sizes, different women. I cannot wait to see how they dominate the new decade.
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