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Vision: Women's Media Center and Feminist Teens Raise Gender Disparity Awareness at Sundance

Though the statistics for women in film are grim, a group of young women offer hope for the future.

Hollywood runs on the ticket draw of big-name actresses, and the mainstream media seems to run on the minutiae of actresses' lives. But behind the scenes of the industry, women’s voices are scarce compared to those of men; female producers, directors and critics are as marginalized as their stories, so rare that when Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman ever to win a Best Director Oscar in 2010, fellow director Rhianon Elan Gutierrez was moved to comment, "I am happy to see a woman succeeding in an industry that often has them acting as objects of sexual fascination rather than intellectual and creative power."

And while it’s a conclusion that’s easy to glean by paying even a little attention, the numbers illustrate exactly how great the divide is: only four women directors in history have ever been nominated for Best Director; 77 percent of film critics are male; and 86 percent of films this year had no female writers, which is perfectly aligned with the fact that only 8 percent of film writers are women, period. These statistics are more starkly illustrated in this video, put together by the Women’s Media Center (WMC), starring a gang of bright young journalists, and soundtracked by Dar Williams:

 

The progressive, remarkable and activist teen stars -- Charis Benjamin, Mimi Erickson-Clayton, Katie Houser and Molly Kiefer O’Donnell -- set out this year to change those statistics. Along with WMC members Jodie Evans, Teresa McBride, Gloria Steinem, and Yana Walton,they attended Sundance Film Festival to raise awareness of the lack of diversity in the film industry, to blog their experiences, and to interview directors and actors.

The festival circuit is historically a much friendlier environment than the awards shows proffered by the bigwigs of Tinseltown. Not as dictated by box-office draws to prop up big-studio budgets, festivals like Sundance tend to embrace a wider range of voices, including a wide swathe of films directed by and focusing on women. As Mimi Erickson Clayton writes on her WMC blog:

Independent films, of course, are not devoid of the gender inequity problems that face the rest of the media world, but they tend to be much closer to equality than big budget films -- 26% compared to 7% of directors are women. The Sundance Film Festival is a great place to be a woman director...

Moreover, to assume that male-directed features draw the most money is a fallacy promoted by a system of exclusion. According to a 2008 study by Women at the Box Office, "films employing at least one woman as director, executive producer, producer, or writer earned slightly higher opening weekend U.S. box office grosses ($27.1 vs. 24.6 million) than films with only men in these roles."

And yet a long-running male-centric power structure has assured that women in film will face a struggle, particularly the higher up the ladder they get. In 2003, director Joey Forsyte told writer Ann Lewinson about her early experiences at NYU Film School, when she was kicked out of good cinematography classes based solely on her gender. In the same piece, director Maryse Alberti said, “I think when you get to a certain level of budget, people have a tendency to trust men more than women.”

It's a discouraging statement. And yet, there are glimmers of hope that the filmic glass ceiling is being broken, piece by piece. In its Sundance coverage, the New York Times prominently profiled the directorial debut of actor Vera Farmiga -- a darling of the paper who was lovingly portrayed in a profile of new women in film back in 2006. She also stars in her film, Higher Ground, and helped with the screenplay; when several potential directors failed to capture the nuance she and other scriptwriters sought, she took the reins (and she did so while pregnant).

The WMC program that got the aforementioned teens to Sundance was partnered up with Jennifer Siebel Newsom, director of a feminist documentary titled Miss Representation. Subtitled “You can’t be what you can’t see,” the film shows how under-representation of women in the media limits the scope of what we believe we can do -- yet to counteract this, interviews strong young feminists as well as powerful adult women, from Delores Huerta to Jane Fonda to Rachel Maddow.

Certainly, the fact that the WMC teens are on the case is remarkable and heartening -- their collective spirit and intellect bodes well for the future. In another blog entry, Charis Benjamin writes about interviewing Tiffany Shlain, director of Connected.

Shlain credits her inclusive and supportive upbringing with her success not only as a female film maker, but also as a full-time mother. She has not felt pressured to change herself or felt that she is any less appreciated in her field. She also credits the amazing women she has met in the industry and their abilities to inspire her to do her best work with utmost integrity. In her eyes, mentoring between the experienced and the new is the best way to encourage young women to join in her footsteps.

Words to live by. Read the young WMC bloggers’ entries here and follow all the interviews they did at Sundance here throughout the week.

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is an associate editor at AlterNet and a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor. Formerly the executive editor of The FADER, her work has appeared in VIBE, SPIN, New York Times and various other magazines and websites.
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