Women’s Voices Were Loud and Proud in Film 2018 Sessions
Gender discussions examined wider industry events and attitudes.
During a panel called “CherryPicks: Why Does a Critic’s Gender Matter?” at SXSW 2018, renowned music critic Ann Powers pointed out that “one of the reasons to bring women’s voices together is to show that they don’t think alike. When they’re marginalized, the idea of the one woman over here on the side stands for the whole,” and continued with, “Only when you have us in dialogue with each other does that perspective emerge.” That simple idea sadly seems revolutionary. Can you imagine anyone having to claim that men have different opinions?
CherryPicks: Why Does a Critic’s Gender Matter? Photo by Jon Currie
In her comments, Powers was specifically referring to how a new Rotten Tomatoes-type criticism aggregation site called CherryPicks, created by producers Miranda Bailey and Rebecca Odes, that would showcase a diversity of thought. The site was made in response to both the lack of female voices in all areas of criticism and also to the question: because they have an innate understanding of the female experience, will women give media created by other women higher reviews than men would?
At the moment, the answer is an ongoing debate; we’re simultaneously arguing that women may receive media made from another woman’s perspective better while also attempting to assert that women aren’t a monolith. It’s a tricky discussion, and one that wasn’t limited to the CherryPicks panel at this year’s SXSW.
“Women are bound by our marginalized status, but we all have a lot to learn from one another.”
At a panel entitled “Female Gaze: Alternative Fact or Actual Movement,” filmmakers Amy Adrion, Nijla Mu’min, Leena Pendharker, and Suzi Yoonessi discussed what it actually means to use the term “female gaze.” (The term “male gaze” was coined in 1975 by Laura Mulvey as a means to codify the visual compositions of men’s films, which often saw women as objects to be consumed.) While panelists all believed that there was a marked difference between how some men and women portrayed the world and their characters, they also touched on the paradox of the gender binary, which assumes that women somehow have a lighter, more nurturing touch and lens through which to see the world.
Female Gaze: Alternative Fact or Actual Movement. Photo by Nicole Burton
Fielding a question from the audience about women directing “women’s stories,” Mu’min refuted the idea that women only want to tell those stories. “It doesn’t have to be female protagonists,” she said.
Yoonessi then stated the falsehood that had been repeated to her over and over by executives: “Women can’t direct action,” action having been men’s domain for decades.
Mu’min and Yoonessi’s comments mirror those of Powers, who had pointed out in her panel that The Hurt Locker — with all its violence and terror — is a woman’s perspective, because it was director Kathryn Bigelow’s vision. That film’s story was also told through a male character, as so many of Bigelow’s films are, and yet it is inextricably intertwined with the fact that Bigelow walks the earth a woman. The constraints that all four directors of the panel say have been placed upon them seem to come directly from how men in positions of power view women and their sensibilities. Adrion pointed out that “Paul Feig directs movies about women’s close personal relationships, and no one asks if he can.”
While the filmmakers’ panel focused on how the outside world perceived the panelists, TCM host Alicia Malone’s panel “The Female Voices of Film Twitter” centered on how much the panelists wanted that world to know about them. Filmmakers often benefit from viewers understanding where the artist is coming from to better understand the work created, but film critics agree that women in their industry must be selective about what they show to the world, specifically on social media.
The Female Voices of Film Twitter. Photo by Nicola Gell/Getty Images for SXSW
Critic Amy Nicholson, who is one of the few women to break through in trade magazines, explained that she keeps her private life separated from the public sphere with strict boundaries. Her argument is that she wants the focus to be on the merit of her work, not her personal life and especially not her gender. But as the lines blur between work and personal life for all media figures, there are others who have only known one way: free and totally open.
Rotten Tomatoes’ Jacqueline Coley, for instance, said she couldn’t “delete myself from being a black woman” in her work and that that identity will inevitably find its way into her writing and her social media presence. Critic Monica Castillo echoed that response as she told the story about a male peer criticizing her for “letting her feminism get in the way of her criticism,” a piece of advice she took to heart until she read Manohla Dargis’ feminist response to the sex scenes in Blue Is the Warmest Color.
In this panel and others, there was the growing sense that no one quite knows how to juggle the tension between embracing one’s identity and wishing that the world would not pigeonhole you in it. No one knows this better than Lena Dunham, who appeared in conversation with Glamour’s editor-in-chief, Samantha Barry, to talk about “authenticity.” With Dunham’s popular newsletter Lenny Letter, she said she wanted to make the operation a comforting place for women to publish their work on the internet, but also called out to her publisher in the audience for stats on how many men subscribe to the newsletter. The answer was five percent, a number Dunham called, “both higher than I thought and lower than I could imagine.”
Authenticity and Media in 2018. Photo by Amy E. Price/Getty Images
Essentially, what all these women are saying is that it has been a struggle to get men to pay attention to or care about any media — whether film, music, criticism or literature — that may unabashedly come from a woman’s perspective. And it’s not just media.
Women from the “Time’s Up! Shifting the Imbalance of Power” panel felt the same lack of attention, finding that men would not be the ones to take up a cause seen as a “women’s issue.” It was only when they banded together that anyone would listen, but as Time’s Up Legal Fund overseer Tina Tchen and actor Jurnee Smollett-Bell pointed out, the women of Time’s Up weren’t just suddenly working in unison.
Membership cuts across lines of class, race, and religion, and Smollett-Bell remembered how the letter of solidarity published in TIME from the 700,000 farmworkers of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas felt like a call to arms for those women of privilege, and also a call to find what the world feels like for transwomen, women of color, and women in lower wage jobs. Smollett-Bell said, that as opposed to the women’s movements before theirs, “We’re trying to learn what pitfalls not to fall into this time.”
Smollett-Bell and Tchen stressed “intersectionality” in their thoughts and approach, and though other panels may not have used that word exactly, this is the topic they’re all dancing around: women are bound by our marginalized status, but we all have a lot to learn from one another. But it’s only when in conversation with each other that we see both how alike and different we really are.