Why So Many Women Hate The Term "Female Director"

by Rachel Simon

It's no secret that female-led films, especially those made by female directors, have a rough time getting the green-light in Hollywood — just look at any of the statistics, or the fact that there's an ongoing federal investigation into the lack of female directors, to understand just how bad the situation truly is. Yet for some women, the way to challenge this discrimination is not only to insist that they deserve equal treatment but to embrace their unique place in the film industry, purposely calling themselves "female filmmakers" to promote their existence just as others are using that very term as a criticism. But is labeling themselves as a sub-group, setting themselves apart from the filmmaker "norm," a dangerous move that'll hurt them in the long run? Or is it actually a bold one, proving their willingness to twist the insult used against them into a point of pride?

When I spoke to several women involved in behind-the-scenes work recently about their experiences in Hollywood, I was fascinated to find that there seemed to be a strict divide in feelings about embracing the term; about half of the directors felt passionate about calling themselves "female filmmakers" and seemed proud of that difference, while the rest preferred for their gender to have nothing to do with how they and their films were perceived. Both points are valid, but it's clear that this is a debate that won't be resolved anytime soon, even as some women in Hollywood seem to wish it would.

"The very idea that we’re talking about stuff as being female is exactly the lame part of this whole situation," says the actor Natasha Lyonne, who acts as a producer on this year's Antibirth. "It’s just very weird and it seems very outdated."

Maggie Greenwald, director of the piece Sophie and the Rising Sun, agrees; she tells me that her "goal" is to "not to be called a women’s filmmaker, but to be a filmmaker, and for there to be full inclusion at every level."

..."'Well, we are really looking for a female director,'" followed by "a little wink like, 'hey, this is your moment, sweetheart.'"

Others, however, seem to feel that embracing the label doesn't add to the separation, but encourages improvement. Speaking of the current scarcity of female filmmakers, actor Chloe Sevigny, who recently directed her first film, Kitty, says, "Maybe in order to change it, you have to recognize it and vocalize it."

Adds So Yong Kim, the director of the romantic drama Lovesong, "I wear my badge proudly... it's a great privilege."

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It's hard to disagree with these sentiments, especially Sevigny's; in order to fix a problem, you have to first acknowledge that it exists, and that the fact that women are doing just that is having a significant effect. Just look at this year's Sundance Film Festival slate; over a third of the films that showed at the festival were directed by women, a stark increase from previous years' average of 25 percent. Of the higher number of female directors present, Sian Heder, director of the Ellen Page-Allison Janney dramedy Tallulah, says, "I'm glad that there are enough women that it’s not like a special thing." Kim, meanwhile, believes it's a sign of change to come for women in Hollywood as a whole; "Sundance," she says, "has been in the past a good indicator of what’s gonna come up into the mainstream and thriving out in the common consciousness."

But even still, it's easy to understand why some women are hesitant, or flat-out resistant, to using a label that has often been used as a criticism. "It can be an disincentive to some people, like oh, I’m a female filmmaker, not just a filmmaker, and I totally get that," says Elizabeth Wood, director of White Girl. "But I also think it’s really powerful to be a woman, and you end up pushing buttons you wouldn’t push if you were a man... we get ourselves in a hard place where we don’t want to identify as female filmmakers, so we aren’t acting comfortably as ourselves, trying to be something we’re not. But when you’re not being honest, you’re not gonna do your best work."

She refers to a quote from the recent New York Times Magazine piece on women in Hollywood, when the director Catherine Hardwicke discussed the criticism she'd received for breaking into tears while filming her latest movie. "She was saying that because she cried on set, people were talking about her and didn’t want to work with her," Wood recalls. "But that’s ridiculous! Hey, you cried? Great! Yet another tool you have in your power. It’ll shut people up. Make them be scared."

"...we can stand up and say, 'this is not acceptable. It’s discrimination.'"

"We’ve all wised up and caught on that the idea of competition between women is really one that’s brought on by advertising," explains Lyonne. "We’ve decided, hey, how about this idea of us all being comrades in this thing and supporting each other?"

Adds Greenwald, "Women are coming together instead of each of us being a quiet voice alone."

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This support is essential, especially when considering the horror stories these women tell me about the experiences they face regularly in Hollywood. "It's sh*tty sometimes," says Wood, revealing that in meetings, she often hears a similar statement from the mostly male executives, something along the lines of, "'Well, we are really looking for a female director,'" followed by "a little wink like, 'hey, this is your moment, sweetheart.'"

"No one thinks that the next great director, the next great Martin Scorsese, is a woman..."

Then there's the type of conversation she says she regularly had while at Sundance to promote White Girl. "People from the festival would come up, probably knowing that if they looked down at their piece of paper, White Girl directed by Elizabeth Wood [would be on it], but they'd introduce themselves to my husband and say, 'we’re so excited to screen your film.' And I'd be like, really?" says Wood. "It became funny, like, 'they think you’re the director again!'"

Yet from the sigh she exudes a moment later, it's clear she's not laughing. To put years into making a film, get it shown at a huge festival, have it debut it to thoughtful reviews, and yet still have people dismiss your involvement in it because of your gender is unimaginable, yet for Wood and others, it's all too common a situation. But can it ever be fixed? Perhaps not entirely, but the recent increase in acknowledgment of the problem is certainly a start. Says Greenwald, "It never occurred to me throughout my career that no matter how much sexism and misogyny I experienced, I could go somewhere and say, 'this should be against the law, this is against the Constitution.' So it was really very profound for me to realize that this is something that we just have to chip away at by generation... we can stand up and say, 'this is not acceptable. It’s discrimination.'"

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And many women are doing just that. At Sundance, for instance, the large amount of female-led films shown at this year's festival was accompanied by several discussions promoting women filmmakers, with an Elizabeth Banks-led "Women and Sundance" brunch the most notable. During the panel, which I attended, Banks, the actor-turned-director of films such as Pitch Perfect 2 and the upcoming Charlie's Angels reboot, stated that she felt the need to act as a "model" for other women in Hollywood, using her success as a filmmaker to encourage them to pursue the same path. "No one thinks that the next great director, the next great Martin Scorsese, is a woman," Banks said.

Judging by the hundreds of affirmative nods this quote received, it seemed to me like many people think this woman is already out there, somewhere — even if she's not quite willing to label herself as the up-and-coming "female filmmaker" we should all be watching out for. And even if she does, there's no guarantee she'll be taken seriously. There are still the deeper problems that lurk behind-the-scenes, what Greenwald calls "the systematic lack of interest" in and funding for female-led films like her own. Says the director, "One of the most significant moviegoing audiences is women over 40... but for people who invest in films, they just want to see themselves. I had one jerk say, 'Well, it’s really beautiful, but I don’t know who would want to see it.' Really? How about 50 percent of the population, at least?"

Stories like this sound ridiculous and backwards — but as Greenwald and the other women can attest, they're all too common in the film industry. Yet maybe things are changing; there's the Sundance's roster, the ACLU investigation, the essays and articles being written by and for women bringing discrimination to light. Perhaps with some time, female filmmakers — whether they choose to identify themselves as such or not — won't find themselves in a world where their gender is the reason their films are or aren't made.