Still from a student film. The woman as bloodied, sexualized victim.
Student film still. Death and violence are fetishized throughout student films.
Student film sequence (1): The male imprisons, tortures and eventually brutalizes the female, deriving his pleasure, and constructing the pleasure of the audience, via the prolonged captivity and torture.
Student film sequence (2): The male’s delight and pleasure in his control escalates as the film progresses.
This student film described on its YouTube page as a film school application video provides ...
... a stark visual reminder of the gender disparities in the production of mainstream U.S. movies (Lauzen, “The Celluloid Ceiling”)
Student film still. In a scene reminiscent of Reservoir Dogs, apathetic violence made dramatic and exciting.
Student film still. Weapons, particularly guns, are a prop of choice in many student works, often in the context of dark comedy.
Student film still. Increased access to special effects (physical and digital) means greater presence of gore in student films.
Student film still: Intimacy as framed by the fragmented female body and the male gaze. We, the audience, are situated in his desire without being asked to consider upon what basis that desire is constructed or the implications of such of construction.
This student film proposal marks the opening of “The Woman with the Movie Camera,” Michelle Citron and Ellen Seiter’s foundational 1981 Jump Cut article on the marginalized status of women in the film production classroom. Thirty years later, however, this student proposal could still easily show up in any media production course, and often does. Despite Citron and Seiter’s emphatic call for a “responsive pedagogy” to address violent representations of women in student films and the under-representation of women students in the classroom, little has changed at this thirtieth anniversary of the publication of their article.
This essay grew out of panels and discussions at the University Film and Video Association’s 2010 conference on ways to manage violent representations of women in student films. Across the board, instructors in current mixed-gender film programs reported problematic portrayals of women in student work and noted the low enrollment of women in their classes. Power relations and authoritative divides along gender lines among students remain powerfully in effect. Women students are more likely to take non-technical crew positions (producer, art director) while men assume the role of director and cinematographer. When women do take film production courses, they are often reluctant to fully participate in technical demonstrations and critiques. Concerns raised at the conference also included the subject position of the instructor: how might male and female instructors address problematic representations of women differently? What expectations do female students place on their professors to speak out on their behalf?
As with most artistic practices, these issues in film production lead to a pedagogical dilemma. How do we create a more inclusive classroom while also fostering creativity and freedom of expression among our students? How do we shift representations in student films to more positive and progressive modes without shutting down student ideas?
In response to similar struggles, Citron and Seiter called for not only “broad social changes in both attitudes and opportunities” but, just as important, a “responsive pedagogy” to effect change in the classroom. This call, however, has largely gone unheeded. As women film production faculty observing the same challenges thirty years later, we are sounding the call to our fellow teachers once again. Our female students deserve a classroom in which they can grow unhindered and without intimidation. To that end, we have developed practical applications and strategies that lead toward a more responsive pedagogy.
The problems that women media students face are related to larger issues in media culture. In the film and television industries, women are largely excluded from most ranks of professional film production. In addition, all young people going into media production have been influenced by pervasive, damaging, and often violent representations of women onscreen. Without a sizable and empowered cohort of women in the film industry, these representations go largely unchallenged, with few alternatives seen. Together these forces act not only to dissuade female students from pursuing media production but also to suggest that they’re not invited in the first place.
Although some inroads have been made for women working in film since 1981, most obstacles facing women on the path from classroom to film set remain stubbornly intact in 2011. While 1991—ten years after “The Woman with the Movie Camera”—saw an uptick in the presence of women in film with such milestones as the release of Kathryn Bigelow’s hit Point Break and Callie Khouri’s Oscar winning Thelma and Louise, the percentage of women in key roles on the top 250 grossing U.S. films shrank from 19% to 16% between 2001 and 2010 (Lauzen, “The Celluloid Ceiling”). As of 1996, the screenwriting profession was 80% male, even though women comprised almost half of those identified as “authors” by the U.S. Census (Bielby and Bielby 265). And in 2009, women comprised only 7% of directors in the top 250 grossing films in the U.S., 23% of producers, 8% of writers, and 2% of cinematographers (Lauzen, “The Celluloid Ceiling”). Even among 906 independent festival films in 2009, women made up only 22% of directors and executive producers, 19% of writers, and 9% of cinematographers (Lauzen, “Independent Women”).
