There’s an inherent contradiction these days for marginalized filmmakers: if you want to promote diversity and equality as “normal,” as what is should be, then you don’t want to emphasize the margin. You’re a filmmaker not a female filmmaker, not a black filmmaker, not a queer filmmaker…etc. But because this industry is woefully non-diverse, we find ourselves claiming these adjective add-ons in order to distinguish ourselves, which inherently makes us different and not the norm.
I’m thinking about this as I prep for the premiere of my debut feature film Acid Test next year and how I want to market both the film and myself. The story itself is steeped in aggressive feminism, and I am a female filmmaker wanting to promote women in film. Many of our keys were women: DP Kerianne Parker, AD Anna Tran, Line Producer Hillary Felice, Wardrobe Courtney Sandifer, and Makeup and Hair Amore Monet. And we also had a bunch of women PAs in the grip/electric and camera departments. Statistically, this makes our project stand out from the norm, but the question is whether that really makes it different.
The women on my crew were of two minds about this. On the one hand, any time a male crew member would remark how different our set was, we pushed back and asked “Why does it have to be different?” Some of the comments back were about communication and respect on set. I heard the phrase “You’re not swinging your dick around” which honestly made me question the professionalism of these other male filmmakers but it also spoke to a stereotype that often plays true: men project confidence even when they have little experience and they get ahead by using their aggression and asserting dominance. If the guy acts like he knows what he’s doing, everyone around him believes that he does. It’s only when the work turns out bad that people start to question that attitude.
Most of the crew members – male and female – on the set of Acid Test did not have much feature film experience and/or experience in the position they held. We were all first-timers, and as indie-filmmakers that’s often how you get people to crew up because they want the experience. But I heard more comments about some of my female keys, doubting their abilities to handle this experience, and while some of it may have been a legitimate fear of working on a “train wreck” of an indie film, or jealousy at not being hired, some of it seemed to be sexism. Maybe unconsciously sexist, but sexism nonetheless.
The women worried that being labeled different was somehow less-than or that different was somehow something that could not become normal in the future. Yet, we also acknowledged how different it felt to be on a crew with all these women. I started my period on Day 1 of production, and my keys quickly followed like dominos. There was something joyous about having other people like me who could relate, that we could actually talk about this stuff openly, laugh about it. Having a crew filled with people from the margin, seeing it work, proved our belief that it could work. That we weren’t less-than. And maybe we did it in a more stereotypical feminine way full of collaboration, respectful communication, listening, no anger, no aggression, no assertion of dominance. Is it part of my gender, personality, or is it simply professional?
I don’t think of myself as female; I think of myself as ME. As a girl, I grew up a tomboy, a girl who struggled with that identity even as a cis-gendered person. I didn’t like pink. I barely ever wore dresses. I chopped my hair off. I often had trouble talking to girlie-girls and found myself agreeing with my male friends when they complained about how annoying girls were. I grew up believing I could be anything I wanted to be and just because I didn’t see women in high offices, since I was a tomboy and identified so strongly with males, it didn’t even cross my mind that I couldn’t do something because I was a girl. On the other hand, I wasn’t that girl who only had guy friends and I treasured my female friends, and I was very aware (as I think all women are) of the risks in being female. Walking to my car at night is treacherous, even if nothing happens, because I’m constantly thinking about and preparing for what could. But we don’t want to let fear and anxiety win, we don’t want to be a victim or a statistic. So even when things do happen, we often shove it down to a place where we can keep going.
When I applied to film school, I had a (female) professor from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts call me and ask me to attend because they needed strong women in the program. I was excited to be courted, but I don’t think I heard the subtext: that the industry, and even the academic institutions, were male-dominated. I didn’t think about what that might imply: that the movies I watched, the television I consumed, may be different because of that male-ness. Other than the famous names we all know, I rarely remembered who directed a film I liked, and certainly never questioned their gender. For me, it was all about the work.
While at USC I rejected the adjective and presented myself as simply “a filmmaker,” because what was often presented as a “female” film, a “chick flick,” felt less-than, ridiculed, or was something I couldn’t relate to. There were obvious exceptions like Jane Campion, Julie Taymor, and when Kathryn Bigelow won the Oscar for Hurt Locker, I thought this argument would be put to rest because how masculine of a movie could you get? But what I ended up hearing was people in the industry whispering “Well, you know how she got to where she is, it’s because she was with James Cameron” and “I heard she used to be an escort.” Judgment. Belittling. Undermining. I was working at a production company on a studio lot when the Paris Hilton sex tape came out. Do you know who had this tape? The agencies. My boss had a copy messengered to the office and a bunch of us watched it in the conference room like it was an audition tape. And while I want to be sex-positive and give room for women to use their sexuality to get ahead, to pay their bills, I’m often left wondering if we’re just playing into the hands of the men who still have all the control.
