Storytelling raises a mirror to our society which we can use to observe and understand ourselves.
It has even been proven to influence empathy and prejudice levels towards minorities, as evidenced by a study into Harry Potter readers. We must then ask ourselves, what impact does entertainment media have on those groups whose stories are told for them rather than by them? Data released by Screen Australia earlier this year has reported that female directors of Australian feature films make up just 15% of their cohort, with female writers only making up 22%. These numbers have remained relatively stagnant since Screen Australia began their investigation into gender representation in TV and Film, all the way back in 1970.
Such stagnant progress has left female storytellers frustrated and thus facilitated the construction of all female production companies such as Rose Byrne’s The Doll House and Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine. The latter was responsible for some of the most successful films and television shows in recent years including Wild, (2014) Gone Girl (2014), and Big Little Lies (2017); all of which feature strong female leads, written by female writers. Closer to home, The Dressmaker, one of the most successful Australian productions of all time, was produced by a largely female creative team. Despite these successes, investment opportunities are still largely working off of archaic models of marketability. That being that women are socialised to relate to male and female driven stories from a very young age.
Female empire building was originally adopted by women in the arts during the 1980’s as a strategy to increase their visibility. Whilst its contemporary resurgence is an efficient way to circumvent structural inequality, actress Honey Debelle says this method should be approached with caution. ‘‘I think there is the potential for it to generate identity-based ‘silos’ of art, and create identity-based echo chambers. This separates female stories from the mainstream and positions them as ‘gender pieces’ – rather than just giving women an equal seat at the table.’’ This issue runs deep within the veins of philosophical discussions of othering as many women, especially women of colour and those who occupy more than one marginalised identity, fight for the normalisation (or humanisation) of their actions. Producing a film with a gender diverse cast shouldn't be labelled as a a feminist act, but at this point in history it often is.
When examining the current landscape, it is interesting to consider the parallels of observations proffered by Anne Saunders in Damned Whores and God’s Police (1975): ‘‘The definitive trends have all been totally preoccupied with male experiences, and where women have been included as subjects, their presence has always been to serve some symbolic or ideological purpose.’’ Despite the importance of opening the film industry up to a wide range of perspectives, it’s evident that male screenwriters’ capacity to create complex female roles is directly related to their understanding of gender roles in real life. ‘‘If men see women as two-dimensional human beings, who only exist in relation to them, then I guess it would be kind of hard for those men to write women as characters that are anything more than that’’ says director Erin Lenore Good. Honey says that there needs to be ‘‘a desire to write an interesting character, innate talent as a writer, and a willingness to listen and observe’’ and that one only needs to look to the works of William Shakespeare to realise women weren’t always seen as warm props.
As with any major undertaking, it’s evident that the quality of work coming from female storytellers is contingent on the support networks they choose to surround themselves with. There is still an expectation from individuals holding an unconscious bias to have minority groups justify their existence; to be seen as subject rather than object. The subtlety of this distinction was articulated earlier this year by Anne Hathaway who realised that when she read scripts written by women, she looked for what was wrong with them as opposed to looking at what was right about them, which she did when reading scripts written by men. Erin is kicking goals in the web series arena for her latest production, Jade of Death. She says that choosing the right team allows her to do her job without the unnecessary distraction of outdated discriminatory behaviour. ‘‘I’ve learnt to put my time and energy to better use like generating my own work and where possible I chose to not work with men who don’t take me seriously, because it’s not my job to fix their unconscious bias and I don’t have time for that. The people I have and will continue to work with are the ones that want to get on board with that.’’
Associate Dean of engagement and innovation at the University of Technology Sydney, Deb Verhoeven, states that the remedy to this structural inequality lies in the power imbalance within dominating networks. She examined the networks of film directors and producers over a ten-year period and found that 41% of male producers had not included a single woman in their creative teams. For this very reason we must insist that the onus cannot be placed on women. For many working in the industry, including Erin, the issue is based in an intersectional power imbalance. ‘‘There are more men in power than women. It’s as simple as that. By in power, I mean senior positions in the industry like festival directors, distributors, heads of production companies and network executives’’ she says.
This subtle and complex power imbalance is evident in the make up of finalists for short film festivals like Tropfest. The festival has consistently delivered a male-dominated finalist list every year since its inception. However, for the first time this year the lineup of finalists were made up of an equal number of male and female filmmakers. Revealingly, this was also the first time in the festival’s 25-year history that the audition process was judged blind. Finalists’ names were kept from the judging panel with the aim of removing subconscious bias from the process. Such experimentation has previously been used to remove bias from musician auditions for orchestras with similar results.
When it comes to actionable insights to remedying this issue, most of the power and responsibility still lies with those at the top. Erin has concluded that change is a matter of altering the industry internally: “This issue is intersectional and it means that the majority of stories being told are from one perspective. If we fix the lack of diversity behind the camera, then we’ll fix the lack of diversity in front of the camera’’. Honey on the other hand urges that audiences make efforts to become more conscious consumers. ‘‘When there is a more engaged, intellectually curious and ‘open’ audience for art, there will be more opportunities for women – and for men – and more space for nuanced, intelligent stories.’’