When the nominations for the 2016 Oscars were first announced, the roster brought eyerolls, outrage, and the now viral #OscarsSoWhite campaign. The fallout from the exclusively-white, male-dominated selection has rekindled ongoing conversations about diversity in the entertainment industry, prompting the Academy to announce that they will be doubling the number of women and “diverse members” by 2020. Yet while the change — as well as a recent New York Times article and an investigation by the ACLU — were greatly needed, it's not a shock to anyone that the current numbers of non-white and female members are so low. Women in the industry are all too familiar with Hollywood's tendency to favor the white and male — and while the disparity is apparent everywhere, the gender gap is the worst for women who work behind the scenes.
In the last five years, only 4.7% of the films released by major studios were directed by women, according to the Sundance Institute of Women in Hollywood. The same study revealed that just 7% of current major directors are women, and in cinematography, the number is less than 5% female. Yet despite those disheartening numbers and the rampant misogyny experienced by many, women across the industry continue to produce work that is fearless, original, and groundbreaking for female filmmakers. The women highlighted below are heading up the creative process from behind the camera, as directors, producers, writers, cinematographers, and animators. Each is unique in her approach to gender issues in the industry — some are outspoken on the politics of discrimination, while others prefer to leave their work to speak for itself — but all of them are doing much-needed work when it comes to the state of women behind-the-scenes.
1. Ava DuVernay
DuVernay has been in the film business for decades, but is best known for directing the 2014 film Selma. Although Selma was named as a candidate for Best Picture, DuVernay was passed over for a Best Director nomination, prompting major outrage that she was ignored because of her gender. As reported by The Huffington Post, the filmmaker's response to her snub, and the overall trend of female directors getting ignored by the Academy, was both rueful and dismissive: “There has been no precedent for a black woman to be nominated for best director, so why was it going to change with me?”
Before Selma, DuVernay wrote, directed, and produced several films, including the acclaimed documentary This is the Life and the feature film Middle of Nowhere, which won her Best Director at Sundance in 2012, and that drive has only increased since her snub. In addition to working on her own films — and getting her own limited edition Barbie doll — DuVernay is working to promote diversity in the film industry through her distribution company, ARRAY, which is “dedicated to the amplification of films by people of color and women filmmakers globally.”
2. Jennifer Yuh Nelson
Nelson is a trailblazer and an artist. A Korean-American, she worked as an animator for Dreamworks’ Kung Fu Panda, before being tapped to direct the film’s sequel — making her the first woman to ever direct a Hollywood animated feature film. The movie was a huge success, grossing $665.6 million, and it became the highest-earning film ever directed by a woman (until Jennifer Lee’s Frozen in 2013). Nelson was tapped to co-direct Kung Fu Panda 3, which debuted Jan. 29 and topped the box office.
When asked how it felt to be the first woman in her role, Nelson told The Hollywood Reporter in 2011, “I don't think about the gender thing very much. But when I speak at schools, I've had female students say to me afterwards, 'I never envisioned myself being a director, since I've never seen women do it.'" She stated her hopes that her example will help break the misconception that women are destined to play a secondary role in the film industry, and it's clear it's doing just that.
3. Reed Morano
Cinematography consistently has a dismal amount of female representation, and across the board in TV and film, women make up less than 10% of the people in that field, according to a 2014 study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film. Still, these odds aren’t holding Reed Morano back. The filmmaker has won acclaim for her exquisite lighting and camerawork, showcased first in her beautiful indie film Frozen River, as well as her intense dedication — she filmed one movie, Little Birds , while eight months pregnant. In 2013, she was invited to become the youngest member of the prestigious American Society of Cinematographers, a 340-member organization of which only 12 are women.
Morano is forthright about wanting not to be seen simply as a “female” cinematographer. “I’d rather be hired for my talent,” she said in an interview at Fusion Film Festival. Still, she hopes that the future will bring more recognition for women, including cinematographers. “No female has ever been nominated for Best Cinematography," Reed said at the festival. "It’s shocking, but I have to believe that’s because not enough females had been shooting up until recent years.”
The filmmaker, for her part, is working to change that — she directed the indie movie Meadowland, and she's now the cinematographer for HBO's new series, Vinyl.
4. Lexi Alexander
This German-born Palestinian filmmaker kicks tail in more ways than one — before beginning her career as a director, Alexander was a World Champion kickboxer and a US Marine Combat instructor, as reported by Vulture. In the film world, however, she's best known for her award-winning work on Johnny Flynton, Green Street Hooligans, and Lifted. In 2008, she became the first female to direct a comic book feature when she headed up Punisher: War Zone. Nowadays, she can be found working on the CW’s Arrow.
Yet while Alexander has been outspoken about gender issues, telling Vulture that she considers Hollywood an industry “riddled with bias,” she's claimed that few people actually turn critique into action. According to Alexander, the “white noise” of media coverage on the issue isn’t doing anything for women’s progress. Or, as she told The Week in a 2014 interview, “I can see the headline now, 'Oscars 2049: Where are the women?' Let's just really make a change or never, ever speak of it again.”
5. Geena Davis
Davis is a veteran actor known for her strong female characters — she holds a Golden Globe for her portrayal of the first female President on Commander in Chief, as well as an Oscar for Best Actress — but her commitment to women’s issues in entertainment extends well beyond acting. Frustrated with rampant gender inequality in the entertainment field, she founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media in 2004, and in the time since, it's become a huge force in contributing to studies on women in film.
