Robot 6

The Times‘ Manohla Dargis on women in Hollywood: “Women are starved for representations of themselves”

The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker

This is not a story about comics — but in a way, it is: In a fairly devastating piece in the New York Times and a no-holds-barred interview with Jezebel, film critic Manohla Dargis lays out the sorry state of films made by and for women in Hollywood today.

Dargis presents the evidence in painstaking and depressing detail. First there’s the good news: hits like Sex and the City, Mamma Mia, and The Twilight Saga: New Moon have made it all but impossible to dismiss women as a “niche” audience. (Which stands to reason, since they’re 51% of the population after all.) The bad news, of course, is that these films — and most romantic comedies and Sandra Bullock vehicles, to name a pair of other standard and successful “femme-driven” film types — are not very good. Dargis argues that their success stems from a massive number of female moviegoers desperate to see themselves represented somehow, anyhow, on screen.

Another silver lining: women-directed films have some hot Oscar prospects this year, led by Kathryn Bigelow’s masterfully suspenseful Iraq War action-drama The Hurt Locker. But Bigelow had to struggle for years to get that movie made, while equally worthy male directors with similar track records cruise from one big-budget star vehicle to the next. And the critical success of The Hurt Locker or Nora Ephron’s Julie & Julia can’t mask the fact that the major Hollywood studios released a grand total of 11 films directed by women this year. Want a comics connection? Soon-to-be Marvel parent company Disney had one; DC owner Warner Bros. had none. Meanwhile, perhaps Bigelow shouldn’t hold her breath on Oscar night: In the Academy Awards’ 81-year history, only three women have been nominated for Best Director, none of whom went on to win.

But Dargis doesn’t argue that the remedy is for female film fans to blindly support any movie directed by a person with a uterus. (“So does that mean I have to go support Nora Ephron? Fuck no. That’s just like, blech.”) Nor does she spend much time kicking the lousy but prominent women-oriented movies in the teeth. Nor does she see much hope for the notion that putting women in positions of authority at the studios will trickle down to create more opportunities for female directors and better movies for female audiences — the recent stint during which four of the six big Hollywood studios had female head honchos is proof enough of that. Indeed, she concludes that the studio system is all but impregnable for women. And here’s another comics connection for you: in part, she blames “the vogue for comics and superheroes” for marginalizing female voices.

So what does she suggest as a solution? A sort of step one is already taken care of — women audiences have been turning movies into hits at a prodigious rate lately, which may help break the vicious cycle of not making movies for women because “women don’t go to the movies.” But mostly, Dargis rests her hopes on people on the creative front lines who care, or presumably care, about the lack of good movies by and for and about women finally putting their money where their mouths are. “I also hope that the money people, including [Sandra] Bullock, whose production company actually makes hits, like ‘The Proposal,’ start giving female filmmakers a chance to do something other than dopey romances,” she writes. “(Good romances would be a start.)” For her part, Dargis says she worked hard to get Bigelow on the cover of the Times‘ Arts and Leisure section.

There’s been much passionate advocacy about women in comics lately — on the page, behind the scenes, in the shops, lining up at cons. But precious little of it has centered on the comics equivalents of Bigelow and The Hurt Locker. It stands to reason that superhero fans will debate superheroine costumes, or cheesecake covers, or the nomenclature of showcase titles, or which fandoms threaten to eclipse their own at San Diego, and so on. But just as film is more than romantic comedies, comics is more than superheroes, and just as the future of women in Hollywood cinema depends on much more than The Ugly Truth, the future of women in comics depends on much more than Power Girl and She-Hulk. The advancement of women in comics ultimately hinges on producing more and better books by and about and for women — on carving out an ever more prominent space for C. Tyler, Carol Swain, Danica Novgorodoff, Kate Beaton, Hope Larson, Lynda Barry, Lilli Carré, Phoebe Gloeckner, Vanessa Davis, Jillian and Mariko Tamaki, Julia Wertz, Lisa Hannawalt, Miss Lasko-Gross, Lucy Knisley, and on and on. And even within the superhero world, it depends a lot more on the staff of Girl Comics — and what they do afterward — than who or what’s on the cover.

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9 Comments

Where the article loses me is the shift from female-marketed to female-directed movies. Like the author mentions, the films marketed to women are pretty uniformly bad (box office notwithstanding). But they’re also directed overwhelmingly by men. On the flip-side, The Hurt Locker is directed by a woman, but I can’t imagine women flocking to the theaters to see it, considering the subject-matter. At best the studio might hope for an even mix, but that seems unlikely (war + explosions = more men). There is no logical connection between one thing and the other, unless the argument is that women would be better at making drek geared towards women (and therefore studios should put female directors in charge of female-marketed movies). That seems ridiculous. The solution that everybody wants is just better movies, regardless of who is making them.

