‘I don’t want to be a publicist’: women in film

I knew from a young age that I would work in the film industry. My mother was an extra, and before I could form sentences I was being pushed around in a pram on film sets.

Before I entered the inevitably awkward years of adolescence, I was a cute kid, which meant I could be a child actor. I was no Dakota Fanning, but I was good enough to get steady work and to dream about life on the big screen.

As I got older and increasingly conformed less to consumer capitalist ideals of beauty, I realised that I wasn’t going to have a career in front of the camera. Often I would go to an audition and be told that I did great. Then I waited by the phone for a call that never came. Later, I would hear the dialogue I’d done in the audition repeated by a voice attached to that western (and specifically Australian) ideal: large breasts, blue eyes, blond hair, skin free of moles and freckles, a rich tan and straight, white teeth – a combination I did not have.

I want to be clear that I am not saying those girls weren’t talented. I do not delude myself into thinking it was only about looks. But it was also about looks.

So I shifted my dreams and started to think about becoming a casting director. Given my passion for performance and my eye for screen talent (even as a performer, I was a viewer), it felt like a good fit. I probably even thought that maybe, just maybe, I’d have a chance to level the playing field. Maybe I could cast an occasionally awkward looking pre-teen in a commercial television programme.

If you can’t be it, change it, right?

I had not yet thought about how, at age eleven, I had given up on my passion because I had been told – by the images I consumed day and night – that I was not the right kind of beautiful and that therefore I could not have an onscreen life.

It did not seem puzzling to my eleven-year-old self that I had selected a second choice profession without knowing whether or not I actually wanted to do it.

At thirty-three, I wonder why becoming a casting director was my ‘go-to’ choice once acting was off the table.

But it’s because it was one of the few roles I had ever seen women do. In my eleven years of attending auditions and wandering around in the background on set, I had only really seen women at castings, in hair and makeup, wardrobe, catering, and attending to continuity/script editing. There may have been a few other women on set but I honestly can’t remember them.

What I do remember is a lot of men: directors, assistant directors, directors of photography, sound recording artists, lighting assistants, gaffers, and so on. It never even occurred to me to consider one of these jobs as a potential career. I believed they were jobs that men did because I only saw men doing them.

When I think about the women I know who work in the industry, it is disappointing but true that most of them work in marketing and PR. I say ‘disappointing’ not because I think there is anything wrong with marketing or PR. I want to be clear that I am happy for the women who want to work in these areas. I use the word ‘disappointing’ because a lot of women in marketing and PR don’t want to work there. Many of them want to work in programming, sales, acquisitions and exhibition. But these are predominantly male-occupied roles. Marketing and PR have been designated – presumably by men – as female roles.

Of course there are exceptions. For example, I work in what the industry calls ‘exhibition’ (in my own words, I work in a cinema). The term covers programming and cinema management but only loosely: though I work purportedly in exhibition, I am not a manager but an assistant – and I am an assistant to a man.

I do not personally dislike, begrudge or necessarily wish to eclipse this particular man. I have the utmost respect for my employer because of his genuine passion and talent for cinema management and programming. My point is merely that, even when women do manage to move into other sectors of the film industry, they are often assistants to men.

In 2014, Natalie Miller is still the only female in this country to ever have started up and run her own film distribution company. There are no other female proprietors of film distribution companies in Australia. There are no women at all on the board of Village Roadshow.

Anecdotally, two friends of mine decided to shoot a short film with an all-female crew. Not only was this near impossible – finding a female gaffer is like looking for a unicorn – but it was also met with hostility from some of the women on crew who couldn’t understand why anyone would think about such an exercise.

I’ve not been bothered until now to include statistics, mostly because the gender imbalance is so obviously prevalent. But for those of you who want stats, Lisa French offers this:

Anecdotally, it is often assumed a lot of women are in the creative industries. But in the Australian film and television industries, the participation of women hasn’t been steadily increasing in all fields, and in some it has actually declined. Figures published by Screen Australia show that in 2006 24% of directors for film, TV, radio or stage were women, but by 2011 this had declined to 23%.

In her article about the Girls on Film Festival – a new feminist film festival conceived of by Karen Pickering, for which I am the curator and writer – Mel Campbell notes:

Screen Australia statistics also show more Australian women are making films than their overseas counterparts: women account for 17% of Australian feature filmmakers (compared to around 5% in Hollywood), 34% of film producers and 24% of screenwriters. Better than Hollywood, but still not even close to 50%.

What’s intriguing to me, however, is how, every so often there is a public conversation asking why. Take, for example, the past two years of panels run by the Natalie Miller Fellowship, where industry experts speak to a room full of (mostly women) who work in the industry. The idea is that those on stage – including the previous year’s recipient of the Natalie Miller Fellowship – will inspire those in attendance. Or, at the very least, that they will get gender back on the agenda, with people thinking and talking about what can be done to affect change.

Last year, the panel consisted of four women. It was great. I wrote about it for ScreenHub, in a piece republished on the Natalie Miller Fellowship website. It’s a hopeful article.

