There’s No Place Like Hollywood – If You’re A Straight, White Man

by Annabel Swan

Seven. That is the number of female directors who have been nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards, a prestigious ceremony, celebrating ‘artistic and technical merit in the film industry’ that has been held annually since 1929. To put this into perspective, more people have landed on the moon. More people have been struck by lightning. And my personal favourite, more people have been killed by Labradors than women nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards.

That is just one example of the appalling lack of diversity in Hollywood. A job in the glitz and glamour of the silver screen are among the most sought after positions on Earth – for years we’ve been strangely fixated by the world of entertainment and the people who live in it, obsessing over their clothes, cars, careers, houses, dating lives, successes and failures. Frustratingly, it’s virtually impossible to make it in the field anyway, unless you are a nepo-baby (born to famous parents already in the industry), and those countless numbers of hopefuls can only dream of becoming a red-carpet regular. But if you’re a woman, a POC or openly anything but straight and cis, those pre-existing barriers just got a whole lot bigger.

Now with those rather shocking statistics being said, 2021 was a pivotal occasion for women globally – for the first time in Oscars history, two women were nominated simultaneously for Best Director and another initiatory moment, the first woman of colour, Chloé Zhao for Nomadland, alongside Emerald Fennel for Promising Young Woman. I know the impact this will have had on young girls aspiring to enter the film industry one day, as I am one of them. Movies have always and will always hold a special place in my heart.

I see cinema as an on-hand escape, always there to provide an alternate world when real life just doesn’t seem worth living, which immerses and exhilarates without fail. What may seem like a simple nomination will have been a source of hope and sparked many aspirations. Unfortunately, like the majority of industries today, positions of power in Hollywood are predominantly held by men and have been for over a century. It’s difficult to pinpoint why this is, as film is a generally a unanimous love of both men and women but it most likely boils down to men hiring men and men feeling reassured by the presence of a male director opposed to a, God forbid, female one.

The effects of a patriarchal industry such as Hollywood have had detrimental effects in many cases. Let’s go way back to 1940, when The Wizard of Oz hit cinemas all across America. A seemingly innocent, magical movie captivated millions but it was only years later when details of the abuse of Judy Garland came to light and left quite a sour taste in the mouth. At a mere 17 years of age, she is said to have survived purely on a diet of cigarettes and chicken soup, along with an eclectic range of pills to ensure her weight was kept to the bare minimum and her waist as tiny as possible. She was also referred to by studio executives as a ‘fat little pig with pig tails’, as well as be routinely harassed by other male cast members. 

In 1940, a woman’s appearance was everything – but in Hollywood even more so. If a starlet didn’t meet the impossible beauty standards of that time, people simply wouldn’t watch the movie. Which is why so much was placed on Judy’s appearance and appeal to the audience. These destructive habits and unendurable pressure ultimately led to her death by overdose in 1969. And unfortunately, her situation was not the only to result in tragic outcomes. You would think that 80 years later, Hollywood would have changed it’s tune towards female actresses but sadly this is not the case. 

feminism - chapter z

The rise of the Me Too movement in 2017 led to a concerning amount of actresses sharing stories of misogyny and harassment in the workplace and famous faces who dominated the scene for years, such as Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, went to trial after a multitude of accusations. Still today, it’s difficult to find a leading lady in a blockbuster that’s not skinny, white and implausibly attractive. Characters who are overweight, of colour or not conventionally attractive are often only there for comedic effect or to portray stereotypes.

We have also only in the last 30 years began to see female characters whose sole purpose wasn’t to be ‘the wife’ or ‘the mother’ or ‘the hot love interest’. This is commonly known in cinema as ‘the male gaze’ – the ideal woman written, directed and inspired by a straight man’s fantasy. Before then, impressionable young girls gazing up at the big screen, would only see themselves represented as side characters. Characters who weren’t important enough to have their own storyline or characters who were only there for the benefit of the male protagonist. 

However, thanks to an influx of amazing female creatives, such as Universal executive Donna Langley, I do think that this is thankfully changing. Nothing excites me more than seeing a brand new movie trailer with a badass female lead and considering 51% of moviegoers are women, it only makes sense that we have a surplus of films available appealing to and representing all genders. I’m so glad there are Disney films for my little sister to watch with women who aren’t waiting to be saved by a prince.

If the social impacts of an inclusive cast don’t convince Hollywood to pull their socks up, then they should also note that diversity, unquestionably, sells. In 2019, films with casts that were 41-50% minority resulted in the highest median global box office receipts. This just goes to show there is absolutely no excuses for traditionally conformable films anymore. Society has progressed into a world where the majority of us cherish difference, we crave uniqueness and desire modernity and I think that is truly remarkable. 

As much progress as we are seeing in diversifying Hollywood, the game is still very much male dominated. Hopefully, with new generations of inspired female, queer and POC artists, from actresses to directors, we can help close the gender-gap once and for all and make Hollywood a world of new born imagination. I, for one, cannot wait until Gen Z starts making movies – I am certain they will be sensational. Some of my favourite pioneering women in the industry include Zendaya, Greta Gerwig, Michaela Coel, Emma Watson, Jameela Jamil, Margaret Cho and Mindy Kaling and I would thoroughly recommend looking into their work. What I find beautiful about cinema is that there are no rules – there’s no handbook of ‘How To Make A Movie’ and I firmly believe this creative license has, and will continue to break boundaries and invent places in front of and behind the camera, for absolutely everyone.