That said, it’s absolutely outrageous that so few movies are directed by women. Clearly there is a systemic prejudice at work here. But if we had a 50/50 split tomorrow, that wouldn’t mean there would suddenly be better movies out there. There would just be more female directors making crappy movies.

“The advancement of women in comics ultimately hinges on producing more and better books by and about and for women…”

This is so true, Sean. I was just looking at SLG’s schedule for 2010 through July, and of eleven projects, only two are by women (Diana Thung and Shari Chankhamma — neither of whom are American, interestingly). (One is by someone who prefers to be gender-unidentified and another is an anthology with two stories that women — one of them me — worked on. A couple are works by men that have a lot of female readers — Ross Campbell and Aaron Alexovich.) This is not because of any lack of support for women creators on my part or at SLG. In fact, I generally get pretty impatient with proposals for projects that specify that the target audience is male or are typically macho T&A and violence stuff. But I just don’t get as many submissions from women as from men. But I get more than I used to — the success of women like those you mention and, with us specifically, Faith Erin Hicks, gives girls and women encouragement, I think.

As for movies, the only thing I can contribute is that it seems like whenever someone in Hollywood is interested in one of our books that has a female protagonist, the first question they ask is if she can be changed to a male. It drives me crazy.

“the films marketed to women are pretty uniformly bad ”

Agreed. As are the films marketed to kids (Alivin & The Chipmunks, etc). And the films marketed as comedies (Scary Movie, American Pie,etc). And many other genres, too (What was the last good Sci-Fi flick you’ve seen?)

I think there are broader problems in the movie biz due to a dearth of ideas, fear of risk taking, and a lack of understanding of niche marketing.

Most films marketed to people in general are bad.

I think I’ve been pretty vocal with my opinion about the role of women in comics (both as creators and as characters), but I think Dargis op/ed is crap. Her argument is based almost entirely on anecdotal evidence, and there’s nothing to suggest that treatment of male directors is any better than it is for female ones. The older directors she implied were being oppressed for their gender have all had a string of flops, and anybody in charge of funding new films by those directors would be wise to be a little cautious as to whether or not they’ll get their investment back.

Her solution that the women who have the money need to support female filmmakers is fine in practice, but it’s kind of like those super hero fans who complain that their favorite silver age character isn’t getting the respect he deserves. In both cases. In both cases, if the investor doesn’t think the project will be profitable, there’s no reason to invest in it, regardless gender.

Not to mention the fact that Dargis doesn’t mention (anecdotally or otherwise) how many women are trying to become directors. She admitted that there are plenty of female executives, and I know that there are tons of successful female screenwriters out there. It seems odd to me that women have at least a strong foothold in every part of the industry except this one. Is it even possible that not many women who have the ability to become directors have the desire to do so?

“Is it even possible that not many women who have the ability to become directors have the desire to do so?”

Is it possible that the institutional sexism in the film industry regarding that particular role discourages women from pursuing it?

Dargis points out the men with similar track records (flops and all) seem to have less trouble getting new projects produced. Anecdotal evidence is all that is available to her, since there are no clinical trials or formal polls that examine the way women directors are treated, and she makes a good case — the causes might be a bit speculative at this point, but it’s pretty obvious that there is *something* going on. Anyone with a shred of common sense can see that there is something impeding women in becoming prominent, studio-supported directors. If anything, Dargis pointing out the obvious is a call to find out what’s really going on.

I’m not sure how “3 women nominated for Best Director in 81 years” and “11 movies total directed by women released by the six major studios this calendar year” is anecdotal. That’s not what anecdotal means.

Jennifer: “Anecdotal evidence is all that is available to her, since there are no clinical trials or formal polls that examine the way women directors are treated, and she makes a good case — the causes might be a bit speculative at this point, but it’s pretty obvious that there is *something* going on.”

Sean: “I’m not sure how “3 women nominated for Best Director in 81 years” and “11 movies total directed by women released by the six major studios this calendar year” is anecdotal. That’s not what anecdotal means.”

As someone who spends his days building economic evidence to support his expert witness testimony, I say: hear, hear. Or, as Inigo Montoya once said: “You use that word a lot, but I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Faith Erin Hicks is frickin’ awesome.

Also, thankfully Top Shelf is publishing a couple books by women next year. Still not as many as we’d like, but…

I’ve been in comics since 1986. WTF ever possessed me to get into the most difficult, labor-intensive art form in publishing when I could just be writing stupid genre prose? What did I do in my last life?

Look, from my own experience, the guys don’t want to publish anything the women want. They want to publish and produce what THEY like. Well, isn’t THAT a surprise?

Until women simply dump the old systems and start building their own, they won’t get anywhere. Men think of us as the “Borg — when we’re not being used for sex or breeding, they think we can be hung up in a closet somewhere and cease to breathe or eat.

Borg Productions… hm….

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