On a random weekend during the early year lockdown of 2021, I found myself re-watching two very different films from many years ago. Saturday night’s viewing was Guy Ritchie’s 1999 gangster crime caper Snatch whilst on Sunday afternoon I introduced my children to the 1993 comedy Cool Runnings.
These are both films I had seen at the cinema and then multiple times on various home media formats, both films I knew well and both films I enjoy whenever I watch them. Yet on these most recent watches I couldn’t help noticing that these two films, a world apart from one another in so many ways, had one very noticeable similarity. Where, exactly, were the women?
Both films have an extremely male dominated cast. Cool Runnings features only two female characters – Joy Bannock (Bertina Macaulay) the wife of lead character Derice (Leon) and Momma Coffie (Pauline Stone Myrie), the mother of another lead character Sanka (Doug E. Doug). Neither character serves much by way of purpose to the story whilst other female speaking roles are limited to not much more than a chambermaid with one line (‘Sorry’) and a line dancer in a country and western bar whose only line is an even shorter word (‘Hi!’).
Snatch fares slightly better, even if the only main female character is a mother and, like Pauline Stone Marie in Cool Runnings, is named subsequently – in this case Mum O’Neil (Sorcha Cusack) – and whose primary function in the plot is to die.
This is not to label either of these films as sexist, for I do not feel that is the case. What few female characters there are in Snatch are certainly more intelligent and world wise than many of the bumbling male criminals, especially the female bookie who outsmarts the armed robbers ensuring they commit no harm, escape with no money and get caught on CCTV. And regarding Cool Runnings it’s only fair to point out that on the subject of diversity, it is one of very few Hollywood films to feature a cast of so many people of colour, another vastly underrepresented group in film.
Yet what I did wonder was why, after all these years and all these watches, was I only noticing this now? A quick survey of the films of the 90’s and 00’s which helped shaped my cinematic landscape reveals a similar trend – Stand By Me, The Shawshank Redemption and Saving Private Ryan are just three examples are just three examples of films that I am a big fan of that feature women in little more than bit parts. The Lord of the Rings is also dominated by men although the films do at least try to flesh out the female roles from the book, something that is no doubt in part to the films having two female scriptwriters.
And therein we can see the root cause of the problem. As Helen O’Hara states in her excellent book Women Vs. Hollywood: The Fall and Rise of Women in Film , Hollywood has become dominated by white men and as a result the stories those men tell push women to the periphery – and many of us simply accepted it.
As Christof (Ed Harris) states in another of my all time favourite films The Truman Show¸ ‘we accept the reality of the world with which we are presented’ and the world I was presented was a patriarchal society, hence why whilst watching the likes of Cool Runnings and Snatch, I never questioned the lack of female characters.
Behind the camera the situation is much worse. When Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win a best director Oscar in 2009, the significance of the event was lost on me. I liked The Hurt Locker but the fact that it had taken 82 academy award ceremonies for a female to take home such a big prize should have been a bit of a shock. Yet, as far as I was concerned, women didn’t direct films. It was not that I felt they couldn’t or shouldn’t, just that they, well, didn’t. The vast majority of films I watched were directed by men with only the only female directed films I can recall watching at the cinema being Deep Impact and Pay it Forward (Mimi Rogers), Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola), K-19: The Widowmaker (Kathryn Bigelow) and American Psycho (Mary Harron).
There may be one or two others but it’s literally just one or two. I never questioned the imbalance of this, merely accepting the reality of the world I inhabited. Directing films was a job that men did, for no other reason than that was the way society was. As you grow and start challenging that world view, you realise the institutionalised sexism of it. The problem was that if this was my way of thinking, surely this would be the case for my peers with females of the same age being told, indirectly by society, that filmmaking wasn’t something they should persue? The attitude of society as a whole needs to change, and we need to realise that.
When it comes to the Oscars the problem is complicated. The Academy is often criticised for not recognising women and other minority groups but if women aren’t directing films, how can they be nominated for doing so? Using the Best Director category as a benchmark, with women directing such a small percentage of films it stands to reason that only a small percentage of nominees are women. If more women start picking up nominations and awards (as we have seen this year with Chloe Zhao picking up the directing gong this year for the excellent Nomadland ) the concern is that this may lead to a false narrative that the issue is resolved, when we should be looking far deeper than the superfluous and subjective nature of awards. On the other hand, if we see more women being nominated for (and winning) such awards it may well change the perception for youngsters that women can direct (and work in other areas of film production). Who knows, had more women been involved in the Oscars in the 1990’s, my own perception may well have been different. Yet it’s too easy to say that the academy is simply reflective of the industry rather than the problem but then they are the industry – a somewhat closed club of white men voting for white men in part caused the vicious circle of awards going to the same type of people every year and those self-same people making films about the self-same people led to the perception that films were not really a place for women.
Yet at least now the perception has changed to a degree for some. The reasoning behind this can in part be attributed to an acknowledgement that there is an issue – testing our own perceptions of the world rather than just accepting it and tests such as the Bechdel-Wallace test can help. The test is quite simple – does a film feature two women who have a conversation about something other than men? In isolation the test isn’t fool-proof, and just because a film fails the test doesn’t make it sexist (nor does it make it not sexist just because it does) but what is staggering is the sheer volume of films that don’t pass the test, not to mention the fact that if you inverse the test and try and find a film that doesn’t feature two men who have a conversation about something other than women you will be searching even longer.
Equally if you broaden your horizons as I have done since my younger days, you start to realise that women have been responsible for some fantastic films in recent years. I have become a huge fan of works of Carol Morley (Edge, Dreams of a Life, The Falling) and Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar, We need to talk about Kevin, You were never really here) whilst some absolutely superb films in recent years have been made by women in the guise of The Babadook (Jennifer Kent), Saint Maud (Rose Glass), Relic (Natalie Erika James) The Assistant (Kitty Green), Raw (Julia Ducournau) and the aforementioned Nomadland to name but six. I am fairly ambivalent towards Marvel, but Cate Shortland helmed the recent Black Widow on the back of her excellent films Lore and Berlin Syndrome.
And it’s important to be the change you want to see rather than just complain and hope for change. That is where Outward Film Network comes in, and it gives me a sense of pride to note how women have featured prominently in the short films we have made. Barry, @MovieGeek, Chloe:Daily and Twisted Words of Guidance and Visual Stimulation feature only women speaking on screen whilst three of the most prominent roles in our feature film Nightlens are also female. We still find that crews, and people wanting to crew, are predominantly male though.
Our films are a million miles (and many millions of pounds) away from the upper echelons of the film industry, as are we, as consumers. Yet everyone has a role to play and in changing our own perceptions it can possibly help a tiny amount. Our attitude is only one small aspect and the issues surrounding women’s struggle in film are superbly outlined by O’Hara in the aforementioned book (with the chapter ‘The Auteur Gap’ being particularly insightful on the lack of female directors). Yet we can make a difference rather than just a noise – seek out films by female directors and you discover some remarkable work and take note just of how sexist films and the film industry has always been. This doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate and enjoy the films made by talented men from years gone by – I will doubtlessly settle down and take in the violent fun of Snatch and the heart-warming redemptive nature of Cool Runnings in years to come. But if we accept that the world which we were presented with was a patriarchal one predominantly run by white men and that shuts out creativity and diversity, we can seek to change things for the better in whatever small way we can.
It’s remarkable what we see when we open our eyes.
Words: Phil Slatter