Why There Aren't Enough Women Behind Cameras: Chickens, Eggs, and the Logical Fallacy of Meritocracy
The representation of women in the film industry has (finally) become a hot button topic recently... and with good reason. It's been pretty grim for the last, oh, 107 years.
For example: a 2017 study from the University of Southern California analyzed the top highest-grossing domestic films from 2007-2016, and found that 4.4% of the films analyzed were directed by women. That’s 44 films out of 1,000 films. To put this another way, there are 24 male-directed films for every 1 film directed by a woman.
These statistics become even more abysmal when you add the intersectionality of race. Of those aforementioned 44 films (out of 1,000), 3 were directed by a black woman, 3 were directed by an Asian woman, and ONE was directed by a Latina woman. Percentage-wise, for those that are counting: in mainstream Hollywood, black women = .3% of directors, Asian women = .3% of directors, and Latina women = .1% of directors.
Let’s expand this to other behind-the-camera positions. According to a study by San Diego State’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, an analysis of the top 250 films of 2017 showed that women accounted for 25% of producers, 19% of executive producers, 16% of editors, 11% of writers, and 4% of cinematographers. When averaged, women accounted for a total of 18% of the positions analyzed in the study. Keep in mind that women account for 51% of the general population, and 52% of moviegoers according to the Motion Picture Association of America.
We could talk about all of this for hours, but for brevity’s sake, I’m going to focus on cinematography; because that’s what I do, and also where the statistics are most dismal.
As previously stated, 4% of the top 250 films in 2017 employed female cinematographers. If you focus this study to the top 100 films of 2017, that number drops to 2%. For those in the balcony, again, that's TWO out of one hundred.
The American Society of Cinematographers is comprised of only 4% women. Before this year, there had never been a woman nominated, ever, for Best Cinematography in the 90 year history of the Academy Awards. I could go on, but I think you get it. I don’t want your eyes to cross from all the numbers.
The Logical Fallacy of Meritocracy “Now Alexxiss,” you may say, “maybe there aren’t more female cinematographers, directors, producers, editors, and writers because they don’t want to be. Or they aren’t as good at it. Are you saying women should be hired just because they’re women? These decisions should be made by who’s best at the job... they should hire based on merit.”
To which I say, “Bullsh*t.”
That logic isn’t just flawed, it’s dangerous. It insinuates that there is absolutely nothing standing in the way of female filmmakers besides how much talent they have, which is absurd. Furthermore, by refusing to acknowledge the presence of historical context and additional obstacles, it indirectly blames women for their lack of representation. Extrapolation leads you to “these imbalanced statistics exist because women are less capable”, which quickly becomes “these imbalanced statistics exist because men are more capable”.
We're at Aristotle's Chicken and Egg Conundrum here (which sounds like a delicious breakfast spot, but it isn't.) Continuing down the extrapolation path, this culminates in: “Based on my logic and these statistics, women aren’t as good at these jobs. Since women are less capable, and men are more capable, we want to hire men.” And the cycle continues.
Perhaps no one is thinking that thought verbatim; but this is what happens. There is an infinite amount of empirical data that denotes hiring biases all over the place, not just in the film industry. Studies where résumés go out with the same qualifications, but one has a male name and one has a female name (or one has a traditionally “white” sounding name and one has a traditionally “black” sounding name). You guessed it: résumés with female names (same vein: résumés with “black” sounding names) are routinely ranked below their opposites in perceived competence and hireability, even when the résumés show the same level of experience. The fact of the matter is, even if only on a subconscious level, these factors are at play.
Nobody’s Problem “Okay, Alexxiss, I see your point. But this isn’t my fault. I didn’t make this happen. This is just the way it is. Why should I do anything differently or behaviorally account for this in any way?” Here’s the thing. If everyone says, “This is not my problem”, then it’s nobody’s problem, and it never gets addressed.
(Sidenote: There’s a parallel argument here about affirmative action and the continued inequities of the school system, but we can’t do everything in one blog, lol.)
Frequently (though not always), since members of underrepresented groups are more cognizant of the problem, they make concerted efforts to ameliorate it if they’re in a position to do so. Take Ava DuVernay, for example; as a black female director that has achieved an unprecedented amount of success in recent years, she has implemented several initiatives to open doors for other women/minorities. She routinely hires female cinematographers and directors, and even started an initiative to help films directed/produced by minorities get distribution through Netflix.
This is fantastic, but Ava can’t do this all by herself. The issue is that people that fall outside of these underrepresented groups are often less compelled to do anything about it. They are either oblivious to it, don’t care, or are uninterested in changing it lest it redistribute some of the power that currently belongs to them. Consequently, the already diminutive minority in a position to effect change tend to be the only ones actively doing it. As a result, progress comes slowly or not at all.
Yes, it's been a hot button topic recently, but we can't let this be a passing trend like lava lamps or yin yang necklaces. If the push doesn't continue, on all sides, it will eventually lose steam.
A former teacher of mine, Drea Clark (someone that I admire a great deal), compared Hollywood to a dinner table where only grandpa is allowed to tell stories. No matter how interesting those stories are, eventually they’re going to get old. We need a more diverse set of storytellers, telling these stories from different perspectives and different experiences. And we need to be realistic, and proactive, about the barriers that those storytellers face - if we're ever really going to balance the scale.