When I was a child, my best friend, who happened to be a boy, loved “Toy Story,” to the extent that it was literally the only movie we would watch and a good amount of our conversations revolved around the movie and its characters. After one such screening, he asked me which character I would want to be. I was as dumbfounded as a talkative small child could be; it’s not like I didn’t enjoy the movie, I did, but I didn’t relate to or want to be any of the characters. So I responded, Andy’s mom. A character who has few lines and even less screen time. I didn’t see myself in Woody’s fragile masculinity or relate to Buzz’s single-minded exuberance. But my inability to relate to the movie’s main characters never hindered my enjoyment of it, or stopped me from continuing to patron the sequels. In fact it didn’t cross my mind as odd or out of place, because it was the norm.
Unfortunately, for more than half the population, few movies share our perspectives, or even have characters we can easily identify with; the overwhelming majority of blockbuster hits and critically acclaimed movies are made by and for white men. Our cultural default is male and it impacts the media and art available for consumption or regarded as worth being made in the first place.
Because so few things were written and created with women in mind, women have had centuries of experience finding a way to relate to male protagonists, perspectives and stories whether in film, literature or music. On an episode of the “Hysteria” podcast, actor, writer and comedian Michaela Watkins hit the nail on the head when she said, “We’ve been so conditioned our whole lives to understand how men think” and then relate to and exalt their artistic endeavors, with little reciprocity for work created by women and people of color.
Research from the Geena Davis Institute for Gender in the Media in conjunction with J. Walter Thompson found that part of Hollywood’s problem with representing women, people of color and other minorities is that the majority of decision-makers in this process are white men. And, naturally, they pick up stories about people who look like them, and cast people who look like them.
In 2016, the critically acclaimed TV show “Good Girls Revolt,” a dramatization of the true story of Newsweek employees suing the publication for gender discrimination in the 1960s, was canceled by Amazon executives. The female-focused show was canceled despite strong reviews and a cult following, in a boardroom filled with executives, none of whom were women. The disregard of projects created by and focusing on women is a part of what Lili Loofbourow terms the “male glance” — a larger sociocultural issue that we often employ regardless of race or gender we are.
“The male glance is the opposite of the male gaze, rather than linger lovingly on the parts it wants most to penetrate, it looks, assumes, and moves on,” Loofbourow argues. It is our hair-trigger impulse to call male art genius and female artistic success and acclaim merely luck of the draw. “The male glance is how comedies about women become ‘chick flicks.’ It’s how discussions of serious movies with female protagonists consign them to the unappealing stable of ‘strong female characters.’” And it’s how a movie like Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” (2015) is nominated for four Oscars while Olivia Wilde’s “Booksmart” (2019) has been shut out of most major awards.
“Boyhood” was heralded in 2015 for accurately portraying a male coming-of-age story and received Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor and Best Original Screenplay. During the current 2020 award show season, “Booksmart” and other films told from the female perspective like “The Farewell” and “Little Women” have been largely snubbed. Is it because they portray female coming-of-age stories, too narrow a perspective for gender-neutral award nominations? Unsurprisingly, both male and female critics, moviegoers and Hollywood insiders, recognized the artistic genius of Linklater and his film; but Wilde’s accurate, poignant and important representation of girls coming of age in 2019 America was largely overlooked by male critics and viewers.
While I may be a few years out of high school at this point, I found Wilde’s portrayal of female friendship on the precipice of a major change like graduation shockingly intuitive. The film’s accuracy comes from the decision to show all the characters as nuanced and multifaceted people, not just characters; as Beanie Feldstein, who stars as Molly, told Flare, “Every person is given the room and the space in the story to show all of their humanity, not just one side of them. I’m sure whoever’s in the library is also deeply fun.” As someone who was once told finishing my dissertation a month early was the saddest thing ever, all I can say is” I feel seen through my stack of library books and I’m grateful for having not one but many characters I can identify with, who have a larger presence and personality than Andy’s mom in the “Toy Story” movies.
Support for movies, television and books that exemplify women and girls’ perspectives is not just about being recognized at award shows. The Geena Davis Institute has found the portrayal of women and girls in media directly impacts how young girls view their own abilities and options. “If they can see it, they can be it,” Davis has said, noting that the first step to gaining gender equality and equal opportunity is allowing young girls to imagine any role, job and life that they want for themselves. One of the biggest barriers for women reaching the highest levels of elected office is the perception of female leaders. The first step has to be normalizing the idea of female leaders across all fields — whether elected, appointed or fictional.
In her 2019 Golden Globes acceptance speech, Regina King commited to reaching gender parity in all the work she produces over the next two years, and then added, “I challenge anyone out there who is in a position of power, not just in our industry, in all industries, I challenge you to challenge yourselves and stand with us in solidarity to do the same.” King’s challenge should be taken up: Until we acknowledge the problem and commit to correcting it, we will never reach gender parity, in film or politics or business. Until our culture, norms and institutions begin to value women, their work, achievements and perspectives as inherently equal to men, we must actively support the female filmmakers and storytellers who are producing female-driven stories. While women directors were shut out of the 2020 Oscar nominations, RepresentWomen would like to introduce our own ballot for the Best Women-Directed Films of 2019, and urge you to rank your favorites.