Women in Film: Neglected or Non-existent?

In the 88 years of Academy Awards, only four women have been nominated for the ‘Best Director’ award, while only one has won. This year, the sheer lack of female nominees at the Oscars has highlighted the “male culture” prevalent in Hollywood.

There has been a lot of controversy surrounding the release of this year’s Oscar nominations, particularly around the lack of female filmmakers in the directing category. In the 88 years of Academy Awards, only one woman has won an award for directing– Kathryn Bigelow– while only four have been nominated. With Bigelow’s win, the ratio of female to male winners was a shocking 1 to 88 – a ratio that will become 1 to 89 in 2019.

On this exclusion, Sparsh Sehgal, King’s Women’s Officer, said: “Since the last nine decades, the Academy Awards have failed to recognise women directors. And it is not surprising that this exclusion is still in place this year, even after critically acclaimed movies like Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer, Tamara Jenkins’ Private Life, Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here were all female-directed movies. The nomination process fails to recognise a whole segment of work helmed by deserving female directors. Traditionally gender boundaries have restricted women from getting the opportunity to stand as equals and work. Now they restrict recognition and progress.”

The obvious disparity between female and male nominees has raised many eyebrows. Many people are indignant, believing that deserving women filmmakers were overlooked as potential candidates – but is this truly the case? Were women filmmakers excluded from the directing category in the 2019 Academy Awards because of systematic discrimination that refuses to acknowledge their work, or is the real issue at hand implicit in the system – the very imbalance of females in the filmmaking industry?

Female filmmakers have fewer opportunities to thrive in Hollywood, which has historically suffered from systemic gender equality issues. An important issue to discuss is why women are underrepresented in the filmmaking industry and why they are often dissuaded from joining the same. In research conducted by the online film-financing hub Slated, it was revealed that low-budget films directed by women are released on one-third as many screens as those directed by men, reducing not only their exposure but their return on investment.

Moreover, while some low-budget films are released on few screens, others don’t even make it to theatres; and since only films that have been released in theatres can be recognised by the Academy for an Oscar, women’s films fail to be nominated, leading to gender based disparity among Oscar nominees.

Aside from the reduced exposure, there is also a very evident power imbalance in Hollywood, with men holding more positions of power than women. This prominent masculine culture perpetuates the discrepancy in both nomination and employment gender gaps and has led to many people viewing Hollywood as an exclusive “boys’ club.” According to Julie Burton, president of Women’s Media Centre, “women cannot get through the door, and if they can’t get through the door, they can’t be recognised and rewarded for their excellence and impact.”

There is no point criticising the films that were nominated this year: we cannot say that they did not deserve to be nominated, because they did. However, the underrepresentation of women – highlighted by this year’s nominations – makes it clear that there is a lot of work to be done to increase the number of females in the filmmaking industry.

This does not mean that we establish a gender quota, which is a criticised solution because it is widely believed that men and women should be measured on the same scale. Instead, we should aim to promote women filmmakers through various initiatives, such as mentorship schemes and greater outreach initiatives. Certain resources for the same are already in place, such as Women in Film and Women at Sundance’s Female Filmmakers Initiative; yet, it is evident that there is still a long way to go for a substantial increase in women’s participation.