In 1926, Dorothy Arzner became the first female director in an overwhelmingly male Hollywood studio system. With 20 credits to her name, including 17 feature films, she remains the woman director with the largest oeuvre in the history of the industry. And as an openly gay woman, she was a trailblazer in more ways than one. Still, her career, which spanned until 1943, when she came down with pneumonia and was unable to continue working, went largely unrecognised until the late 1970s. A dusty star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame bears her name, and as the first female member of the Director's Guild, she was honoured in a 1975 ceremony. At the time, legendary actress and contemporary Katherine Hepburn sent Arzner a telegram, congratulating her on the momentous occasion. It read: "Isn't it wonderful that you've had such a great career, when you had no right to have a career at all?"
Fast forward nearly 100 years after Arzner's directorial debut, and women are still woefully underrepresented behind the camera. To this day, a mere five women have ever been nominated at the Academy Awards for achievements in directing, and only one — Katherine Bigelow in 2009 — has won. According to a study conducted by the University of Southern California's Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, women made up only 4% of directors for 1,100 top grossing films of the past 11 years. Of those 36 total women, only 7 were women of colour.
But the director's chair isn't the only area where women are facing a seemingly bullet-proof glass ceiling. In 2017, women accounted for only 11% of screenwriters, and 19% of executive producers. And as for the movies themselves, they're still overwhelmingly male. Men made up 76% of protagonists, and 66% of speaking characters. And yet, the top three-grossing films of the year — Beauty and the Beast, Wonder Woman, and Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi — were all female-led projects. There is a fundamental disconnect between what Hollywood is selling, and what audiences actually respond to.
March marks Women's History Month, but also the end of an awards season characterised by its unprecedented dedication to highlighting the role of women in Hollywood, an industry that has had to face some hard truths in recent months. What started with a call to wear black in support of the nascent Time's Up initiative at the Golden Globes culminated with Frances McDormand's rousing endorsement of inclusion riders in the final minutes of the Academy Awards.
The red carpets may be back in storage for another year, but the point has been made: Women are done waiting for permission. We've been quietly chipping away at a systemic power imbalance for nearly a century; now, the sledgehammers are coming out.
In honour of the only month dedicated to celebrating half the population, we asked 16 Hollywood women to share their hard-learned advice on how to carve out space in a male-dominated industry.
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