There’s something very 1950s and 1960s about the coverage of the Cannes Film Festival this year. Whilst the men get down to the serious business of directing the films nominated for the awards, the women are busy looking gorgeous in expensive dresses and diamonds. Of course, there’s nothing new or strange in this attention to the dresses of the rich and famous – I for one am not immune to the appeal of these gorgeous frock concoctions. But I feel there is something retrogressive when in 2012 we are still looking at women in dresses, and listening to men about their directorial qualities.
This year’s Cannes Film Awards have failed to nominate any women directors for an award (http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2012/may/20/cannes-women-andrea-arnold-row?newsfeed=true). Meanwhile, a man who anally raped a child and subsequently has avoided justice for nearly 40 years is feted, celebrated and called a genius for what is basically an ad for Prada (http://www.guardian.co.uk/fashion/fashion-blog/2012/may/22/prada-roman-polanski-cannes?newsfeed=true). The lack of women represented was of course reflected in the Oscar director list – another awards ceremony that has managed to award eight gongs to said child rapist whilst only finding one in its collection to give to a woman director.
Why is there still this blatant inequality when it comes to the representation of women in the film world? In fact, in the arts world full stop? The typical response to this question is the usual drone about how the films nominated for these awards are chosen on merit and that positive discrimination is a bad thing. But that isn’t what we’re arguing. It’s a total straw man to any debate on representation. No-one wants positive discrimination. Of course we want films to be judged on how good they are. We’re not stupid.
But something is going wrong. The industry is steeped in inequality that means a fair playing field of what is ‘good’ and ‘worthy of merit’, and what isn’t, simply doesn’t exist. Merit is gendered. Greatness is gendered. The canon is gendered. Because despite the amount of good women-led films out there, none of them are considered to have ‘merit’ by what continues to be the male-dominated industry that is so sunnily encapsulated by Cannes.
In 65 years of Cannes, Jane Campion is the only woman to receive the Palme D’Or. Are men so much better at making films that this inequality makes sense? I don’t think so.
Where do we start to unpick the gender bias that means women are so badly represented by an industry that millions of us love, and millions of us fund? I think we can begin with the fact that the film industry is so male-dominated. I believe that this leads to a climate where films that get the green light reflect male stories and male interests. A prejudice against women creators persists, the belief that whilst men are equipped to tell women’s stories (e.g. D H Lawrence in books, Tate Taylor – director of The Help – in films), women will always and only tell women’s stories. In English literature, for example, VS Naipul recently claimed that he is a better writer than all women writers ever – including Jane Austen – because men write about universal things, and women just write about the petty and domestic (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/jun/02/vs-naipaul-jane-austen-women-writers - having read A House for Mr Biswas I disagree!).
But this pigeon-holing of women’s creativity is nonsense. And of course, the film industry itself knows this is nonsense. Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker was a man’s story about men, directed by a woman. And it’s brilliant. But this belief that women are ‘the other’, whilst men are universal is persistent and does, I believe, lead the industry to distrust women’s stories and women’s narratives. And this is something reflected across our entire culture, where ‘human’ is male and therefore the human experience is male.
This prejudice neatly fits into another belief – that women are placidly happy to watch stories about men, where men do all the talking and all the action, whilst the ladies stay shh or are reflectors of the men’s ego. Meanwhile, the theory goes, men aren’t happy to watch films where we women get to have a go at speaking and having conversations. And because the industry’s assumed audience is male, and because male is seen as the universal, men’s films and men’s stories get made and get told. It’s the same again with literature – this belief that men won’t read books by women whereas women will read books by everyone.
It’s such utter nonsense.
Because as we well know, when a film does tell women’s stories or reflect women’s interests, it explodes and does well. Mamma Mia is one of the top earning films ever. I’ve not met anyone – man or woman – who doesn’t love Bridesmaids.
And, as I say above, women are very good at telling men-focused stories. Wolf Hall? The Hurt Locker? Your gender doesn’t preclude you from being able to tell a story in another gender’s voice. But we live with this belief that it does…well, for women anyway.
A further irritant is that even if it was true, and women’s stories were always concerned with ‘women-y things’, then so what? It shouldn’t matter, and the only reason it does matter is because the women’s experience is seen as ‘less’. I mean – it isn’t like male creators have a huge gamut of stories either. Coming of age here, war there, explosion-car-chase-monster over here. It is because we value men’s stories and culture more than women’s that we create this false dichotomy between what has ‘merit’ and what is ‘petty’ or small.
The questions lie in how we decide what is great and good, and who is doing the deciding. To give another literature example, a lecture on Christina Rossetti during my university years always stays with me. In the 1960s, I learnt, there was only one edition of Christina Rossetti poetry. She was ‘woman-y’, she was ‘other’, and she wasn’t ‘great’. Then – feminism came along. Now there are dozens, she’s on the school syllabus and she is considered one of the leading Victorian poets. This clearly shows how our idea of what constitutes ‘great’ and ‘meriting recognition’ changes. Rossetti was just as marvellous a writer in 1965 as she was in 2005 when I had that lecture. But the canon only decided she was that good when perceptions on women’s writing and ‘herstory’ began to change.
The future of our culture has to start including women – in film, books, arts and music. When we value women’s creativity, when we recognise that women can write the universal, and that women’s experiences are valid and matter, when we stop believing that men won’t watch or listen to women, and women can’t write men… then change will happen. We’ll have more films by women getting funding. We’ll stop thinking of women as a genre. And women’s work will be truly valued on merit, because women’s work will be truly valued.
But what can we do? I feel like I’ve been writing this article over and over, with cultural femicide continuing and the straw man of ‘positive discrimination’ always raising its ugly head.
Well, I try to represent women writers, artists, filmmakers, musicians. My activism started with Ladyfest – a celebration of women’s creativity. On 4th June I’m co-curating an event at the Cube (https://www.facebook.com/events/363818227009424/) that profiles women activists, artists and singers. I’ve edited a book that brought together women’s stories and published a book about the forgotten role of mothers in fiction (by Carrie Dunn: http://crookedribpublishing.wordpress.com/our-books/.) I buy women’s writing, I watch women’s films, I listen to women’s voices. The (soon to be re-named) Orange Prize, Bird’s Eye Film Festival, London Feminist Film Festival – all of these events celebrate how amazing we women are at being creative, at getting creative.
So as well as a complaint against the sexism at Cannes, this is a rallying call. Let’s get out there. Let’s create. Let’s celebrate and profile women’s creativity. We need positive action to change these perceptions, and we can all play a role in doing that. What will you do?