The patriarchal power relations that define the Hollywood system remain deeply entrenched. Students enter the classroom acutely aware of the legendary status and mystique of the “Director”—the (male) authority of the film set, the Michael Bays, Christopher Nolans, Wes Andersons, and Quentin Tarantinos, to name a few student favorites. As Emerson College film professor Rob Sabal observes, because students have so much exposure to movies and to the mythology of the filmmaking process, “film education in the United States does not begin in film school… Having internalized the success story of their filmmaking idols, by the time students walk into a film production classroom, they do so with a clear understanding of what it takes to ‘make it’,” which ultimately means ascending in the ranks of an “old boys” network (6).
For many students, the role of director has an air of the exceptional. He is the creative prodigy, romantic visionary, and dictatorial leader, and students feel they must adopt these qualities in the classroom. Indeed, to borrow from Citron and Seiter, “… a cultural stereotype about artists exists very strongly in the mind of the students” that “if adopted by the student in their concept of their own role, serves to close students’ minds in a learning situation and restricts any sense of community developing in the classroom.” Misconceptions about the genius male auteur hinder the creative and collaborative development of all students, but this myth especially suggests to women that their very gender makes their chances of success in this field impossibly slim and certainly restricts their participation in leadership roles.
The fact that women generally enter introductory film classes in late adolescence is also significant to understanding their gender position in these classes. As girls enter adolescence, their overall sense of self-esteem tends to decline as that of their male peers improves (AAUW 7). This leads often to a drop in self-efficacy, which particularly affects girls’ confidence in performing concrete tasks and carrying out projects, especially under the watchful eyes of their peers. According to the AAUW report “Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America,”
Thus, in film and video classes, which are significantly task- and project-oriented, girls require greater support mechanisms just to gain confidence in making movies, let alone to attain an equitable level of opportunity.
Self-esteem also closely corresponds to young people’s attitudes about the possibility of success in their adult lives, especially as it affects their dreams, careers, and educational paths to those goals. The AAUW report continues,
Again, this lowered sense of self-value, together with the prospect of entering heavily male-dominated media industries, throws up a seemingly insurmountable wall for young women.
To further deter women from considering film careers, even a brief survey of mainstream movies over the past twenty years yields mostly problematic representations of women onscreen. While some powerful female roles have emerged, the contemporary heroine continues to embody highly sexualized ideas of womanhood: young, white, thin, “hot,” and ultimately dependent on men for her identity. A study on representations of men and women in the top 400 grossing films in North America from 1990 to 2006 conducted by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media found that 73% of all characters on screen are male, and women are more than five times as likely to be depicted in sexually revealing clothes (Smith and Cook).
More alarmingly, the depiction of women as targets of violence—rape, assault, murder, etc.—continues to pervade their representation in cinema, TV, and video games. The woman as brutalized victim, of course, not only allows for violence to serve as a pleasurable spectacle, but it also promotes the notion of the female as object, robbed of her agency. The under-representation of women onscreen, together with undesirable characters as role models, further alienates women from the field.
Perhaps the greatest obstacle to integrating women into the academic film curriculum, however, is the power of “stereotype threat.” Women’s socialization continues to bring the message that their aptitude for technology is inferior to men’s. A young girl’s exposure to electronic technology—computers, video cameras, and other media production equipment—is frequently lower than that of her male peers. Stereotype threat is
In other words, for women, the awareness that they are expected to be poor at technology can instill a fear of using technology, especially under the watchful gaze of their classmates. Stereotype threat persists even among women who feel comfortable with technology. The mere awareness of the stereotype can inhibit a woman’s willingness to participate and actually decrease her performance, to cause her to “choke.” (Beilock)
Stereotype threat is particularly powerful when the student is highly invested in the discipline, because she defines herself in part by her participation in it (Steele). Our students often identify themselves not just as university students or communications students—they are film majors. The fear of fulfilling a stereotype, then, has a direct negative impact on the student’s self-identity. In film classes, women may be reluctant to take an active role in in-class equipment demonstrations or practice sessions, or to fill a more gregarious role in technical crew positions. To flounder when using equipment, even in ways common to all novices, would reinforce the stereotype and mark a female production student throughout her academic career.
Not surprisingly then it’s not uncommon for a 20-person film class to enroll only one or two women. As film faculty, we’ve all taught courses with no women at all. As might be expected, sociological studies on the effects of stereotype threat indicate some reasons why:
Barriers to success in the film industry get replicated and modeled too tenaciously in our film classes, shutting women out before they’ve had a chance to try. As instructors, we can change this situation, but it will require significant adjustments and transformations in our cinema pedagogy.