Behind the Silver Screen: Women’s Work in the Film Industry

“If there’s specific resistance to women making movies, I just choose to ignore it as an obstacle for two reasons: I can’t change my gender, and I refuse to stop making movies” – Kathryn Bigelow, director of The Hurt Locker.

Kathryn Bigelow

Kathryn Bigelow 

From the claims Sony paid Jennifer Lawrence less than her male co-stars for the hunger games, research that shows female characters speak far less than their male counterparts in a lot of Disney films, to the discussion over the fairness of the Bechdel test, there is growing awareness about how women are under-represented (or badly represented!) and under-valued in the film industry.

However, the gendered debate in film goes further than the characters we see on our screens. Inspired by papers given at WWV conferences, an insightful talk given by the Leeds based Feminist Archives, Feminist Futures, and my involvement in a Women’s Home Cinema Club that dedicates a night a month to watching and discussing films made by female directors, I have recently become increasingly aware of the challenges women face working behind the screen as well.

Considering the history of the film industry, there has been a significant improvement in recent years. Sharon Hooper, a senior lecturer in Visual Communication at Leeds College of Art, told me that 40 years ago, women were assumed to only be able to work in typically ‘female’ roles such as costume and make-up. Many film sets would not even have female bathrooms. In response, in the 1970s, feminist scholars such as Laura Mulvey started writing about the impact of who was making films on what we see on screen. [1] She claimed that the male dominated industry was producing film from the perspective of the ‘male gaze’, which often presented female characters as merely love interests or sexual objects.

Although this perspective has since been nuanced by scholars and challenged by some film makers, Sharon Hooper still believes there is a link between the under-representation of women in key roles behind the screen and what we end up seeing on it. She commented on the lack of positive female characters for children: “The lack of involvement in decision-making and creative roles in media production in general has to have some bearing on the poor representation of women and girls. Prescribed gender assumptions creeps in early and are hard to combat.”

The statistics demonstrate that women are still massively under-represented in the industry. In this years ‘Celluloid Ceiling’ report, Martha M. Lauzen found that in 2015 in the US “women comprised 19% of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 250 domestic grossing films.” [2] There are many other statistics that show a worrying lack of women in these creative industries.

As with all issues of this kind, there is no definitive answer as to why we see these discrepancies. Kathi Kamleitner, a Film and TV Studies PhD student at the University of Glasgow, pointed out the importance of looking at where it is that women are dropping out of the system. Almost half of the graduates from film school are women, yet there is still a huge disparity in women working as directors, producers and writers in mainstream filmmaking.

The factors preventing women from entering these fields often include difficulty in getting funding and a lack of confidence in women directing films, particularly within certain genres, like action movies. Kathi noted that women directors are more prominent in experimental and short films, comedy and documentaries and speculates this could be because these are cheaper films to produce and because women are more likely to make issue-based films, which are often documentaries. Looking at the paths taken by recent Leeds graduates, Sharon Hooper agrees that it seems to be more acceptable for women to direct and produce artists films, but it is harder to make a living in this field.

It is clear that, as a society, we still have gendered assumptions about the areas in which women are likely to work, within the film industry and elsewhere. Director Liza Johnson has spoken about how people have often assumed a man was the director, rather than her. This seems to be consistent throughout the industry; I spoke to a woman working as a technician, filming interviews with Gaelic speakers, who said most people assume she will be doing the interviews and the man she works with must be the one behind the camera.

Another important consideration is how women’s work is valued within the film industry. The concept of the director as the auteur, the artist/author behind a film, ignores the collaborative nature of film production. Kathi highlighted that this is problematic when considering women’s representation in the industry: “We mainly speak about female directors not getting enough spotlight and some women’s film festivals only accept films directed by women. How ironic is it that these festivals want to empower female filmmakers by giving them a platform to show their films, and at the same time they ignore women working on other creative roles – and by that under-value women’s work as cinematographers, editors, writers etc.”

Within the film industry, the drive to increase women’s representation is becoming more visible. Festivals such as Sundance and the Edinburgh International Film Festival are including higher number of films made by women. Places like the Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds are dedicated to showing less mainstream films, which are more likely to be made by women and the wider issue of diversity in film has been publicly highlighted recently in the criticism of the ‘whitewashing’ of the Oscars.

An LA based group, Women in Film, have pledged to watch 52 films directed by women, one a week for a year. Have a look at their suggestions and start bringing female film makers into mainstream culture, while enjoying some interesting films made by awesome women!

Kate Whitaker

Women, Work and Value Intern at the University of Glasgow



[1] Mulvey, Laura, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, Screen vol. 16, (1975)

[2] Lauzen, Martha M., ‘The Celluloid Ceiling: Behind-the-Scenes Employment of Women on the Top 100, 250, and 500 Films of 2015’,   Women in Film and TV, [accessed 3 June 2016]



History is in the past: the social relevance of historical research

In scholarly research, it is possible to construct a world out of your towers of books, built on a foundation of statistics and references. We can create distance between the scholar and the subject. We risk writing for and about, rather than with. Replacing voices with our own.

As historians, we have the privileged power of hindsight. We are able to label actions and events as causes and consequences, trace narrative threads that were invisible to contemporary actors. This can add another layer of distance. Another filter on our perspective, coloured by what we know happened afterwards, events these actors could only speculate about.

Yet scholarly work is obviously invaluable and the social relevance of historical research is crucial. The advantage hindsight gives us the possibility of predicting the future. R. G. Collingwood wrote “nobody knows what he can do until he tries, the only clue to what man can do is what man has done”. Nuanced and thoughtful historical perspectives are one way to form positive and effective policy.