This year the panel was made up of two men and two women. Before it even began, I was wondering why we would be listening to two men. Apparently women need positive female and male role models. That might be true. But it might also be true that there were two men on the panel because of a lack of female senior executives at major film studios – and their presence affected the discussion.

Where last year we were talking ‘mandatory quotas’, this year we listened to two men attempt to weasel semantically out of admitting to sexist structures in their businesses, while the onus of explaining the problems they were clearly too blind or arrogant or sexist to admit fell squarely on the shoulders of the women in the audience.

When the conversation opened up to questions from the floor, I chimed in and told the men that the industry events are sexist and that, because of the rape jokes, golf days and the other appalling structures in place, they exclude women from business. They seemed embarrassed and said that changes would be made for this year’s movie convention (a week-long industry event held in October on the Gold Coast). The women in the room showed their support with applause.

But with only two of the men who run the industry present, I can’t help but wonder just how far the message will travel. My question isn’t about why a gender imbalance exists, it’s why, if we really want to make a change, there aren’t rooms full of women and men listening to women?

The answer, in my opinion, is simple. It’s the same reason why the industry produces ten tonne of crap content every year. Film, despite being an artistic medium, is a corporate business – and capitalism is predicated on exploitation.

When I look around the room and the nation I see the same thing: a lot of men. Specifically, white and privileged men.

So far, I have commented purely on gender. As a privileged white woman, I’m going to finish with this: it’s unbearably worse if you look at class and race.

Tara Judah

Tara Judah is a freelance film writer and radio critic, programming and content assistant at Melbourne’s Astor Theatre and a committee member of the Melbourne Cinémathèque. Tara's writing can be found at tarajudah.com and she tweets as @midnightmovies.

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  1. Great article Tara, and I think you’ve really identified something crucial in that so many events and initiatives aimed towards promoting more balanced gender representation – in business, in organisations, in industries – are mainly attended by women and framed as ‘women’s’ issues.

    I have no idea how to help men realise that they’re not ‘giving up’ or ‘losing’ anything by helping create environments that value women’s contributions equally alongside men’s; instead they are ‘sharing’ and ‘becoming better’. One thing I did find striking about the Girls On Film Festival, though, is that it didn’t take the route of being a festival of films made by women (which, though they’re valuable, tend to be just the kind of gender ghettos you mention) – rather it was a festival of films depicting women in a nuanced and empowered way.

  2. What a fabulous article!

    “…why, if we really want to make a change, there aren’t rooms full of women and men listening to women?”
    YES. YES. YES.

    So many Women’s Symposiums aren’t attended by the men who can initiate top-down change. Instead, their assistants and other women fill the audience and the presenters preach to the choir while the self-made gods carry on, not listening.

    The Marketing/PR ~lady trap~ is prevalent throughout the arts – writing and music sectors show the same abundance of women behind the press releases, but not on the panels.

    On the flipside of this: when men DO take up the PR role, they get more “cred”, because it’s a “statement” when a man chooses PR – it speaks of his “real” passion for the industry that he would choose this ‘lower’ role rather than work in management or direction.

    Whereas it is expected that a woman be in the role, so she is assumed to just be working, rather than passionate about spruiking her industry. It isn’t a choice for her; it’s not a statement; it’s just what women do. Classic.

  3. Analysis of complete stats would be great as when I did the RMIT Advanced Diploma of Professional Screenwriting (1998 to 2001) I reckon there were more women studying at that course than men. If that’s right, then that means we’re paying for the education in time and money and not even getting as many gigs as the lesser proportion of qualified men.

    I agree that hearing and learning from and being mentored by women is best.

    Where capitalism comes in is that if you have more money then that gives you more options, and men tend to have more money than women — same, as you say, for race and implicit of course with class. Also the entrenched masculine (e.g. violent and female beauty) culture of film remains, because what is seen to have been successful attracts more investors etc. Capitalism is bad for minorities, in fact often classifies us.

    Even though a short film that I wrote, directed, narrated and produced won minor awards in Canada and the USA in the mid-2000s, I moved away because it is so hard to get employment/funding in film.

    Money matters as do men.

  4. “it’s unbearably worse if you look at class and race”

    Petty, perhaps, but use of the term ‘race’ often falls into the racist trap of value judgements based on arbitrarily selected hereditary characteristics.

    Ethnicity would appear to be the more comprehensive term.

    End of sermon.

  5. Great article Tara. My thought is that holding “women’s” events bemoaning the plight of women is counter productive. Like you say in your article “if you can’t be it, change it”.
    So instead of asking, telling, berating male executives to change things, we women need to be actively and consciously deciding to band together to make the difference despite any make resistance.
    Regular women only industry networking, grants for women only teams, incentives for women-friendly working environments, schemes to train women in those traditional make roles. I wonder how different an all female set would be for a male actor? Perhaps a different performance would result.
    As a woman entering the industry in my late 40s, breaking in is extremely difficult made tougher by my lack of youth and sex appeal to males in the business, responsibilities for children and family, and dare I mention the frightening word, ethnicity.
    However, I choose to see these aspects of myself as a unique selling point. Given that the majority of people who watch Australian film are 50+ women, I suspect I and others like me have an advantage we should be taking advantage of.

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