Film, News & Commentary

Australian film gender imbalance: shock statistics reveal what’s old is new again

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This week George Clooney, on the PR tour to promote his new movie Tomorrowland, reiterated to BBC radio his views on the Sony Hack last December. They were “an abomination,” Clooney said. When he canvasses this topic the actor speaks with a visceral intensity as if his own religion has been defiled — but he added a caveat.

“One good thing that’s come out of [the Sony hack] is the conversation in very liberal Hollywood that women aren’t being paid the same and…there’s something like 15 female directors in a town of directors,” he said. “I think it’s a very good conversation that they’re starting to have.”

The conversation did indeed begin anew after the world watched, collective mouths agape, as a motherlode of dirty laundry came out of one of Hollywood’s largest studios. Leaked emails and documents revealed awful jokes made by Sony’s top brass about the US President (“should I ask him if he liked Django?”), bitching about various big-name players (Angelina Jolie was “a minimally talented spoiled brat”) and exposure of celebrity aliases (Tobey Maguire checks into hotels as “Neil Deep”).

There were also revelations that weren’t in the slightest bit funny; nor presumably were they surprises to the bulk of the industry. Sony’s 17 highest-earning executives are predominantly white men. According to a leaked spreadsheet, Sony co-chair Amy Pascal was the only woman earning $1 million or more at the studio. It’s not just executives: it was revealed female actors (most famously, Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle) get paid considerably less than their male counterparts.

In February, Patricia Arquette used her Oscar acceptance speech to rally for equal pay for women (she won best supporting actress award for Boyhood). Last week Maggie Gyllenhaal revealed that, at 37, she was told she was too old to play the love interest of a 55-year-old male actor.

This week the conversation took on a local element, with the release of new Screen Australia research into the Australian film industry revealed in a women-themed edition of LUMINA, a screen arts and business journal published by the Australian Film Television and Radio School.

The figures are grim. In an essay written by Monica Davidson, titled ‘Knocking on a Locked Door: Women in Australian Feature Films’, the author reveals that of all Australian feature films made since the 1970s, a staggering 85% have been directed by men. Year on year that number has fluctuated, with gradual inclination upwards but no substantial movement. In 1971, 4% of directors and 10% of producers were women. In the ’80s those numbers rose to 12% and 22% and in the ’90s, 18% and 29%.

Last year 16% of Australian feature films were directed by women. Twenty percent were written by women and 29% were produced by women.

Davidson argues that people are not only unaware of gender inequality in the Australian film industry — they also think it’s been fixed. In a 2012 survey titled ‘Women in the Victorian Film, Television and Related Industries’ author Lisa French found that a majority of respondents thought the situation had improved for women, particularly in the last ten years.

“In terms of creative leadership, this is simply not so,” Davidson writes. “The numbers of women directors and producers are stagnating, or declining, and the industry-wide blindness to the issue means there are no gender-based initiatives to correct the problem. If left unchecked, the numbers of women leaders could continue to creep downwards to 1970s levels. Or American levels.”

That industry-wide blindness may be in part a result of the high standard we associate with women Australian filmmakers, who continue to smash out great work —  from stalwarts such as Jane Campion (born in New Zealand) and Gillian Armstrong to a swathe of others including Jocelyn Moorhouse (Proof, The Dressmaker — pictured above), Rachel Ward (Beautiful Kate), Rachel Perkins (Bran Nue Dae, Mabo), Cate Shortland (Somersault, Lore), Catriona McKenzie (Satellite Boy), Anna Broinowski (Forbidden Lie$, Aim High in Creation) and Jennifer Kent (The Babadook). Countless more have developed quality feature films in recent years and the aforementioned list consists only of directors (it doesn’t begin to compile our great women writers and producers).

Perhaps not all the industry was blind to such a low level of representation; it seems hard to believe people in key areas of influence would not have registered that the scales tilt so far in one direction. Arguably the most shocking thing about the numbers published in LUMINA is that they capture a taxpayer-funded industry, therefore providing a powerful reminder that entrenched sexism in the entertainment business is not something we can relegate out of sight and out of mind to the misogynistic brats and coke-snorting yahoos in corporate Hollywood.

The question, of course, is where to go from here? Let us imagine a hypothetical situation in which a group of women respond to the shocking figures announced this week by forming a group to lobby the government. Imagine that group was city based — let’s call it, say, the Sydney Women’s Film Group — and this group successfully led to the creation of a Women’s Film Fund or a Women’s Program: an initiative to generate financial support for women-led films in addition to money for distribution, exhibition and training programs. Imagine if that program became part of the mainstream activities of a powerful organisation such as the Australian Film Commission.

Few would argue that wouldn’t be a good outcome, albeit far easier said than done. But here’s the thing: that’s not a hypothetical situation at all. The dire statistics about women in the Australian film industry announced in 1971 led to the creation of the Sydney Women’s Film Group, which successfully lobbied the Whitlam government to establish a Women’s Film Fund in 1976. In the ’80’s the Fund was brought under the auspices of the Australian Film Commission and became the Women’s Program. That program, as Davidson’s essay explains, was “quietly discontinued” in 1999.

