I considered opening this article with the phrase ‘I’m not a feminist, but…’, anxious to make clear that looking at the status of women in Hollywood doesn’t have to involve condemnation of it’s men. But what appears to have provoked my defensiveness actually shows up some of the most notorious problems in the film industry – the fact that because there aren’t very many of them, women are still defined by the fact that they are women, rather than filmmakers. They comprised only 7 percent of all directors working on the top 250 films of 2009, and in February of this year, one of them, Kathryn Bigelow, became the first woman to win an Oscar for directing. Prior to this, only three others had ever been nominated in the category. Whilst this is evidently an historic moment, the question that emerges is whether it will really make any difference for women in Hollywood.
The fact that it has taken 82 years for such an event to occur emphasises the massive gender imbalance in the film industry. The novelty element of the win caused some critics to judge Bigelow solely as a woman, rather than a filmmaker who happens to be a woman: many focused on The Hurt Locker being an action movie, deeming it to essentially be a ‘man’s film’. Such attitudes only cement the idea of film being gender-specific, undermining any progress her win may have hinted at. It appears that the road to equality is going to be a long one.
Such divisions are also embedded in the acting world. Less than 30 percent of all roles in Hollywood are going to women, the gender imbalance frequently reflected in Oscar nominations. Take the Best Supporting Actor category: annually, almost as a rule, there is one standout nominee, and four others who are – for all intents and purposes – gap fillers. This year, it was Christoph Waltz in Inglorious Basterds. Previously, it’s been Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight and Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men. This is because all the best roles for men are filling up the Leading Actor category – and awareness of the discrepancy is high. Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep have spoken out about the dearth of good roles for women. In the overhaul of the James Bond franchise for Casino Royale, producers knew what had to be changed: they produced arguably one of the best ‘Bond Girls’ in its history, one who, with far more to do than frolic in the sea and exchange innuendoes with Bond for once, was far too interesting to be bound to the archaic label.
Women and film media is similarly problematic – Empire magazine has only featured one woman on its cover in the past four years, and in filling out a readership survey for the magazine, when asked to tick other publications I read, I was only given a choice of men’s magazines. This tailoring of film to a male demographic is embedded in marketing strategy and is not going to go away easily. Whilst moves are being made within the industry, it’s unlikely things will change fast as a result of Bigelow’s win. However, what it has done is draw attention to how women in Hollywood are viewed. There may well be a more balanced future in sight – and although it’s not near, this may well be the first step.