Then vs. Now: Women in Film

Alice Guy-Blaché, Cleo Madison and Dorothy Davenport Reid

Alice Guy-Blaché, Cleo Madison and Dorothy Davenport Reid

A brief Google search on the topic of women in film leads to numerous articles claiming that this year is ‘the year of women in film’ and the excitement builds at the thought that women are progressing in the industry in ways unprecedented. However, if you flip onto the often untouched second page of results you see that 2017 was also ‘the year of women in film’… and so was 2015 … 2012, the list goes on. Despite the ever-increasing number of years we label as ‘Women in Film Year’, the statistics don’t seem to line up with the argument that women are being better represented in films and behind the scenes.

The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film released a report showing that, in the top 100 grossing films of 2017, only 8% of directors were female, 10% of writers and a mere 2% of cinematographers. The on-screen statistics don’t inspire much more hope with 28.4% of female characters wearing sexualised clothing compared to only 7.5% of male characters. The statistics show that the film industry has a long way to come in terms of equal representation, but it hasn’t always been this way.

In fact, the early film making industry was full of women helping to build the foundations of the industry as it is today. The first female film director, Alice Guy-Blaché began making films in 1896 and directed the famous La Fée aux Choux (1896) which pioneered the fiction film industry. She later founded her own production company and continued to be an influential figure in the film industry for the rest of her life. She was joined by a large group of inspiring female directors such as Mabel Normand (worked on some of Charlie Chaplin’s first shorts), Dorothy Davenport Reid (co-produced Human Wreckage (1923)) and Cleo Madison (director of A Soul Enslaves (1916) and Her Bitter Cup (1916)). Eleven female directors at Universal created 170 films between them from 1912 to 1919 and helped to pioneer many of the elements we see on our screens today. So, what changed?

The commercialisation of Hollywood in the 1920s resulted in its films reflecting more conventional ideas that they believed would be better received by the public and their investors. This accompanied more gendered distinctions on which jobs should be performed by men and women. In an attempt to avoid these gendered job roles in mainstream film making, many women turned to other outlets and slowly moved away from the ‘top grossing’ films. Laura Mulvey argues that this meant a flux of female filmmakers working in less commercialised experimental and avant-garde cinema where feminist interests could be explored without the scrutiny of Hollywood’s investors.

Despite the fact that female representation in the film industry is definitely in need of improvement, it’s important to remember and celebrate the women who pioneered many aspects of the film industry and whose lasting legacy is reflected in the films we watch in our day-to-day lives.