What use is the world of theory if it does not intersect with a world of action?

The Women, Work and Value workshop, that took place on Monday 25th April, aimed to address this issue of distance. Set up as a knowledge exchange between scholars and experts in the field of care, the event took steps to bridge potential gaps between these groups. It aimed to bring scholarly and historical research into line and into conversation with the work of social actors.

Helen McCarthy from History and Policy discussed the importance of conveying historical work effectively and creatively to politicians and civil servants. A running theme throughout the workshop was the idea that scholars and experts from NGOS and non-profits organisations must work together. Only then can we put forward strong cases for effective policy change.

The importance of this kind of collaboration is becoming more and more visible and is a central pillar of feminist research. In June, the Centre for Gender History at the University of Glasgow is putting on a similar knowledge exchange, also aiming to connect scholars and practitioners working on in the field of care and the care economy.

joint poster

For more information about the event and how to attend, contact Dr Valerie Wright at the University of Glasgow:


Kate Whitaker

Women, Work and Value Intern at the University of Glasgow

“My house in Budapest/My hidden treasure chest”

“My house in Budapest/My hidden treasure chest”…I can’t get this earworm out of my head as we prepare for next week’s third Women, Work and Value workshop at the Central European University in Budapest.

In this workshop, we focus squarely on the politics of how women’s work was valued in the postwar era. The programme [] truly is a treasure chest of exciting new research, from Jackie Gulland’s work on the intersection of gender and disability in the definition of incapacity to work, to Roxane Vasile’s paper on sex worker activism in postsocialist Eastern Europe.
We are also lucky enough to have another inspirational keynote speaker in Eileen Boris []. Eileen will be giving us a insight into her new work on labour organising around care work – no doubt picking up on many of the themes from workshop 2.
Registration is still open for this workshop, but if you can’t make it to Budapest, do follow the Twitter conversation via our usual hashtag #womenwork2015. We also hope to bring you some highlights via the blog in the coming weeks. Watch this space!
Dr. Josie McLellan, Reader in Modern European History, University of Bristol
0117 9546817

10 Minutes with Diane Negra and Bethenny Frankel

Our Public Engagement Intern Graihagh Goode got the chance to speak to Diane Negra, a Professor and Head of Film Studies at University College Dublin, at the Women, Work and Value Conference in Florence and was keen to find out more about her fascination with Bethenny Frankel.

1) Who is Bethenny Frankel?

Frankel is a multi-platformed mega-brand – she began her career as a natural foods chef promoting a Bethenny Bakes line which morphed into Skinnygirl, a dietary cocktail brand she sold to Jim Beam for $100 million in 2011. Frankel has cycled through a range of reality series: as a contestant on Martha Stewart’s The Apprentice, an ensemble member on The Real Housewives of New York, as the star of Bethenny Getting Married? and Bethenny Ever After and most recently of a talk show called Bethenny. With a persona organized to articulate the endurance of emotional turmoil, the travails of seeking to “have it all,” and the need for careful and constant affective and physical self-governance, Frankel may be seen as one of the most consummate examples of contemporary post-feminist celebrity.

2) Why does Bethenny Frankel interest you?

I’ve long been interested in the ability of female celebrities to articulate and sometimes challenge gendered cultural norms. For instance Su Holmes and I have written particularly about the media appetite for “trainwreck” female celebrities like Linday Lohan, Britney Spears and Amy Winehouse noting the “intensifying double standard underlying a post-feminist cover story about gender egalitarianism.” We wrote “about the extent to which dignity and privacy are increasingly gendered in the context of celebrity representation. In a post-feminist representational environment, femininity is routinely conceptualized as torn between chaos and (over)control, serenity and agitation. Female celebrity models for creditably managing the (feminine) “work/life balance” are often positioned as only precariously and temporarily stabilized; we are invited to play a “waiting game” to see when their hard-won achievements will collapse under the simultaneous weight of relationship, family and career. One reason why stories of professionally accomplished/personally troubled female celebrities circulate so actively is that when women struggle or fail, their actions are seen to constitute “proof” that for women the “work/life balance” is really an impossible one.

3)What separates Bethenny Frankel from characters such as Carrie Bradshaw from Sex and the City?

Well, although Frankel isn’t exactly a fictional character like Bradshaw her constructed life on her reality tv series runs along some similar lines. However, I think “Sex and the City” is a little more confident about consumption as a reward for women (arguably it loses some of this confidence in the second sequel film). I think both also participate in a well-established narrative pattern in which New York serves as a proving ground/playground for aspirational women. We discussed at the conference that while “Sex and the City” is committed to celebrating female friendship, Frankel is positioned by and large without that kind of support. And Bradshaw is emphatically associated with an earlier economic era, whereas Frankel has seen her greatest success in the period during and after the global financial crisis.

4)What does Bethenny Frankel tell us about post-feminism and the issues concerning it?

I’m afraid this question is far too large for me to answer effectively in a short space. But I argued that one way to explain Frankel’s success is that her celebrity persona hits the affective keynotes of post-feminist womanhood—namely girlishness, consumption, and aspirationalism in relation to love and career. I think this helped to establish the legitimacy of Frankel herself, and the legitimacy of her Skinngirl brand. Frankel consistently models the “entrepreneurial self” so valued in neoliberalism but at the same time because so much of her reality tv series content emphasises exhaustion, frustration and emotional duress she also functions as a critique of that mode of selfhood.