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Media Savvy: Hollywood’s Square: A peek behind the Hollywood curtain

September 28th, 2008     by Nicole Cohen     Issue 12: Issue 12: Unhappy Campers     Comments

I should have known better than to think I would like Iron Man. To be fair, I was expecting the bare minimum: a few hours of mindless entertainment, some cool superhero tricks and perhaps a digestible life lesson along the lines of Spiderman’s “with great power comes great responsibility.” That is something I can get behind.

But Iron Man was disappointing: two hours of macho aggression cheered on by a heavy-metal soundtrack, technological fetishism, glamourized militarism, explicit racism, and the least complex female characters you could imagine. Iron Man may have earned $428.5 million (US) globally in just three weeks, making it a successful blockbuster, but to me it just felt like more of the same. Critics often interpret the images onscreen to help us understand the messages of films. But Iron Man left me wondering if perhaps looking behind the scenes at who’s calling the shots might provide more insight into why what I see onscreen is seldom satisfying.

Iron Man was directed by Jon Favreau, writer of the film Swingers, whose female characters (all of whom were called “babies”) were limited to objectified cocktail waitresses and emasculating ex-girlfriends. On Iron Man, eight men have writing credits and only one of 11 producers was a woman. Consequently, perhaps, the film has only one major female character: Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts, who has zero personality, spends her time picking up dry cleaning and organizing Iron Man’s schedule, and who needs step-by-step directions over the phone when it comes to fighting the bad guy.

Of course, the stories we see onscreen depend a lot on who is doing the storytelling. This is not to say that men always get it wrong, or that women don’t like action films (Uma Thurman’s out-of-this-world moves in Kill Bill really thrilled me). But men write the majority of what ends up in the cineplexes, both “guy films,” like Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up, and so-called chick flicks, like Baby Mama and Sex and the City. This could be why mainstream films offer such narrow ideas about gender.

I wonder: would the stories be different with more women at the helm? What kinds of ideas about women, about gender and relationships, about issues of militarism and the power associated with technology would we see if women wrote more scripts for Hollywood movies? Or if scripts were written by older people, or people of colour, or immigrants, or people from the working class? It’s hard to know, because it’s rare to see a writing credit from someone who’s not young, white and male. When we do, it’s something to celebrate (and perhaps why Juno, despite some flaws, was such a refreshing film).

American academics Denise and William Bielby, who have spent years researching the politics of screenwriting in Hollywood, argue that there are reasons why white, predominantly young men write three-quarters of Hollywood scripts and older writers (even those who have been in the business for years), women, and people of colour have a hard time breaking in.

Bielby and Bielby argue that decisions in Hollywood are made arbitrarily, usually based on personal contacts and reputations, and stereotypes play a big role in influencing who gets the jobs. It’s often assumed that women can’t write action movies, or that older writers can’t pen shows for teens. And usually, they note, “the best candidate for the job” resembles the people making the decision about hiring, who are overwhelmingly white and male.

It’s not just old, stale stereotypes that guide decision making. Industry pressure factors in as well. Films are expensive to make and increased downloading means they earn less. Investors are reluctant to finance risky projects, so they stick to the same old formula, guided by what advertising execs want to sink money into: films targeted at 18- to 34-year-old males.

These execs don’t know what they’re missing. Consider that last year, four women were nominated for Oscars for compelling, insightful films (Tamara Jenkins for The Savages, Nancy Oliver for Lars and the Real Girl, Diablo Cody for Juno and Sarah Polley for Away From Her). Consider the bright, strong, innovative film writers working in Canada, like Polley, Andrea Dorfman (Parsley Days) and Deepa Mehta (Water, Bollywood/Hollywood). These are women to watch and to support, so that their work and the work of filmmakers of all genders, ages, and ethnic backgrounds can be seen and celebrated. Not just for the sake of counting, but to make sure our stories are being told.

Nicole Cohen is the co-founder of Shameless magazine and a PhD student at York University.


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