In the entertainment industry, as they say, what’s old again is new again. But the idea that a discussion around something as fundamental as gender equality can come and go in cycles — according to the whims of media attention, perhaps, or the vagaries of public conversation — is a depressing one, not least for the talented people disadvantaged by it.

[box]Disclosure: the author of the this article is the host of Friday on My Mind, a weekly event held at the Australian Film TV and Radio School (publisher of LUMINA). Main image: Judy Davis, Sarah Snook and Kate Winslet in the Jocelyn Moorhouse directed The Dressmaker [/box]

8 responses to “Australian film gender imbalance: shock statistics reveal what’s old is new again

  1. Great piece Luke. Contrast the situation in film with TV where the dominant ‘creative forces’ as far as writing goes are women: Shelley Birse (The Code) Jacquline Perske (Love My way, Deadline Gallipoli) Sarah lambert (Love Child), Lou Fox (Glitch) and many many more. While Tv directors are still mainly male and I am sure many producers are, gender equality in creative areas seems much better in TV. And I think it is the crazy cult of the director in film that is to blame for some of the gender inequity – because TV has always been more collaborative, and less ‘singular vision/POV’ there is more chance for many voices to be heard. More points of view on a story can be explored, so more tastes appealed to, and more variety to exist. When mostly male producers respond to a ‘story’ or a vision it seems they are attracted to a singular mostly male version of this. I think Screen Oz could look at other factors when assessing projects beyond simply cast attachments and overseas distributors. Diversity and gender equity should be relevant.

  2. I am pro-diversity, so I am always a bit disappointed when otherwise excellent opinion pieces like this and other comments list predominantly Anglo/European names as successes in one gender-based ‘diversity group’, seemingly without a trace of irony. Surely pro- diversity strategies can work for more than one diversity group simultaneously. Or is there a priority list I am not aware of?

    1. Hi Warren, I’m with you. The real key is to have a statistical framework capable of comprehending diversity, which is harder than it seems, given the nuances of gender, age and racial status and so on. For instance, we might want to give less statistical weight to dead white males, but what about the risks of ageism when it comes to mature living white males, who might be akin to tribal elders? However, let’s assume we’ve conquered these mathematical problems and now have a genuine statistical model of all available talent in the film industry. The remaining problem is relatively trivial, because it’s just a matter of force. As George Bernard Shaw wrote in 1944, in ‘Everybody’s Political What’s What?’ we must be able to draw a line, and on side place those we should exhort and encourage, and on the other, those we must discourage or shoot. That would soon resolve the excess of whiteness and give us a true and democratic outcome. I salute you as a man of vision.

  3. Hi Luke, what I find tiresome about the subject is the assumption that there is a gender imbalance because of a deliberate and positive or at least passive cultural bias against women in film. Whether this is true or not, like you, I believe we should have ‘equality’ in an objective sense. It’s not something related to personal motive, talent, will, access to ‘power’ and money, etc, but a social problem provable in a statistical matter. A statistical model of the country’s population segmented by age, gender, race, physical ablement, and so on should be constructed, against which actors and directors are drawn from pooled nationwide film school exam results by social category to film projects. If this is impractical the state should assume responsibility for all film projects. This is not something we can leave in the hands of private individuals, it’s far too important. Lest this seem impractical to some of your more reactionary readers, look how well it worked in the 1960s in China, and as you say, in Australia about that time, in 1971. No practical problems I can see there. Deification of statistically proven equality must surely be worth it, and we should resurrect these dead ideas.

  4. I notice that all the examples you gave were of art-house movies, with the exception of The Babadook. Maybe that’s part of the problem – people making movies no-one wants to watch.

    Seriously, there’s no conspiracy. I know a lot of beginning film-makers, and they are all male. Statistically, most of them will give up (get married, have kids, get proper jobs, etc), but the ones who can hold out will end up in the industry, enjoying various levels of success. You only have to look at the submissions to funding bodies to see that the vast majority of them are from male writers, directors, etc. The sheer weight of numbers means that there is always going to be an imbalance, just like there’s a gender imbalance in the music industry.

  5. This is typical of the sorts of nonsense presented day after day in Faux Progressive Western circles. It seems that high quality analysis of WHY there are, there always have been, and there always will be individual differences among our species is something that’s becoming rarer and rarer each year as our education industries concentrate on promoting the welfare of ‘workers’ in education.

  6. Andrew Boughton – “A statistical model of the country’s population segmented by age, gender, race, physical ablement, and so on should be constructed, against which actors and directors are drawn from pooled nationwide film school exam results by social category to film projects. If this is impractical the state should assume responsibility for all film projects.”
    What the hell is wrong with you people? World gone mad.

  7. The issue has always been that only a very small group of people decide on who gets a break and often times those folks are from an old time and culture in which being Australian meant you were Anglo and the director was always male. Until more diverse decision makers and financiers of films exist, banal choices will continue to be made.

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