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Women in Film

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Women’s stories matter and how their stories are told in the media we consume every day matters. Women make up just 34% of speaking roles in films globally, and in the UK, just 31.4%. Their voices are, quite literally, not being heard. The film industry has always been systemically and institutionally male, making it incredibly difficult for women to find opportunities as men are more likely to employ other men. In 2023, films with a male director had creative teams where 9% of the writers, 18% of the editors, 11% of the composers and 7% for cinematographers were women. Films that had at least one female director had creative teams where 61% of the writers, 35% of the editors, 10% of the cinematographers, and 26% of composers were women. The film industry is very cyclical and stagnant at the same time; the same men stay in charge and employ the same men who do the same, and so on. The pattern is frustrating and allows for little to no change, and if there is change, it is agonizingly slow and always at risk of backsliding. The industry and its measures of merits are immediately sexist right from the ground up.

Chloé Zhao accepting the Best Director Oscar onstage during the 93rd Annual Academy Awards at Union Station in Los Angeles on Sunday. Photo: Todd Wawrychuk/A.M.P.A.S. via Getty Images.

Take the Oscars as an example; arguably the most prestigious and high-value award in the film industry. Only 3 women have won an Oscar for Best Director and only 7 have been nominated in total. Only 1 of these women was a woman of colour, and she was also the first women of colour to win an Oscar for Best Director. Similarly, the films that win Best Picture rarely have a female protagonist. The Oscars are quite notorious for underrepresenting women and people of colour in their nominations, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise. In 2019 the Academy announced that only 32% of its members were women and just 16% were people of colour. To become a member of the Academy you must have at least two directorial credits, one of which had to premier in the last decade, and the films must “reflect the high standards” of the Academy. Women already have way less opportunities to direct because of the structural and systemic equality in the industry, so this presents a major obstacle in them being invited into the Academy in the first place. When those in control of who even gets a seat at the table discriminate, it’s no wonder there is such a wide disparity between female and male filmmakers.

Woman watching TV at home. Photo: 497136923 via Adobe Stock.

And when it comes to on-screen representation, correct representation is just as crucial. Films write a cultural and social script– consciously and subconsciously we pay attention to what we are shown and adjust accordingly. Women being consistently underrepresented in both on-screen and off-screen roles as well as awards is not only unfair but genuinely harmful. In 1976 researchers George Gerbner and Larry Gross introduced and coined the term “symbolic annihilation” when speaking about representation in television and film. The idea of symbolic annihilation is that if you do not see yourself represented in the media you are consuming, you think you have no value; that you aren’t important. People seeing themselves and their experiences onscreen can directly contribute to their own understanding of themselves and their worth. When there is such a small amount of female representation on and off screen, women are actively discouraged from pursuing opportunities of joining the film industry as well as made to feel like their stories don’t matter as much. Furthermore, audiences seeing genuine and true experiences of others leads to an expansion of their views of the people around them and the world.

Beauty and the Beast (2017). Photo: Disney Beauty and the Beast scene still via BBC One website.

There is an immense amount of power and importance in when women tell their own stories and are given the support and resources needed to tell them. On the other side of things, when men write and direct women’s stories, female characters are often misrepresented or misunderstood. They fall victim to the male gaze, sexual assault played for laughs, gender stereotypes such as the femme fatale, a motherly figure who tends the house while the boys go to work, and so on. There is often a fixation on the women’s beauty and sexuality and her emotions and actions are exclusively dependent on the men around her. Even though she is the protagonist of the film, she still requires male characters to ‘activate’ her. These stereotypes and casual kind of victimisation lead to a dangerous normalisation of gender roles and violent cultural phenomenon.

Barbie (2023). Photo: Disney Barbie scene still via Elle Fashion.

In 2023, women comprised only 16% of directors on the 250 top-grossing films which is less than the 18% in 2022. Women comprised 22% of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers for the top 250 grossing films. Overall, 2023 has been described as “catastrophic” when it came to female representation, both on and off screen. This has often been misconstrued, or overshadowed, due to the success of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, but even in a year where multiple top-grossing films were directed by women (Past Lives, Saltburn, Cocaine Bear), women were still grossly underrepresented at an even worse rate than previous years.

In 2024, make it a goal to watch and share films by female filmmakers. A shortlist of some wonderful films by female filmmakers can be found below, as well as some recommendation of upcoming films releasing this year directed by women.