Last week, I attended a film festival in Waco, Texas that showed the 2019 documentary This Changes Everything. Spending Friday evening at a film festival seemed like an enjoyable and appropriate way to kick off a weekend that would culminate with the Academy Awards (the Oscars). I had no idea that this film would inform the way I viewed the movie industry and its most celebrated awards show. It did change everything for me.
This Changes Everything is about the representation of women in film, particularly their underrepresentation and misrepresentation on screen and in the film- and television-making process. It is not the first time this theme has been explored in a documentary. What struck me at this viewing, though, was the way the film portrayed patterns that resonated with my experiences in academia and in religious communities. There are parallels between the way sexism manifests in entertainment and I, along with other members in the (predominantly female) audience, couldn’t help but see parallels in Hollywood’s patterns of exclusion and the discriminatory conditions we confront in numerous other industries and professions. What were these patterns?
1 – The film industry didn’t originally exclude women from positions of power. It became more patriarchal when it became more centralized and lucrative. I was surprised to learn that in the silent film era, women were commonly hired as writers, directors, and crewmembers. It was when the industry became more institutionalized and that women were pushed out of roles that shaped the content and production of films. Apparently, when technologies emerged that allowed sound to be incorporated in films, it required financial investment in these technologies as well as massive construction of sound stages where the films would be recorded. The scale of production and its costs ballooned, shutting down smaller studios and consolidating power into several large studios. Owned by powerful men and backed by the male-dominated banking industry, studios began to exclude women from writing and directing and the unions followed suit.
This has been a pattern in many fields and spheres of life. In education, we know that the primary education of young children has been entrusted to women for ages. But as education became centralized and monetized, men often occupied leadership roles. It has been documented that women had leadership roles in early Christian churches. Not all churches had women in leadership, but there were certainly women who functioned as deacons, widows, teachers, and apostles. As the church became more centralized and more institutionalized, it conformed to predominant patriarchal cultural patterns and women were excluded from the priesthood and public leadership roles.
2 – Systemic patterns and practices keep women from advancing their careers. This Changes Everything documents numerous instances of systemic, discriminatory practices in scriptwriting, casting, hiring, and many other stages of filmmaking and the efforts engaged to combat this bias. Women directors—even when they have successful and critically acclaimed first films–are less likely than men to be trusted to produce a second film. Even when the industry has tried to increase gender diversity, the number of women film-makers, writers, etc. tends to level off at 15-20%. The numbers for women of color are even more discouraging. That certainly seems familiar. The number of ordained women in Christian ministry has grown over the past several decades, but women’s representation in the highest levels of leadership is still limited. And as of 2018, fewer than 25 percent of faculty and deans at Christian seminaries were women, and only 11 percent of seminary presidents were women, according to research by Eileen Campbell-Reed. Feminists have consistently argued that sexism is not just an interpersonal problem, but a discriminatory, biased way of thinking perpetuated by systems and institutions. Maintaining the status quo on “how things are done” does not promote gender parity or equity.
3 – Women’s exclusion from writers’ rooms, directing roles, producers’ roles, and studio leadership positions effects which stories get told on-screen and how women’s lives are portrayed. We know that women and girls are overly sexualized and objectified in too much on-screen content. What I was not aware of, though, is the degree to which women are routinely excluded from the stories on film except when they support a narrative about a man. Women and girls get less screen time, and when they are there, their storylines often center around men and boys. Have you heard of the Bechdel-Wallace Test? It is a really low standard for women’s presence in fictional films and tv shows. The test is whether a film has at least one scene where two women (who have names) have a conversation with each other that is about something other than a man. Kind of a joke, right? (This article describes other “tests” about representation on film.) The Bechdel-Wallace test is not a feminist standard—it simply identifies whether women are present, interacting with other women, and discussing anything other than men. But it is effective precisely because of how many films do not meet these minimal criteria. Fewer than half of this year’s Best Picture nominees pass the Bechdel-Wallace test. American Hustle (2013) passed the test because two women have a conversation about nail polish. Can we even imagine a film that did not have two men discussing something other than a woman being nominated for Best Picture?
Feminist religion scholars and textual critics have helped us see male-dominated perspectives and male bias in the central writings and narratives of patriarchal religions. The stories are rarely about women because they were not written by women. Even when the “male gaze” does not portray women as sexual objects, it can be harmful by reducing women to background figures. Without women writers and storytellers (which is what directors are in film and television), audiences do not see female characters’ interior lives, their challenges, and victories. Who are the heroes of our religious texts? Can we recognize ourselves?
People of all genders can write compelling dialogue and action for characters who are different than they are. And yet, the most authentic writing comes from our own truths and experiences. When we limit who gets to share their stories and who gets to represent the “important” stories on screen, we exclude significant facets of human experience. Furthermore, we miss out on opportunities for diverse audiences to empathize with characters different from themselves and to see representations of their own lives on screen. That last point was a key theme in Little Women, the Best Picture nominee snubbed in nominations for Best Director.
When I watched This Changes Everything, I was angry, which carried over to Academy Awards night, when the same patterns of exclusion were on display as Hollywood recognized the year’s “best” work. But I was also excited about the work feminists are doing to change the industry. That commitment to change is paralleled, too, in my feminist colleagues, religious leaders, activists, students and scholars who create great work, guide their communities, and make our industries and professions more inclusive. Rage on, my friends!
Elise M. Edwards, PhD is an Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics at Baylor University and a graduate of Claremont Graduate University. She is also a registered architect in the State of Florida. Her interdisciplinary work examines issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter or academia.edu.
Categories: Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Film, Gender, Gender and Power, Media, Patriarchy, Popular Culture, power, Power relations, Resistance, Sexism, Women and Ministry, Women and the Media, Women and Work, Women's Power, Women's Voices