Gender inequality and the silver screen

As author of a recent EWA study on gender inequality in the film industry in France, academic Brigitte Rollet has identified many obstacles to the advancement of women in cinema. Yet as awareness grows and people speak out, better days may be ahead.

Brigitte Rollet

As a specialist in gender issues in the movie business, what do you see as the main barriers holding women directors back?

There are three key things. First, as always, is money. Just look at the question of equal pay: there is a 35-40% gap separating male and female directors, and any changes on this front have been marginal. Then there is funding. Filmmaking requires far bigger funding resources than other creative industries, and producers have shown themselves to be leery of trusting women directors with large budgets. In the United States, in 2017, only 18% of the 500 biggest box office hits have been directed by a woman! And this figure drops to 8% if you only consider the Top 100… Meanwhile, a recent study by the European Women’s Audiovisual Network (EWA) in partnership with Kering in seven European countries highlights the substantial discrepancy between male and female filmmakers when it comes to grants. In France, for example, just 17% of national funding goes to women, with men taking the other 83%, whereas Sweden has set a full gender equality norm in national funding distribution!

Another major barrier encountered by female directors relates to their supposed lack of authority. In a typical film crew, 99% of script supervisors are women, while men occupy 99% of the technical jobs, such as lighting and grip positions. Over-representation of men on the technical side is often used as an argument why women shouldn’t be behind the camera, based on the flawed notion that they lack the necessary authority.

This brings us to the third barrier, which is the idea that female directors are not “bankable”. Because of this, women trying to make their way in the industry often find themselves confined to auteur films, which have the lowest budgets. While these prejudices about women’s lack of authority or know-how are not exclusive to cinema and can be found in other areas, notably politics, they are nevertheless symptomatic of the situation in the industry.

What about issues for actresses?

They face a different set of challenges. To understand them, you need to go back to the origins of cinema, when films were made by men for men, and women were stuck in support roles as seductress. The founding myth of the movie industry as a “dream factory” for men is alive and well, and throws up unconscious symbolic barriers, including the notion that actresses can inspire only through seduction.

The lack of diversity in women’s roles saw many actresses, like Jodie Foster for example, get behind the camera in a bid to invent new, more complex, less stereotyped characters. These efforts paid off. Although it has its limitations, the Bechdel test can be used to assess a female character’s importance and construction, and characters created by women pass the test much more often overall. The vast majority of women directors spotlight female characters who eschew stereotypical roles. These changes that women have set in motion in the film industry are not necessarily linear, however, and some actresses-turned-directors end up incorporating clichéd roles in their own films.

How have the barriers faced by women in cinema evolved in recent years?

There has been a sea change. Undeniably, we are seeing a newfound awareness. The challenges encountered by women in cinema are being talked about beyond the narrow confines of the industry, which, it turns out, is not a world apart. We are hearing about a whole series of barriers and unpleasant situations that affect the lives of women and that also exist outside the movie business. What has changed is not the arrival of a new wave of female filmmakers who are shifting the goalposts – we have always had that. What is different is, for example, the fact that in France today, we are starting to ask questions about the side issues surrounding the most recent scandals that have rocked the film industry. These developments speak to a wider sense of discontent affecting many people, as reflected in the #MeToo movement. It could be that cinema, with its powerful influence on the public, will spur other changes and advances within society.

What action needs to be taken to promote better gender equality in the film business?

Step one is to stop focusing on the numbers alone and doing nothing. Globally, the same number of men and women are graduating from film schools, but there are still fewer female directors than male ones. Plainly, some drop out along the way. While it’s important to underline this point, the time has come to do something about it. If Sweden can set up a system in which men and women get equal public funding, why can’t we?

We also have to raise the profile of female cinema, in institutions, schools and film industry training programs and at retrospectives, so that the public can get to know it better and ask questions of it. Isn’t it scandalous that a filmmaker like Jacqueline Audry, the most prolific female director in the history of cinema with 15 full-length features (on equal terms with American director Dorothy Arzner), is virtually unknown to the general public?

What do you think about the award for Patty Jenkins at Cannes?

There wasn’t much talk in the media about the fact that Wonder Woman was made by a woman, but it is a wonderful achievement. The award for Patty Jenkins is a game changer. It shows producers and decision-makers that a woman has passed the test and can comfortably take charge of a popular blockbuster.


To read:

  • Femmes et cinéma, sois belle et tais-toi, by Brigitte Rollet, Belin (in French).
  • Cinema and the Second Sex: Women’s Filmmaking in France in the 1980s and 1990s, with Carrie Tarr, Bloomsbury Academic (in English)