MCN Columnists
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

More than Skin Deep: Girls, Women and Career Choices

What will it take for women to compete on a level playing field with men in the world of film? And is it just the fault of Hollywood — or the film world in general — that men still largely dominate the industry when it comes to directing and the production side of the business, or are gender expectations, differences in the ways women were raised, and psychological barriers equally important hurdles?

At the Cannes press conference for her film Bright Star, director Jane Campion said in part:

“I would love to see more women directors, because they are half the population, and they gave birth to the whole world. I think women don’t grow up with the harsh world of criticism that men grow up with. We are more sensitively treated.You have to develop a tough skin (to be a director) and it’s my suspicion that women aren’t used to that

A couple of weeks ago, Alliance of Women Film Journalists posted about The Celluloid Ceiling, Dr. Martha Lauzen‘s ongoing study that tracks women working as directors, writers, producers, editors and cinematographers on the top-grossing 250 films of the year. What I found most interesting was not how many women actually worked on these films, but what percentage of each category was comprised of women to begin with, because that aspect of the study raises some pertinent questions.

For instance, the study found that women comprise 25% of production managers and 44% of production supervisors, but only 5% of sound designers, 5% of supervising sound editors, and 1% each of key grips and gaffers. But those numbers (especially in the more technical fields) don’t vary greatly from say, the engineering workforce, only 8% of which is made up of women, according to the National Science Foundation. So is the issue that these fields aren’t as open to women, or that they just choose not to pursue them? And does the choice not to pursue a given line of work equate to lack of opportunity in that field?

What Campion had to say about women needing to be tough-skinned was certainly relevant, but it doesn’t speak the whole truth about why women aren’t as prominent as men in this industry.  The question is, how much of what drives women (and men) toward particular careers is hard-wired differences in the way men and women think, versus gender expectations set implicitly and explicitly by societal values?

One of the most crucial factors, which I’ve discussed before here and in other forums, is the difficulty women who choose to also be mothers have in balancing family with a challenging career.  And while this is partly due to societal expectations, I can’t deny that for myself, the biological pull to not be away from my kids when they were small very much informed my own decision to leave the workforce for five years, and to find a way to work from home when I did return to work; neither can I deny that my husband feels this tide-pull of parental duty less than I do.

Much as we strive to raise our own kids outside those gender boundaries, if I’m being perfectly honest I have to say I still haven’t figured all that out yet. My two younger daughters, ages 12 and 7, have each discussed with me their future career interests, but somehow those chats always end up sidelined into serious conversations about the need to balance work with family if they want to have kids some day. And even though we have a fairly egalitarian household, where my husband and I both work at home and share household responsibilities, and I travel a good chunk of time for my work, I’ve yet to hear my sons raise the issue of balancing work and family when they discuss their own future careers. For my boys, the world looks wide open and full of endless possibility; for my girls, the future looks constrained by the societal expectation (and their own) that they will have the primary responsibility for maintaining that balance in their lives.

As a society, we’ve become dependent on the contributions of women to the workplace in maintaining the machine of our economy, but we’ve not yet caught up with how to fully support working parents while also fulfilling the societal role of creating and nurturing the next generation. Is this part of what leads many women to gravitate toward jobs with more flexible, or less demanding work schedules and away from careers as directors, editors, and cinematographers? And does it hinder women from moving up the ladder into positions of greater importance that require the ability to dedicate yourself fully to your career? Most probably, yes.

This impacts the film business in particular because it’s harder for women to leave their families for 12 or 20 weeks for the full-time madness of a film shoot, whether you’re directing or working in some other aspect of production. As a woman in the industry, you can do this work easily enough when you’re in your 20s and have no obligations to anyone but yourself. But if you decide to settle down and have a family, the difficulty of balancing any job — much less one that may require travel and demands single-minding dedication for weeks — becomes exponentially more challenging.

There are educational barriers as well, particularly for the more technical fields; even though studies have shown that girls are just as capable of performing well in math and science as boys, by the time they hit high school girls tend more than boys to opt out of higher level maths and sciences in favor of other classes. There have been many gender studies about why this is so, many of them looking at whether boys have more access to toys and games like Legos and Tinkertoys that stimulate understanding of mathematical concepts, while girls play more toys that teach nurturing or fashion sense.

To a degree, I think there’s some truth to this, but at the same time I’ve seen with my own kids that access doesn’t always equal interest. My girls have always have the same access to building toys and such that their brothers have, and my boys have always been free to play with dolls and dress-up clothes. And yet my 9-year-old son was always drawn to spatial games, computers and math, with very little interest in the arts or even reading, while his sisters, though they’ll play with Legos and such, also like to play their girlie games too. Right now, my 5-year-old son can often be found carrying his boy baby doll, Luka Junior, around in a sling (though it irritates me to no end that the doll asks him if he’s its “mommy,” thanks to Fisher-Price assuming that only girls play with dolls, even when they make and market one for boys). But will he still be carrying Luka Junior around when he’s 10, or 13?

Then there are the other societal and psychological barriers that hinder women rising to positions of authority within their careers. Campion asserts that she thinks women don’t grow up learning to deal with criticism the way men do. She’s right, in part, but it’s also about the type of criticism boys and girls learn to deal with, from their parents, at school, and in society at large. As girls become young women, they’re inundated with a mass media sell that’s telling them exactly what they’re expected to be when they grow up: pretty and blond, with a perfect figure. Intelligence and ability take a backseat to physical appearance in the message young women get about their societal place. What girls watch on television and in movies, and what they read in books and magazines and see in ads and billboards, all reinforces the notion — for both girls and boys — of women’s place in society, and our sense of self relative to others. How often do you see a girl or woman in a movie where who she is as a person is not defined by her roles as wife, mother, girlfriend?

So are women less disposed to having their work critiqued than men? More afraid to put creativity out there for others to judge? Is it some fear of criticism and  gender roles that prohibits girls from seeing directing, editing, sound design and cinematography as viable careers? And if so, what do we do to change those things? If we as women are ever going to effectively challenge and change the gender stratification of the film industry, and the workplace in general, we have to first understand all these factors — and our own complicity in cementing them — for ourselves and for our daughters and granddaughters.

– by Kim Voynar

Be Sociable, Share!

Comments are closed.

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon