Women Behind the Camera

Inclusion or Obscurity?
Written by Tia
March 7, 2018

 Inclusion or Obscurity?


‘In real life women are not primarily just eye candy, princesses, dumb blondes, nagging wives or victims. They are engineers, heroes, trailblazers, surgeons and rulers’ (F-rated.org)


Named after the cartoonist Alison Bechdel, the Bechdel test comprises of 3 criteria: the film in question must include (at least) two women, who must have a conversation, which must concern something besides a man. About anything but men.


It is the most well-known measurement of gender bias in film. But the Bechdel test is by no means impervious; since 1929, over 51% of films have failed this test. Needing just two women in the film to have to have a conversation about anything but a man is not an accurate portrayal of real life. How is this standard so low? Why has it been the norm for women to be portrayed as 2-dimensional characters whose only wish in life is to discuss men? Whether you identify as female, male or non-binary, everyone has things to say to others that don’t concern men. Neither is the Bechdel test an accurate reflection of every film. ‘Call Me by Your Name’ centres around a young man exploring his sexuality, and whilst the film is beautiful and significant for LGBTQI+ community representation, it only passes the Bechdel test in one conversation.


Dykes to Watch Out For (1985)



This year females in the film industry have made huge strides in cracking the celluloid ceiling and gaining recognition; Greta Gerwig, Reed Morano and Rachel Morrison have received the cinematic attention they deserve. But there is considerable progress to make. In 2016, IDEA’s report showed us that female characters fill only 28.7% of all speaking roles in film, in employed actors over 40 women made up 25.7%, and only 3.4% of all film directors are female. “The stories we see on screen need to be told by a broad spectrum of people to represent our diverse culture” (F-rated). If film is truly meant to be representational of our population, it would seem that only white, cisgender, male characters matter.


I am, quite frankly, tired of hearing people say that this representation is due to a lack of female directors, cinematographers and scriptwriters. It is just not true. Women have always had a place in the film industry. At the turn of the 20th century Georgette Méliès became the first female to operate a camera. Since then, female cinematographers haven’t received acclaim for their notable work. Autumn Durald wasn’t recognised for her work on Gia Coppola’s Palo Alto, and neither was Ellen Kuras, for her work on ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’. Reed Morano was only recently awarded a Primetime Emmy Award for her work on ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ (2017) and Rachel Morrison is the first female cinematographer ever to be Oscar-nominated for the acclaimed film, ‘Mudbound’.


Only five female directors have ever been nominated for an Oscar; Lina Wertmüller, Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola, Kathryn Bigelow, and Greta Gerwig (only Bigelow has won). And please don’t give me any crap about female directors not producing any cinematic masterpieces worthy of Oscars, divert your attention to The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola), The Piano, The Portrait of a Lady (Jane Campion), Zero Dark Thirty, The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow), Fish Tank, American Honey, Wuthering Heights (Andrea Arnold), We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay), the list goes on. Inequality in the film industry has proved to be symbiotic, starting with the casting agents through to the directors themselves. Low female representation inevitably runs into a vicious cycle of low regard for female directors. Even at the Oscars this year, only four women won awards in non-gendered categories (Frances McDormand and Allison Janney won Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, respectively), which is the lowest number since 2012.


Smith, Choueiti, Pieper (2017)  



Within the small percentage of female nominations for the illustrious accolades of Hollywood, POC and LGBTQI+ representation is minute. Of all LGBT characters, almost three quarters were male and 27.9% were female. Nearly 80% of LGBT characters were white, and 21.1% were from under-represented racial/ethnic groups (IDEA Report).


Since the Oscars on Sunday, the entertainment industry has been furiously discussing the final two words of Frances McDormand’s acceptance speech: ‘Inclusion Rider’. Explaining backstage, McDormand said that in fact, “you can ask for or demand at least 50% diversity in not only the casting and the crew. The fact that I just learned that after 35 years in the film business – we aren’t going back”. If we could apply the inclusion rider to all walks of life, the world would be a better place. Alas, we cannot and we have to rely on Hollywood to pave the way for the rest of the world.


Not all films have to be female-centric, but there are so many more stories that need to be told, that place women in the centre and don’t involve women through the male-lens. Women do have thought-provoking, exciting and amusing conversations that don’t concern men. What a shock! I hope you haven’t fainted.


Recently, other standards of measurement have emerged to highlight unequal representation in film. The DuVernay Test assesses if African-Americans and other minorities have balanced characters on screen. The Chavez Perez checks if two minority characters speak about something other than crime. The Vito Russo test checks if LGBTQ characters have been well-represented in a film and, the F – rating, checks and promotes women representation on-screen and behind the camera.


To lean on a popular feminist slogan, ‘If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention’. So, pay attention. Pay attention to 51% of the population. Pay attention to the gender pay gap. Pay attention to the lack of representation in the film industry. And do something about it.



Get out there and support your local female-run films; Women Make Movies, Directed By Women  and Her Film Project are good places to start, or check out Clean Break and Snow Peas Studios for new independent female-run initiatives.

Have a read up on F-Rating and the other tests pushing for equality and diversity in film and go see the approved ones! I promise you’ll be educated and very possibly enlightened by genuine, balanced characters.


Also apparently films with diverse casts enjoy the highest median global box office and the highest median return on investment, so if you’re in the film business – make it diverse – you can thank me later.


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