As Montclair State University's first woman president, Susan A. Cole ’62 led the institution through two decades of impressive growth
Ten years ago, I worked on the first-ever Athena Film Festival. I was a junior in college and had no clue the lasting impact this four-month summer internship would have on me. The festival, hosted by Barnard College, was established to open a much-needed dialogue about the representation of women in film (or lack thereof). It was founded by Women and Hollywood’s Melissa Silverstein and Athena Center director Kathryn Kolbert as a call to arms to highlight the too often overlooked stories by and about extraordinary women.
I spent the summer camped out in a windowless room screening hundreds of film submissions from all over the world. Films with spirited, brave, unfettered women at the center. I clung to Miss Representation, Winter’s Bone, experimental short films, documentaries ... movies that not only moved me but also stories I could find a voice in and a perspective I could relate to. I had never experienced a world in which so many female-centric films existed. Growing up, I was inexplicably told that the male perspective was the most worthy. It’s everywhere — in commercials, ads, literature, and especially film.
And ever since I was old enough to stay up past 9 p.m., I watched the Oscars. I saw Steven Spielberg accept the best director award for Saving Private Ryan, Steven Soderbergh for Traffic, Ron Howard for A Beautiful Mind, and on and on. I learned to love these films. I do love these films. I wept, I laughed, I was transported. And pretty soon their perspective was my perspective. Women were secondary characters to the more robust, complex male characters. Young, beautiful women often got ahead in life, and women over 45 were sort of invisible.
In order to erode those compromising female stereotypes, we need more women nationally recognized for their unprecedented storytelling. And that’s just not happening.
2019 was a banner year for women in film: Barnard alumna Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, Alma Har’el’s Honey Boy. These movies, among so many other female-helmed stories, ranked as some of the most critically acclaimed of the year. So why were no women nominated in this year’s best director category?
One answer seems simple: Name recognition goes a long way. Award voters tend to gravitate to the director who’s been given the chance time and again to make their second, third, fourth movie. But statistics show that women receive dramatically fewer opportunities to direct that second film. According to the Annenberg Institute, of the top 1,200 movies made between 2007 to 2018, only 6 women (13%) out of 46 went on to helm a second movie, while 138 male directors (21%) out of 658 were granted a second chance.
It peters out from there, with women receiving even fewer opportunities to direct that third and fourth film. All of this despite both male- and female-directed films receiving the same average critical reviews.
Another major factor is that best director nominations are almost always awarded to men by men for films that center around male characters. Even director Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker centers around men. Are we conditioned to think that these films and perspectives are the most important?
I hate to give awards this much weight. Because as filmmaker Alma Har’el said, ‘Do not look for justice in the awards system. We are building a new world.’ Yes, yes, and yes! But also ... it’s those little 9-year-old girls watching the big awards shows at home who need to see it to believe that they too can do it.
I hate to give awards this much weight. Because as filmmaker Alma Har’el said, “Do not look for justice in the awards system. We are building a new world.” Yes, yes, and yes! But also ... it’s those little 9-year-old girls watching the big awards shows at home who need to see it to believe that they too can do it. And until we start awarding women’s stories and the deserving women who tell them, the message is clear: Directing is a “male job,” and those perspectives are the “most worthy.”
Do yourself a favor — check out AthenaFilmFestival.com, scroll through the curated films screened in the past, and stream one of the many wonderful, moving, and too often overlooked films by and about women. We, as viewers, have a lot of catching up to do.
Read more about Athena Film Festival’s 10th anniversary.
Ashley Bush ’11 is a writer and producer based in Los Angeles. Her film The Queen’s New Clothes recently won the Audience Award at the Dallas International Film Festival.