Why Are There So Few Female Directors?

A recent study conducted by the Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University indicates that only seven percent of directors on the top 250 grossing films are female, representing a two percent drop in the last seventeen years.

The statistics are worrying because not only do they indicate that there are so few successful female directors but that they are also on the decline.

This year marks the 87th Annual Academy Awards when the finest from Hollywood congregate to anoint the best in each of their respective categories. It comes as no surprise following the study that female directors are not well represented as nominees either. Angelina Jolie with her film Unbroken ranks as the only female director to even be considered, and that was already an outsider’s chance.

In fact, there have only ever been four women nominated for Best Director in the entire history of the academy awards. They are; Linda Wertmuller for Seven Beauties (1976), Jane Campion for The Piano (1993), Sophia Coppola for Lost in Translation (2003), and Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker (2009). Bigelow is the only of the four nominees to win the coveted prize.

Kathryn Bigalow

Kathryn Bigalow. Rights; FICG.MX Flickr

It begs the question why are female directors underrepresented in Hollywood?

Hollywood has always had the knack of producing art that imitates life and perhaps this tinsel town conundrum is a reflection of real world gender inequalities.

People have argued that gender equality in the work place is taking a turn in favour of female employees. However women are still in the minority when it comes to senior positions in various sectors.

When it comes to decision making in Hollywood women remain outsiders. Take for instance the make-up of the Academy Awards body itself; the average age of a member is sixty-two, seventy-seven percent are men and over ninety-four percent of Oscar voters are white. At the risk of being forthright, the Academy perhaps represents a certain ideology when it comes to filmmaking.

Film making is a male dominated profession and perhaps therein lies the problem. As an audience we consume so much material that has been created by men that perhaps we undervalue the vision of great female film directors.

In describing her approach to directing Sophia Coppola said, “I try to imagine what I would like to see.” Coppola has built her reputation on creating films that focus on the loneliness of being a woman surrounded by a world that neither values nor understands women. I cannot say if a lack of understanding of female directors is the reason there are so few, but if the mainly negative reaction from male critics to Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006) is anything to go by then it would be enough to dent the confidence of any potential female director.

Despite the lack of female film directors, there appears to be more female producers, executive producers and cinematographers working today. I wonder if women in these roles indicate that what female film makers really want is the financial and creative control to capture the vision they want on screen.

One of the movies garnering Oscar attention this year is Wild starring Reese Witherspoon in an Oscar Nominated role (its supporting Actress, Laura Dern, also received a nomination). It is directed by a man; Jean Marc-Vallée, but it is based on a book acquired by Witherspoon’s own production company; Pacific Standard. The film was developed by Witherspoon as a direct response to a lack of studio projects with a female lead. Certainly, it could also be argued that the lack of female directors, especially at the top level, is because there is a lack of material that would interest a female director.

It is hard to pinpoint an exact reason why there aren’t more female film directors. Oscar winning Kathryn Bigelow has stated that, “If there’s specific resistance to women making movies, I choose to ignore that as an obstacle for two reasons: I can’t change my gender, and I refuse to stop making movies.” Certainly determination is a key ingredient in making a successful but hard work alone does not always bear fruit.

Sophia Coppola said she benefitted from having a father who was a successful director because it meant she was always exposed to creative people. Guidance and support are also key factors in the development of good directors. In July 2014, 21st Century Fox announced that they were launching their own mentoring programme to encourage more women behind the camera. It is hoped this will bring more visibility to female directors in the industry and generate more role models. This can only be seen as a positive step to introducing more diversity to Hollywood.

Hopefully one day the discussion will no longer centre on the gender of directors in Hollywood but rather on the vision, creativity and skill of a great director, male or female, in telling a great story.

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About the author

Bernard O'Shea

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I'm like George Clooney, only without the face, physique or the charm. I have a passion for writing, sport and film.