Film Fund-amentals: A Binder Full of Women Filmmakers

In a coincidence that is almost as magical as a certain type of underpants, Mitt Romney inadvertently rounded off the recent release of the Women’s Impact Report 2012 with a reminder of why some folks in Hollywood thought it important to do the report.

Sure, Romney was trying to explain his approach to diversity in political hiring, whereas the Women’s Impact Report is exclusively focused on the entertainment industry. But it’s all the same thing. Despite many years of effort, the role of women within major American businesses is still limited. The same can be said about lots of other groups in the diversity zone. There have been a lot of changes over the years, but the white boys club is still pretty much in place in much of the upper levels of corporate life.

Not that anyone in Hollywood uses binders full of women as an approach to hiring. Not much of anyone is using binders these days. But binders are a useful icon for the issue. I have noticed in my experience that certain companies and institutions try to approach issues of diversity in hiring in a manner that, rightly or wrongly, ends up sounding a lot like this idea. A kind of spreadsheet mentality that doesn’t necessarily benefit either the company or the applicant. Especially the applicant, because one of the ways that some companies manage to discreetly maintain low and inequitable pay is through this kind of HR technique. One of the first ironies about some regulations designed to right a past wrong is the curious ways they get adapted to help better enforce whatever was screwed up in the first place.

But in the film industry, it just doesn’t matter. There is no rule about diversity when it comes to hiring “talent.”  Likewise, “talent” is neither sexually nor racially determined (I mean “sexually” in the gender sense; we all have heard the many sordid tales). Of course, it appears that Hollywood operates on the theory that “talent” is largely a prerogative of young white guys. The system is extremely well explained in Katie J. M. Baker’s post at Simply put, Hollywood is overwhelmingly controlled by a lot of white guys who are mentally still kids looking to make movies for lots of white guys who are actually kids (or at least still act like kids) and so they hire mostly lots of young white guys who actually are still kids.

In turn, they mostly view women as skirts. If they can act, they can play the hero’s hot looking love interest. Then when they grow old (when they turn 30), they can play the hero’s mother. Once they turn 40, they are expected to go away and maybe hawk merchandise on HSN.

According to traditional Hollywood thinking, women cannot direct. It takes balls to direct a movie. I must confess that anytime there are more than two men working in any profession, that job suddenly is a man’s job because it takes ball to do. As more men enter nursing, it is about to become a man’s profession. Hefting those bedpans takes balls, you know.

In the real world, women can and do direct movies. They also operate cameras. Handle lights. Run the sound mix panel. Though more and more women are entering many of these professions in the entertainment industry, the change is primarily taking place in television. The movie industry has been and is slow to adapt. In fact TV has emerged as the more open minded industry, while movies have slid into an increasingly weird, cloistered state of management.

As I have previously argued, the difference is because the TV industry is more focused on the actual demographic model of the audience. Since the TV industry is based on money generated through advertising, they have to be more focused on the sexual and racial make up of the people they need to attract every night of the week. As much as I hate the constant bombardment of ads on TV, it forces the industry into a more direct engagement with the audience.

Mainstream movies don’t operate that way. Sort of. Well, they really do operate that way, but the system maintains a greater buffer between itself and the audience. To be honest, most studio executives haven’t a clue who the audience is for their movies and largely operate from old models and general misconceptions. For example, most studies indicate that more than half of the film going audience is female. But this factor is largely left out of the mainstream equation. At best, the concept is packed off into the snide concept of “chick flicks.”

Likewise, many executives assume that women have a “different” sensibility that makes them unfit for handling action movies and major blockbusters. This argument even has a half-truth quality. Perversely enough, the core concepts of Feminist Film Theory has been used as justification for this idea. You see, these dames just don’t think like a big budget director. They don’t know how to go boom.

Like many half-truths, this thinking doesn’t add up to zero. You would think that the career of some one like Kathryn Bigelow would have laid this idea to rest. Heck, she can be much more violent than many macho male directors and at least a couple of her films have made me pine for a warm and fuzzy flick by that ever sensitive Walter Hill (and yes, I am being sarcastic). The ability of a woman director to work within a perceived masculine form was already proven back in the 1970s by the legendary drive-in director Stephanie Rothman, after Ida Lupino had carved out a niche in film noir in the 1940s.

But in Hollywood, much of film-making is still a manly pursuit. It is changing and will continual to change. OK, it’s a bit like watching an incredibly slow freight train,  but it is moving vaguely forward. Unfortunately, it is a pretty long train full of heavy cargo and will take a while getting anywhere.

Meanwhile, I can only offer this catchy tune I discovered (Binders Full of Chicks by Hakan Ehn). He is focused on the immediate political scene, but the tune accurately sums up the general corporate mindset.