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Gender representation in film

By Tim O'Hare - posted Tuesday, 3 January 2017


The recent protest at Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA) awards, where only two of the 28 nominees for Best Director were female, is just the tip of the iceberg for a culture which seems to value 'diversity' above all else including creativity, artistic expression and originality. Where once film-making was about the art focused primarily on the given film on its own merit, today's rising female stars, led by the cabal Women in Film and Television New South Wales (WILT), want to put the focus on the genitals of the film-maker.

I should declare, for the sake of transparency, that I am in fact a white male and therefore do not have the lived experience to talk about sexism. I am also not in the film industry so I do not know what goes on behind closed doors and cannot judge the subjective merit of the filmmakers who were nominated for awards compared to those who weren't. What I can do is critique the growing sentiment which is vocal on gender inequality yet less vocal on merit.

The protestors from WILT gate-crashed the AACTA red carpet, dressed in sausage outfits. One of the protesters, Sophie Mathisen, wrote a piece for the ABC justifying her part in the protest. Some of the statistics she cited were alarming, such as that women make up just 32 per cent of producers, 23 per cent of writers and 16 per cent of directors in 'traditional film', that is mainstream films produced by Screen Australia.

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However it is worth noting that film is not necessarily a representative industry; that is, an industry comprising people from all walks of life. According to the 2011 census less than 2% of Australians are employed in the broader industry of Arts and Recreation. It takes a particular person who is willing to work in an industry with limited job security and travel across the country to wherever the film crew is shooting (and power to them). We can speculate on the variety of possible reasons why this might be less alluring to women than men or we can at least acknowledge that it's idealistic to expect an industry as niche as film to be entirely representative of broader society.

A statistic which favours Mathisen's argument, is film education. For graduates of diplomas and degrees in screenwriting production and directing between 1973 and 2015, there is almost gender parity (52% male/48% female). A reasonable person might expect those statistics to be borne out when it comes to who gets a job within the industry. But it's more complicated than that.

The expectation that the percentage of women who study one discipline would correlate with the percentage of women who work in that said discipline might be true if the field in question was a more conventional one such as Engineering or Law. However, as I've said previously, the film industry is far from conventional. For one thing, film graduates are among the lowest percentile of graduates to attain work in their field. This can be put down to either a lack of jobs or a lack of willingness to do the entry level jobs which, as I said previously, are not for everyone.

Moreover film, unlike conventional fields of study, is less dependent on objective measures of competence such as grades (where women are shown to perform, as a collective, as well or better than men). Those who make it tend to do so due to perseverance, networking, raw talent or a combination of all three. In fact, some of the greatest names in the Australian film industry, George Miller, Peter Weir and Rob Sitch do not have film degrees. Also, when you break down the education statistics further, you see that women are over-represented in screenwriting courses at university, a field which is incredibly competitive to get into, while under-represented in more technical and specialist educations areas (ie. areas that yield jobs) like cinematography, sound mixing, set construction and editing.

There's no doubt that women as a collective perform as well as, or better, than men in academic settings and have produced great works of art including great films. It's also true that the film industry is not entirely meritocratic and accusations that the industry is insular and nepotistic may be somewhat true. However striving for gender equality is misguided and contributes further to the bureaucratisation of film.

We can speculate further on the reasons why there aren't as many female filmmakers or we can turn to the practical issue at hand, which Sophie Mathison is raising- why aren't there more female filmmakers nominated at the AACTA awards? To be blunt, this comes down to a simple law of numbers. If 16% of Australian film directors are female (as Mathison points out) then they are in competition with 84% of men for award nominations.

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If award nominations were entirely proportionate to the number of female film-makers (16%) then instead of receiving 2/28 nominations, female directors would receive 4 or 5. Surely such a proposal, that AACTA selectors be bound by gender quotas when selecting filmmakers for awards, would be dismissed by rational-minded people.

So what then is the solution? A separate division for male and female directors? Surely such a proposal should be categorically dismissed for its misogyny of low expectations.

So is gender diversity in film important? Many would argue that it is important to have a diversity of genders at the helm of films in order to in turn ensure that a diversity of stories is being told and to not give disproportionate representation to a typically male view of the world. I should add that such a gendered view of filmmaking is almost bigoted in its stereotyping of the films that are being made. For example there is nothing objectively feminine about the famous films produced by female directors- 'American Psycho' and 'The Hurt Locker.' Likewise, male directors have produced some films which many might regard as stereotypically feminine such as 'Pride and Prejudice' by Joe Wright and 'The Queen' by Steven Frears. In a world with the free flow of story-telling and ideas and where men and women freely interact, it seems archaic to expect film-makers to adhere to rigid gender norms.

But if gender representation in film is a problem then, logically, it must come as part of a long list of problems such as a lack of capital, the monopoly status of Screen Australia, a shortage of companies for market distribution and losing home-grown talent to Hollywood. Addressing the gender disparity in filmmaking cannot be done without first addressing these problems. To ignore these problems and focus on the single issue of gender, would only serve to further bureaucratise creativity.

The answer, although not simple, is for Australian filmmakers, of any gender, to continue to make exceptional films which challenge convention which will heighten Australia's artistic standing in the world. Mathison points out that female filmmakers often struggle to get funding for films due to female-produced films not doing as well as male-produced films at the box office. The only solution there is for really great female directors to defy the odds and get funding to make a great film which in turn smashes it at the box office and leads the way for investors to give other female film-makers a chance.

The state of contemporary Australian film owes much to the successes in the mid and late 70s of 'Picnic at Hanging Rock' and 'Mad Max' in putting Australia on the map. Filmmakers such as Sophie Mathison should be thankful for just how far the industry has come since then in giving a greater array of opportunities to a diverse range of people even if there is not yet gender parity. The only solution to the shortcomings of the Australian film industry is to simply help grow the industry.

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About the Author

Tim O'Hare is a Brisbane-based, History graduate from the University of Queensland. He is a freelance commentator on political and cultural issues with specific reference to economics, education and free speech. Along with his commentary on social media, online publications and blogging he also finds creative expression in stand up comedy in a variety of bars in and around the Brisbane CBD.

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