Gender inequality behind the scenes in the film industry is a problem of which origins dates back to centuries before the invention of cinema itself. However, these past two years, two women, Chloé Zhao and Jane Campion, have won the Academy Award for Best Directing, respectively becoming the second and third woman to ever win in this category. This year, undoing all the apparent progress, no woman has been nominated for Best Director.
In 2009, Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to ever win an Academy Award for Best Director for her work in “The Hurt Locker”. On a relatively low-budget for an action-thriller, Bigelow managed throughout her movie to acutely depict the intense psychological strain experienced by a division of US soldiers fighting in the Iraq War. Chloé Zhao, in 2021, was the second woman to receive this award for her movie “Nomadland”. By employing the desperately beautiful imagery she is well known for, Zhao tells the story of a woman’s journey across the American Midwest during the Great Recession. Finally, last year, Jane Campion won an Academy Award for best Director for “The Power of the Dog”, after already having been nominated in the same category thirty years ago. The movie: a haunting drama portraying the unravelling relationships between a rancher, his sister-in-law, and her son.
During the 95-year-old history of the Academy Awards, only seven women have so far been nominated for Best Director. The lack of female filmmakers nominated for an Academy Award for Directing is representative of the much more pervasive problem of gender inequality that affects the movie industry as a whole. Since the employment rate of women in the creative arts is robust, it follows that there exists a high percentage of highly qualified women that could be working in leadership positions, but are not. A recent study conducted around distribution biases of women film-directors, found that out of a set of more than 4,000 films released in the US between 1994 and 2016 only 5% had been directed by women. The same study also finds that stronger barriers, in the form of substantial biases in project assignment, budgeting, and distribution, heavily undermine and delay the development of women’s careers in the industry, compared to their male peers.
Other studies have outlined how across different genres of film the “average budget for women-directed films is substantially lower than the average budget for films directed by men”. Disappointingly, it is also shown that as women filmmakers gain popularity, they will continue to be at a disadvantage in terms of budget endowments compared to their male counterparts. Arguably, lack of sufficient funds will always pose a big constraint to the making of art. It is particularly so when working with a visual medium such as cinema, where budgeting determines what actors can be approached for the project and the depth to which a story can be told. This way, studios, who partake in budgeting decisions, are essentially proven to be, either consciously or unconsciously, reinforcing gender inequalities sometimes for the entire length of filmmakers’ careers.
Prizes put directors in the spotlight, they accelerate careers, and amplify voices. Various movie critics and directors have commented as to how this year’s Academy Award nominations for Best Director did not include female filmmakers. Daniel Kwan, one of the year’s Oscar nominated directors for “Everything Everywhere All at Once”, expressed in an interview how “it is a shame that so many incredible female filmmakers did not make the cut”. During the interview, Kwan in an unprecedented move acknowledged that “the industry has always been a white male club” and hopes to see more structural change in the future.
Kwan went on to praise women filmmakers such as Sarah Polley, Charlotte Wells, and Gina Prince-Bythewood whose movies were not selected for this year’s Oscar nominations. During the past year Sarah Polley directed and wrote “Women Talking”. The screenplay, adapted from a novel inspired by factual events, tells the story of a group of women who come to discover that they have been sexually abused by the men of the colony in which they live. The film with incredible attentiveness depicts the group of women as they talk through the trauma they have suffered, while debating whether and how to seek escape from their abusers. Through a tender but empowering build of images and dialogue, the director does, as the title says, give women’s voices the space and time to be heard. In 2022, Charlotte Wells made her feature-length directorial debut with the devastatingly glorious movie: “Aftersun”. You can read more about it here from a piece from our Arts and Culture Column. While Gina Prince-Bythewood’s most recent film, “The Woman King”, has been the subject of much controversy this year after it did not receive any Academy Award nominations. Even the director herself has spoken out about it. The movie is a fierce historical epic, set in the 19th century. It tells the story of the Agojie, a women-only fighting unit, who had an instrumental role in protecting the Kingdom of Dahomey from initial attempts of western colonization, in what the director has defined as a “restorative celebration of Black womanhood”.
If awards consistently fail to reward women’s skills and artistic vision, then they risk of becoming intrinsic of gender inequality in the director’s chair. However, the belief that progress is afoot is increasingly sustained by the emerging fame of even more female directors. These are directors such as Greta Gerwig, best known for writing and directing the complex and sharply ironic coming-of-age film “Lady Bird”, or Emerald Fennell, who shot to fame in 2021 for writing and directing “Promising Young Woman”, the movie which in recent history best tiptoes between extremely dark and light themes. If there is one take-away it is clearly not that there is a lack of multifaceted women-directed stories in cinema. But, that due to gender biases behind the scenes, audiences are still periodically exposed to narratives generated unequally by men over women. Award ceremonies are partly to blame as they directly and indirectly affect audiences’ turnout and box-office revenues, feeding back into a vicious cycle that fails to properly recognise female filmmakers.