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Cinema's glass ceiling

Design by Nick Cruz

By Kayla Upadhyaya, Managing Arts Editor
Published February 21, 2013

What’s your favorite movie from the past year?

When you talk about film and television as much as I do, you become accustomed to the question. And choosing favorites isn’t something I like to do, so I usually rattle off a list: I saw “Pitch Perfect” three times in theaters; “Perks of Being a Wallflower” made me feel a whole range of emotions; I waited five years for “Avengers” and it exceeded my soaring expectations; “Skyfall” had the best chase scene ever.

But I noticed something about almost all of the movies I listed: They were directed by men.

As someone who invests a lot of time in studying pop culture from a feminist perspective, I knew there were gender barriers in the film industry. I knew why Kathryn Bigelow and Nora Ephron matter. But I’d never really looked at the numbers behind the story.

So, I pulled out my laptop to do some investigating. With a list of the top 250 grossing films of 2012 in hand I highlighted the ones helmed by female filmmakers.

Only 9 percent of the 250 were directed by women. In the top 100, there were only three: “Brave,” “Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Guilt Trip.”

If you can’t think of the last movie you saw that was made by a woman, you’re not alone. Even most of the Screen Arts and Cultures students I sat down with had to take several seconds to think about it, and some of them are aspiring directors themselves.

“Sometimes women express an idea and are shot down, only to have a man express essentially the same idea and have it broadly embraced. Until there is a sufficient number of women executives in high places, this will continue to happen.”
- Brenda Chapman, The New York Times, Aug. 14, 2012

Have you heard of Dorothy Arzner?

Neither had Nicole Gellman.

Last semester, Gellman, an LSA junior studying SAC and also enrolled in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, was given a list of famous directors and had to choose one to write a research paper about. She stumbled upon Arzner, the only woman on the list. Even though Gellman had never heard of her, she soon discovered that Arzner was critical to early cinema.

Arzner directed over a dozen feature-length films from the late 1920s to the early 1940s. She made Paramount’s first talkie and was the first person to rig a boom microphone. Gellman pointed out that she was also essential to giving huge stars like Katherine Hepburn and Clara Bow their starts.

“She was an open — to her colleagues, not to the public — lesbian lady, and that was unheard of at the time,” Gellman said. “And it still kind of is.”

Though current trends suggest that cinema has been an old boys’ club, the industry wasn’t always so male-dominated.

Professor Caryl Flinn teaches film theory and music at the University, and she’s particularly drawn to media’s mix with feminist theory. Feminist film theory, which emerged in the 1970s, has helped unearth female pioneers integral to film’s roots.

“Because cinema was a relatively fledgling business and industry at that point, I think they were more open to experimentation,” Flinn said. “And I think when the studios became big business, there was a little less proclivity to invest so heavily in female talent.”

Flinn noted that while this does partially explain why there aren’t as many women seen in cinema today as there were in the past, it’s not the whole story.

When I asked Gellman what her career plan is, she replied emphatically, “I will be a director.”

She is currently taking the SAC department’s highest level production class. During the course, students work on one of two films from beginning to end, and the finished products premiere at the Traverse City Film Festival in the summer. Gellman is the Assistant Director for the project “Fender Bender,” for which the creative team is composed mostly of women.