Things appear to be on the way up for women in film. But as is true of many things in the film industry, appearances can be deceiving.
There are the breakthrough stories. The Hurt Locker's Kathryn Bigelow won the best director Oscar in 2010, the first female director to do so. Kung Fu Panda 2 made Jennifer Yuh Nelson the highest-grossing female director of all time.
And from critically acclaimed actors like Kate Winslet and Meryl Streep to box-office powerhouses like Sandra Bullock and Reese Witherspoon, female stars are continuing to prove their artistic and commercial prowess in new ways every year.
On the other hand annual studies, like one from the University of Southern California released in November, 2011, continue to reveal that women still remain underrepresented both in front of and behind the camera.
"It's alarming," UBC Creative Writing associate professor Peggy Thompson told the Georgia Straight by phone. "It's just wrong, and the women do just as well up until a certain point and it gets harder and harder."
Thompson is also a filmmaker, Please Adjust Your Set publisher (a website devoted to women in Canadian and international film industries), and Women in Film and Television Vancouver board member and founding president.
She says these studies have been coming out over the last 10 years but have only recently been reaching the mainstream media.
"When I started out, the conventional wisdom…the largest demographic was boys between 14 and 25 and so many, many movies were geared towards that demographic," she says. "But the demographic has changed. It has changed in the last five years to women. And a huge number of women over 50."
But are filmmakers simply responding to what moviegoers want to see?
No, according to Thompson.
"People in the industry are making the films that they want to see. And if 30 percent of those filmmakers are men, chances are they're making films about stories that are attractive to and…about men. It's a question of who is making the films. There are three areas of concern: women on screen, women behind the camera…and then the telling of women's stories."
She also points out that what we see on screen should not be confused for reality.
"Media doesn't represent culture, and I think people need to understand that," she says. "Popular mainstream media is not a mirror reflecting back to us. It's a fantasy. It's a dream…. I think we forget that. And now I feel that a lot of mainstream media…because we are living in hard times, it has become more of a dream machine than it ever was since the Depression…. It's not real life. It's not real people. It's not for the most part real problems. It's a little toy that we live with. But it really affects how we feel and think about everything. That's why suddenly you get these strange disconnects."
But can audience members do anything about how women are represented in film and the film industry?
The short answer: yes.
Here are some suggestions that a number of local filmmakers and industry professionals came up with.
Get in the know
Thompson subscribes to Women and Hollywood, a website devoted to film by and about women. Thompson notes that she learns about films that she doesn't normally hear about from other media sources or about films that most people don't realize that women are involved in.
Double Happiness director Mina Shum encourages audiences to become fans of women in front of and behind the camera. Increasing their following can help turn them into stars.
Facebook "like" them, follow them on Twitter, read and forward on articles about them (publications monitor web hits), talk about them, watch their films, Google them (Shum points out someone is looking at those stats).
Go verbally viral
Animator and filmmaker Su-An Ng emphasizes the importance of using the power of word-of-mouth, particularly when you have a positive story to tell about a great film, star, or filmmaker.
Of course, social media has made this infinitely easier. And more powerful.
Busk Films founder and CEO Andrea Wing, who runs a lesbian video-on-demand website, says that social media makes it "easy to build an army" and that there are "huge opportunities" to assume leadership on the internet.
Just as Wing encourages audiences to speak up and speak out, genre producer and filmmaker Karen Lam suggests writing to broadcasters, advertisers, and publications to let them know what you think. "As audiences, we have far more power than we are aware," she says.
She points out how vocal audiences can also affect advertising, which in turn affect content.
Out on Screen executive director Drew Dennis adds that while you can vote with your tickets, you can also share feedback with theatre management, which can help them become aware that you are in fact doing so.
Writing campaigns are usually launched to complain about or protest problematic images. How about organizing a letter-writing campaign to praise any positive depictions or efforts?
Pay it forward, literally
While you can vote with your tickets by carefully choosing what films you go see, you can direct your financial power in another way. You can help to finance projects by female filmmakers, or films with strong female characters. Filmmaking fundraising efforts have gone digital with sites like IndieGoGo, making it easier for audiences to get involved in donating.
Get out there
Beyond helping to get more bums in seats, attending film events and festivals that address gender issues is another way to show your support, learn more, and connect with likeminded individuals.
And if you want to get started right away, you're in luck. The Vancouver Women in Film Festival kicks off tonight with the Spotlight Awards Gala, hosted by Shum, which will celebrate the accomplishments of women in film.
The festival runs until Sunday (March 11) at Vancity Theatre (1181 Seymour Street). Everything from master classes and film screenings to brunches and lunches are on the schedule. Shum's "Hip Hop Mom" and Lam's "Doll Parts" will screen in the festival, alongside the likes of the same-sex adoption documentary Conceiving Family, Desiree Lim's horror The House, Tracy D. Smith's drama Everything and Everyone, and more.
Shum is also participating in a panel discussion about identity issues called "Race, gender, and representation in the media" on Saturday (March 10) at 2 p.m. at Performance Works (1218 Cartwright Street on Granville Island). Shum will join Marie Clements, founding artistic director of urban ink productions; Metis-Cree filmmaker Loretta Todd; African-Canadian writer and performer Valerie Mason John; and videographer and artist Rupinder Sidhu.
Just do it
If you've always been wanting to make a film but have been holding yourself back or procrastinating, maybe it's time to just go ahead and do it.
Dirt documentary filmmaker Meghna Haldar points out that some women might need a series of chances to develop. And it's important to remember that not all male Canadian filmmakers "emerged fully formed from the womb".
She has also observed that women tend to be deferential and ask for permission before doing anything. She said the late renowned Canadian documentary filmmaker Allan King once told her, "Shit, or get off the pot."
How's that for getting to the point?
* * * * *
Needless to say, it's easy to see that being an audience member doesn't mean being a passive viewer. As Thompson states, "We need to remember that it's important to question."
It's International Women's Day today. Do you know what you are watching?
You can follow Craig Takeuchi on Twitter at twitter.com/cinecraig.