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From the Silent Film Era to the Era of Breaking the Silence: The History and Future of Women in Film

The Oscars are February 24th at 8:00PM EST. In conjunction with this highly anticipated annual event, I wrote the following article on the history and future of women in film that was published on the Women’s Media Center. As we celebrate the accomplishments of this year’s winners, let’s not forget the work that is still necessary to enable women to have an equal shot at success (and Oscars!) in the film industry.


Thanks to the progress the #MeToo and Times Up movements have made in shining a light on the injustices women in the film industry face, I naively assumed that women would be better represented among this year’s award nominees. I assumed wrong.

This underrepresentation in awards season is ultimately unsurprising, though, given that women have a long been marginalized in the film industry — especially behind the scenes. According to the 2017 Women’s Media Center report “The Status of Women in the U.S. Media,” women made up just 17 percent of the behind-the-scenes film workforce between 2015-2016. Of the top 250 films made during this time, 96 percent had no women cinematographers, 92 percent had no women directors, 79 percent had no women editors, 77 percent had no women writers, 58 percent had no women executive producers, and 34 percent had no women producers.

This unfortunate reality, however, obscures the fact that women were actually present in, and crucial to, the film industry in its early days. When we think about the beginning of filmmaking, we often think first of the directors Georges Méliès and Al Christie, not to mention Thomas Edison, the inventor who made it all possible. But these men worked alongside a number of incredible women.

Take Alice Guy-Blaché, the first female filmmaker. She worked as a secretary until she saw Louis and Auguste Lumière’s Sortie d’usine, which transformed her and inspired her to start working for filmmakers as a writer in 1895. Within a few years, she was making her own movies, which spanned many different genres and featured famous actors from all over the world.  Unfortunately, Guy-Blaché’s career was irreparably damaged when her marriage ended in 1922, due to the extreme social stigma attached to divorce at the time. She unfortunately faded from the scene, becoming an all but forgotten footnote in film history.

Guy-Blaché paved the way for more women, however, who masterfully produced, directed, wrote, and acted in (and sometimes all four) their own movies. Take Mary Pickford, who co-founded United Artists with Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks Sr., and D.W. Griffith in 1919. Together this team made box office hits like Pollyanna (1920), The Three Musketeers (1921), and Robin Hood (1923) and crucially shaped the business side of making films. Pickford went on to help establish the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1927, and United Artists continues to produce films to this day under the name of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Unfortunately, women’s presence in the film industry started to diminish in the mid-1920s as the silent film era started to come to an end. The “talkies” were generally viewed by the industry as less of an art form — as silent films had been, and which made them acceptable for women to engage in — and more as a business, from which women were prohibited. Men increasingly gained power in the film industry and, in doing so, created a new hierarchy of roles in the industry: Most major jobs, like producing and writing, were seen as “male” jobs while others, like editing and production design, still were open to women.

While women have increasingly broken through these barriers over the years, their work has rarely been acknowledged in the form of industry awards. Between 1994 and 2018, only 12 percent of all Golden Globe nominees were women, and of those, only 8 percent won. Just last year, no women at all were nominated in the Globes’ Best Director category, and we can still count on one hand the number of women who have ever been nominated for the category (like Barbra Streisand, who was the first woman to win the Golden Globe for directing in 1984). Now, in 2019, women make up just 25 percent of the nominations in Oscar categories that are not gender-specific and there are no women nominees at all in categories including Best Director, Cinematography, and Film Editing.

To be clear, the problem with this lack of representation isn’t just that women aren’t winning awards for their work, but that women are not even given the opportunities to be in professional positions in which they could win awards for their work. Until women are given the opportunities to write, direct, and produce their own work — the kinds of opportunities they were originally given in this industry — nothing is going to change. Hopefully, therefore, criticism of the continued lack of representation during award seasons, as well as the larger international conversation surrounding women’s experiences in the film industry, will eventually inspire us to revitalize the legacy of Alice Guy-Blaché and her cohorts, and make the film industry one in which women creatives are equally represented.

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