This week the Directors Guild of America released some pretty shocking figures. Shocking because I’ve never seen stats like this attributed to actual production companies before, not so shocking because the numbers were exactly what I was expecting to see. The DGA did a little investigating, basically, into the last two years (2013, 2014) to see how many minority/female directors each major and major-minor studio are hiring. The results are pretty shameful to say the least. The numbers do speak for themselves, but I just wanted to go into a little detail about why these numbers are a pretty sad state of affairs for the film industry as a whole, and what it means for representation in front of the camera.
A Short History
The film industry has always been a tough place for minorities to survive. Strangely though, it seems to have got tougher. In the 1920s and 30s, where the idea of sound was still a twinkling in some clever techies eye, women frequently worked as editors within the industry. Editing was seen as an ‘administrative’ role, which meant many women were encouraged to pursue a career in editing. So many women helped to create the foundations for narrative cinema (Alice Guy Blache is frequently credited with directing the first ever narrative film). Lois Weber, Mary Pickford and June Mathis were among a large group of women pioneers in the early film industry.
Then came the Hays Code in 1929 – a list of rules and regulations from the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America. The main intention was to eradicate any taboo subjects from their films – mostly due to the irrational fear that society would replicate anything they saw on-screen. There was also a general feeling that the film industry was unethical and immoral (ha!) and this immorality may have repercussions when the films were distributed to a nationwide or global audience. You can see a full list of all of the ‘dont’s’ and ‘be carefuls’ here, but generally – white supremacy reigned as always. No showing female desire, no showing mixed-race relationships, no showing ‘white slavery’ or basically anything that may be seen as ‘perverse’. Although the Hays Code was discarded in 1968, many of the rules made it difficult for female filmmakers or minority filmmakers to gain support for their projects, or to get into the film industry at all. Movies directed by white men were supported and funded, and consequently the films narratives were centred around white men.
So that’s our short history lesson. What I have outlined is by no means all of the reasons/consequences, but I did want to keep it brief. And although the Hays Code is long gone, there are remnants of it everywhere today. Studios and distributors are unwilling to take what they describe as ‘risks’ to finance films directed by minority directors. The Hays Code isn’t the only perpetrator in the oppression of female and minority filmmakers, but it sure as hell helped to cement a patriarchal system within the industry.
As you can see by the graphs that the DGA very kindly created, it’s still an incredibly problematic situation for the film industry. The data spans from 2013 to 2014, and in that time 8 out of the 10 companies did not release any films directed by minority women. Yes, that is correct. NONE. If we break down the data a bit more, 100% of Disney distributed films in 2013/2014 were directed by men, just 6% by minority males though. Lionsgate actually had the most diverse results; 59% directed by white men, 5% by white females, 32% by minority males and 5% by minority females. Compared to the other studios, that doesn’t look too bad. Nice one, Lionsgate.
What is strange to me, and to many other people out there, is how this would not be tolerated in other industries. We have had years of male domination in various industries but recently there has been noise made about doing better. Tech industries have always been notorious ‘boys clubs’, but many companies (Google, Ebay, Air BnB) have begun minority/female focused hiring schemes. It’s a long way from perfect but it is a start. Similarly, when studying STEM subjects, there are many bursaries and grants that only women and minorities can get access to – encouraging them to pursue careers in those fields. But what about the film industry? The numbers don’t lie; over half of university grads from film schools are female. But only 22% actually make it into the industry. Only 1.9% make it into big budget directing. If you want to read more about gender disparity, especially within separate departments – read this.
What Does This Mean Onscreen
Okay so we have talked a lot about figures and stats, and done a little bit of film history while we were at it. One of the effects this has is on women and minorities actually getting into the industry and advancing their careers once they are in. It’s hard to work your way up the ladder when there are very few accomplished directors to inspire you. If you can’t see the path that someone else has taken, someone who looks like you – it begins to become very depressing.
There is another implication to this disparity behind the camera however. There is a very simple correlation. In 2014, only 12 % of protagonists in big budget films were female. Of those, 74% were white females, 11% were Black, 4% Latina, 4% Asian, 4% were other. That doesn’t add up to 100, right? That’s because 3% of female protagonist were ‘other wordly’. AKA, it’s almost as likely that you would see an Asian female protagonist as an alien female protagonist. Nice. It’s important to notice that, with the vast majority of directors being white and being male – that the most common stories being told on-screen are also white and male. Here begins a ‘chicken and egg’ scenario. Directors replicate what they know, and what they know is about being a white man. Cinema-goers only see narratives that are about white men and don’t see themselves or their stories represented on-screen. These stories ‘appeal’ to audiences (because there is little else) and so studios mainly fund projects with male directors and white male protagonists. It’s hard to break the cycle.
Look. I am not saying that a film is terrible simply because it has a white man directing it. That, clearly, is not the case. It’s just that there is too often a lack of minority stories or characters within films directed by white men. Look at David Fincher, Woody Allen, Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg. Out of their filmography alone, you could count on one hand the number of films which haven’t had a white male protagonist. Even when there is representation, it tends to be pretty awful (see. ‘The Danish Girl’ and every-trans-trope-ever). We had the same issue very recently with ‘Stonewall’. A historic story has been white-washed by the studio, those that started the stonewall riots have been erased. Having a white man (Roland Emmerich) direct the film meant that substituting black drag queens with a charming white boy was not questioned. Similarly with ‘Suffragette’ (as much as I loved the film), it ignored the narratives of minority-ethnic suffragettes and instead focused on white-washing history. Tell me a minority female director would have agreed to direct that?
It’s frustrating, disheartening and above all incredibly tedious to see narratives which are directed (by and for) only one part of society.
This has turned into a bit of a rant, so I think I’ll wrap it up now. It’s all a bit depressing, and maybe I’ll do another post on the emergence of minority, LGBTQ and female filmmakers – because depsite all of the above, I do think it’s getting better. Honestly.