There are always more stories and more horrifying ones as we’ve heard in recent years, and to the people that judge these women and think “Why would they go into a hotel room?” let me ask you this: If you are a man and a male producer tells you to meet him at a hotel to discuss notes on a project, is your immediate thought that you’re going to get raped? And if you’re trying to prove to yourself and everyone else that you’re a capital-F Filmmaker, that you want to be respected and treated as an equal, why would you let that fear stop you from making those important connections? I’ve been that girl, going up to an Oscar-winner’s penthouse apartment and being greeted by a man wearing a silk robe and trying not to blink and act “weird” because clearly this was normal.
When I got married and pregnant right after graduating USC with my MFA in Film Production, that same professor who courted me seemed shocked and dismayed. Maybe I’m just projecting, but I suddenly, viscerally, felt my female-ness. I was pregnant. No one would hire me now knowing I’d be out of commission for even a short amount of time. And then, would I be a liability juggling a job and a baby? I didn’t have a job to take leave from, so I didn’t have the law on my side. And I’d seen a producer at a company I worked for come back from maternity leave and it seemed like a brutal re-entry because the world kept turning without her and now had to fit her back in.
I’ve been amazed an inspired by DPs like Rachel Morrison who are normalizing working with children. I imagine it’s fucking hard. You don’t want someone assuming you can’t do the job because you’re pregnant and you don’t want them freaking out about the liability when you step onto set, but you also shouldn’t have to lie. I’m amazed by this woman I saw at an Entrepreneurial talk who brings her nursing child with her when she’s asked to speak and DOESN’T tell the organizers she’s bringing him because she wants to normalize it, she doesn’t want to be stigmatized or rejected by having a child. I’m inspired by the women at Moms in Film who are working on kid-friendly trailers for moms on set.
Childcare is one of the number one issues that keeps women at home because it’s expensive to pay for day-care and it’s also an issue that even in partnered relationships, the woman is the default person to take responsibility. Kid’s sick? Mom stays home. Very rarely does the dad. That’s not always the case obviously and I think the younger generations are better about splitting responsibilities, especially since most families rely on two incomes, but it remains the norm.
And with states overturning abortion laws and criminalizing it? They’re just perpetuating a male-dominated society because women become a liability in any job if they get pregnant and take maternity leave, or god-forbid have complications.
And I’m not trying to reduce women to their child-bearing abilities because there are many women who choose not to have kids, or to adopt, or delay, but to the outside world, that capability sometimes becomes one of those insidious assumption biases that people don’t think about. Everyone has an opinion about when, whether, and how you should get pregnant, labor, parent, and judge you accordingly. It’s debated every year, all year in politics, in the legal system, and people just need to accept that there is no one solution and it should be the right of every individual to choose their path.
I (now) feel complicit in my unconscious bias. In participating in gossip and actions that kept women down. I felt special being included. And since I didn’t especially identify with being female, it was all okay, right? The articles about being a “cool girl” really messed me up for a while. Is my whole personality a coping mechanism? Can I be a cool girl without participating in keeping other women down? I have found in the 20 years that I’ve been in this business, that I need to work on my own subconscious sexism influenced by everything I’ve consumed, witness, and experienced in my life. We spend so much time simply surviving our existence, every walk to the car a victory, that we become blind to it. We can’t change what we don’t see.
What Hollywood, and many industries have, is an HR problem. But the lawsuit filed by the amazing Maria Giese, documented in This Changes Everything, is slowly going and maybe going nowhere. There are diversity initiatives and diversity panels at festivals and some of the statistics are up. But you know where I don’t see diversity? On the “normal” panels. It’s up to us as individual filmmakers to fight for, make space for and, yes, maybe take a risk on marginalized filmmakers in our key crew positions.
Women represent more than half the world population, but do not represent half the industry personnel, do not represent half the media we consume. We’ve been able to identify with (usually white) male characters our entire lives, to empathize with their journeys, and maybe expected/assumed that everyone could to the same. But when that’s not what you’re used to, when the norm doesn’t include people that look, act, speak like me and the vast variations of what is means to be female, I can understand that people – even people who know better and want something different – don’t know how to consume it.
And while I’m talking about my experience as a woman, we also had a lot of intersectionality on our set with people of color and LGBTQ. I would imagine that this pendulum swing of thoughts and discussions is happening on your sets and in your life.
This inherent contradiction isn’t just external, it’s not just a marketing exercise, it’s internal. We must be conscious of our own biases, even to our own margin, even to ourselves. We need more diverse media to increase media literacy. Why should every rare female-led film that fails be counted against us when there are thousands of failures from our male counterparts that don’t seem to impact their hire-ability? I know it’s a business, but in order to create change, we need to invest in the talent and content. We need to change the norm with something different to be able to include something different. And until that different becomes normal, I’m going to stick with being a female filmmaker.