Under Davis' command, the Institute has been responsible for a wide body of research on gender issues in film and television, including data that shows that even in children’s programing, females are outnumbered three-to-one, with only 19% of these characters being given careers. These findings prompted Davis to found an affiliate program, entitled See Jane, to promote equal and empowering gender representation in family-friendly entertainment. “If she can see it,” says the See Jane motto, “she can be it.”
6. Rachel Morrison
Another woman making a name for herself in the notoriously male-dominated field of cinematography, Morrison combines her talent with a determined self-assurance. “As a woman in this industry, you really can’t afford to second-guess yourself,” she told Filmmaker Magazine in July 2015. Morrison’s reel includes acclaimed films like Fruitvale Station, Dope, and Cake, and while she seemingly once shared her friend Reed Morano’s perspective about downplaying her gender, she told Indiewire in early 2016 that she’s recently become more open to discussing issues of female representation. “While I hope for a world where we're just looked at as cinematographers and not female cinematographers, if the attention helps to open that door, then maybe it's not a bad thing," she said.
7. Shonda Rhimes
Rhimes is responsible for some of the most successful TV programs in American entertainment today, with Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How To Get Away With Murderall under her command, as well as a recent bestselling book, Year of Yes. Named one of Time ’s Top 100 Influencers — and as a result, cited by Oprah as a personal inspiration — Rhimes has blazed TV trails for years with storytelling that includes powerful characters of color and portrayals of same-sex relationships. While she’s outspoken on issues of race and feminism, Rhimes insisted in a 2014 commencement speech that the key to her success began when she decided to pursue her passion. “At film school, I discovered an entirely new way of telling stories," she said. "A way that suited me. A way that brought me joy.”
8. Aurora Guerrero
Director and writer Aurora Guerrero seems to be driven by a desire to make radical change through film. According to an interview she did with Sundance in 2011, she credits much of her activist spirit to the feminist writers she encountered in college, citing Audre Lorde, Cherrie Moraga, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Chrystos as inspirations. As a filmmaker, Guerrero says she strives to emulate the fearless honesty of these women, telling Sundance, “All the work I set forth is my naked truth as a woman, a Xicana, an indigenous Mexican, a daughter of immigrants, a tough urban girl who never acquiesced to societal norms.”
Guerrero first made waves at Sundance in 2005 as director of Pura Lengua, written by Maritza Alvarez. Since then, she has written and directed several films, including her recent acclaimed feature Mosquita y Mari, a compelling drama following the complex friendship between two teenage girls.
9. Kathryn Bigelow
Bigelow has had many “firsts” as a female filmmaker; not only was she the first woman to win Oscar for Best Director (2009, The Hurt Locker), but she was also the first woman to receive the prestigious Directors Guild of America award for a feature film. With several thrillers and war-centric dramas under her belt, Bigelow has been applauded for her contributions to genres typically deemed “masculine,” although unsurprisingly, some critics have used sexist comments to try to shut her out.
Though Bigelow has often downplayed her gender, insisting that she be judged solely on the quality of her work, she’s also been outspoken about the rampant discrimination in Hollywood. Last May, she told TIME , “Hollywood is supposedly a community of forward thinking and progressive people yet... gender discrimination stigmatizes our entire industry. Change is essential.”
10. Lena Dunham
Dunham’s name has become synonymous for unapologetic, no-holds-barred feminist representation, and while she’s drawn her share of critics, her impact on popular culture is indelible. Best known for creating the hit show Girls, Dunham has also written and directed two films, including her breakout Tiny Furniture, and published a best-selling book, Not That Kind of Girl.
Much of Dunham’s popularity has stemmed from her “relatable” female characters; she has often criticized Hollywood for typecasting women and perpetuating unrealistic standards of physical appearance. With Girls' success, Dunham has used her platform to raise issues of inequality in Hollywood, as well as be an outspoken advocate for sexual assault survivors. As she told Variety at the magazine’s 2015 Power of Women event, “I am grateful every day for the gifts I've been given, particularly the gift of a voice and of people willing to hear it."
11. Jennifer Lee
There is a common misconception in Hollywood that female-created films don’t generate as much profit as their male-directed counterparts — an argument that many, including Jennifer Lee, profoundly contradict. As the first female director at Walt Disney Studios, Lee was at the helm in creating the mega-hit Frozen, which grossed over $1 billion and won an Oscar for Best Animated Feature. Despite her own success, Lee recognizes that women in her field have a long way to go. “ I think all we can do is keep pushing,” she told Popsugar in 2014. “And keep helping each other, just being very supportive of women in the industry.”
12. And The Young Women They're Influencing
For every woman making headlines in the film industry, there are hundreds more working behind-the-scenes in the hopes of enacting tangible change. In recent years, many female film students and young professionals have been advocating for greater diversity in the industry. Groups like the Gamechanger Films provide equity funding to female film projects, while the Sundance Women’s Initiative provides a platform for culture-makers and movie lovers to address issues of gender representation. Year-round, student groups like Columbia Women In Film and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Reel Women (pictured above) are raising awareness for the issue of female filmmakers on their college campuses.
Haley Kreofsky, a current board member of Reel Women, says the example of successful women in Hollywood gives her hope for her own career. “The more we highlight women making movies, the more it will give younger generations confidence that they are capable too," she says. Dana Shihadah, a 23-year-old aspiring cinematographer, agrees, sayin, “As a young female filmmaker...having someone to look up to has been a crucial part of my journey.”
While the numbers of women in the industry haven't improved much yet, online outlets, pro-female initiatives, and independent movie circuits are giving female filmmakers more opportunities to promote their work. And as awareness and access slowly build, the rising generation of female filmmakers may prove to be even more fearless than the last.
Image: Sarah Aziza, The University of Wisconsin Milwaukee