I was excited for my first trip to Sundance for a variety of reasons but mostly I was amped to hear the research being revealed by Dr. Stacy Smith and her colleagues Katherine Pieper, Ph.D. and Mark Choueiti, from the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Dr. Smith and her team, along with the Sundance Institute and Women in Film, were releasing the findings from their study "Exploring the Barriers and Opportunities for Independent Women Filmmakers."
This research was important to me because for over 19 years, I've been on the front lines of the women and girl's empowerment movement, working on bringing diverse and authentic stories about women and girls to the media forefront. And being on the front lines of this issue typically means having to live with the daily imbalance of news stories about the vitality of women's voices along side the misogynistic music lyrics, offensive and unrealistic TV plot lines, and the frequent damsel in distress stories that movies have shown us for decades.
Case in point: for every uplifting story about say, women finally reaching parity by having 50 percent of the Sundance Film Festival movies directed by women, you get another story of how a big Hollywood agency, CAA, hosted a party at Sundance last night featuring women pole dancing and wearing strap-ons.
So what's an equality-seeking gal to do when all the news that's fit to print makes you shrink up inside and wonder whether anything is ever really going to change??
It was at Zehner's house yesterday where we got to hear Dr. Smith share the headlines from the study. Some were shocking (contrary to popular opinion, women don't cite raising children or having a family as a primary reason they rescind from the media space as directors or producers) and not-so-shocking (only 4.4 percent of the directors of the of top Hollywood grossing films from the past 11 years were directed by women). You can read the full summary here.
In my work, I'm particularly focused on encouraging storytelling for social change and quite simply, we need more women's voices and visions presented in the media. Not just because they are women, but because women also have valuable and prolific stories to tell. Experiences that are universal and polarizing, heart wrenching and hysterical. And women, just as with men, should not be boiled down to gender stereotypes. We must challenge and bust these myths that exist about women's abilities to create, produce, finance, and direct a movie.
That's exactly what the folks behind this research are aiming to do.
Cathy Schulman, board president of Women in Film and president of Mandalay Pictures, best summarized a key finding of this research by saying " Most movies are marketed to young males yet 51 percent of movie goers are female, we are the majority."
So whether you are a mom, casual moviegoer or avid film buff, how do you raise your concern if you'd like to see more balanced representation of women in film? Shulman advises, "Women of all ages need to use their social media outlets to ask these difficult questions, they need to use their blogging platform to target the marketing campaigns connected to the movie, reach out to the financiers and challenge these condescending stereotypes."
But before you take to your Twitter feed or go and subscribe to Melissa Silverstein's spot on blog about Women and Hollywood -- let me also share a bit of good news that emerged from the study. We know that when looking to make real systemic change work has to be done both externally and internally. And so in order to ensure more women's voices receive recognition and that, in general, more women have a chance to move up in rank while making media, the key to creating more equality needs to take place behind the scenes.
Dr. Smith's team found that crew composition on a film for instance, could actually challenge the long-held belief that women can be each other's worst enemies at the workplace. In fact, their research shows that when there's a male director 23 percent of his crew for a narrative film are women and 30 percent if he is directing a documentary. But when a woman holds the director position, the numbers jump to 44 percent if she's helming a narrative film and 54 percent if it's a documentary. According to Smith "The findings suggest that gender equality on set is more common when females fill key leadership positions."
So it's time for us to challenge the incorrect beliefs that boys won't go see movies that feature girls (Geena Davis's Institute on Gender in Media has a lot to say on this!) And it's time for those of us in and out of this industry to speak up and ensure that women's voices aren't just relegated to the horribly derisive stereotype of being called "Chick Flicks". Our voices don't need to be marginalized or truncated into a cutesy sound bite.
I know that fighting this fight means walking a very fine line of accepting small steps of movement forward as great progress all the while challenging the ridiculous "don't they know better" antics of those who don't get it. If you care about this topic it's important to try and stay focused on the big picture.
And as Pat Mitchell, President and CEO of the Paley Center for Media said yesterday:
Creating this change is about each of us making a personal commitment whether you are a parent or a filmmaker, we have to support the women who get to tell the stories that matter to the world.