A Plus on the Need for More Female Film Critics

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Jill O’Rourke of A Plus has an excellent article about why it is important to have diversity in film criticism as well as in filmmaking.

AWFJ amplifies the voices of women who write about film — a group still very underrepresented in all forms of media — and focuses film industry and audience attention on the work of women behind and in front of the lens,” Merin said her organization, which was founded in 2006. The AWFJ website highlights feminist Movies of the Week, with reviews written by women, as well as spotlighting a female creator once a month. “Raising awareness through these ongoing AWFJ projects opens opportunity for women in film and hopefully will lead to a gender-equal playing field.”…”AWFJ invites all to join our THE FEMALE GAZE FORUM group on Facebook, where they can post information and recommendations about ‘feminist’ films and projects, applaud special achievements by women in film, and engage in substantive discussions about how to equal the playing field for women in film,” Merin suggests, in addition to creating viewing clubs and supporting the films recommended on the organization’s website. “Women represent more than 50 percent of the movie-going population. We want to see films that tell our stories and reflect our interests.”

Diversity in entertainment goes beyond just the faces on our screens. All aspects of the industry should reflect the people who consume its media. Chaz Ebert, widow of film critic Roger Ebert and publisher of RogerEbert.com, put it simply in The Daily Beast in 2015: “It is critical that the people who write about film and television and the arts — and indeed the world — mirror the people in our society.”

I am very lucky to be a longtime member of AWFJ and a contributor to Chaz Ebert’s rogerebert.com.

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Battle of the Sexes

B +

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some sexual content and partial nudity
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, cigarettes
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 22, 2017

Copyright Fox Searchlight
“You’ve come a long way, baby!” was the 1970’s slogan for a cigarette for women. Virginia Slims were marketed as a badge of liberation and sophistication. They had a woman’s slightly naughty-sounding name and a word with a lot of appeal to female consumers (and a suggestion that they would aid in keeping weight down). They had a kicky advertising campaign. And they were the only commercial product willing to sponsor the brand new Women’s Tennis Association, founded by tennis champion Billie Jean King to protest the pay differential in professional tennis, with women making a fraction of the prize money awarded to the men. When they raised the issue, they were told that women’s tennis was not as interesting (even though they sold as many or more tickets at the same price as the tickets to see the men play) and because the men had families to support. It may now seem absurd, or at least off-brand to have a women’s athletic competition sponsored by a cigarette, but probably no more absurd than the argument that “the men’s tennis is more exciting to watch; it’s biology.”

One-time men’s tennis champ Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) was a bit of a sexist and more than a bit of a showman, and much more than a bit of a gambler. And so he bragged that even in his 50’s he could beat the top-ranked women’s player. Margaret Court accepted the challenge, and he triumphed in a humiliating defeat. And so, Billie Jean King agreed to play him in something between a sporting event and a three ring circus, complete with marching band, scantily dressed cheerleaders in Sugar Daddy outfits, and the ceremonial presentation by King to Riggs of an actual pig.

So, not your usual night on ESPN, which, of course, had not been invented yet. This was front-page news in the midst of the fight for what people were still calling “women’s liberation.” This was consciousness raising whether you liked it or not.

It is especially suitable that this film was directed by a female/male team: Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (“Little Miss Sunshine”). They found the human story, the vulnerability, the drive, the fear, the resolve behind the hoopla and hyperbole, and they have made a film about real people that is moving and, even though we know the outcome of the game, suspenseful.

Bobby Riggs would have been a public feminist if he could make a dollar at it. (A dollar, by the way, is what the original players in King’s Women’s Tennis Association were paid to sign up.) He would cheerfully admit, except possibly to his wealthy wife (Elisabeth Shue), that he was more of a showman and a huckster than an athlete. Billie Jean King was a determined, disciplined athlete at the forefront of the Gloria Steinem era of feminists. She was companionably married to Larry King (not the TV show host), but she was beginning to admit to herself that she was attracted to women. Her hairstylist, Marilyn (Andrea Reisborough), leans in and brushes her hand on Billie Jean’s cheek. The woman who never allowed herself any distractions has met a distraction she cannot ignore.

Faris and Dayton create the environment of the 70’s without any air quotes. The cinematography, the score, the deft use of Howard Cosell’s actual commentary during the match (at one point, he says approvingly that King moves like a man), evoke the era without exaggeration or snottiness. Every performance shines, including Sarah Silverman in the Eve Arden wry sidekick role. The film is generous to all of its characters, even the real and metaphorical pigs.

Parents should know that this film includes sexual references and an explicit situation with some nudity, issues of sexual orientation, some crude language, alcohol, cigarettes, sexism, and homophobia.

Family discussion: What is different today and what hasn’t changed? Why did Billie Jean King decide to play Bobby Riggs?

If you like this, try: Footage of the real King/Riggs game

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Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film Report 2017

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This year’s Center for the Study of Women and Television in Film Report has a pointed title: Boxed In 2016-17: Women On Screen and Behind the Scenes in Television. Top findings:

•Overall, 68% of the programs
considered featured casts with more
male than female characters. 11% had
ensembles with equal numbers of female
and male characters. 21% of the
programs featured casts with more
female than male characters.

•Across platforms, females comprised
42% of all speaking characters. This
represents an increase of 3 percentage
points from 2015-16 when females
accounted for 39% of all speaking
characters, and an increase of 2
percentage points from 40% in 2014-15.

•Females accounted for 42% of major
characters on broadcast network, cable
and streaming programs. This
represents an increase of 4 percentage
points from 38% in 2015-16, and an
increase of 2 percentage points from
40% in 2014-15.

•The percentage of female characters
featured on broadcast network
programs was the same in 2016-17 as it
was nearly a decade earlier in 2007-08.
Last year, women comprised 43% of all
speaking characters on broadcast
network programs. While this figure
represents an increase of 2 percentage
points from 41% in 2015-16, it is the
same percentage achieved in 2007-08.

•Across platforms, programs are
becoming more racially and ethnically
diverse. Black characters in speaking
roles comprised 19% of all females in
2016-17, up from 16% in 2015-16.
Asian characters accounted for 6% of all
females in 2016-17, up from 4% in
2015-16. The percentage of Latinas
increased from 4% in 2015-16 to 5% in
2016-17.

•Broadcast network programs became
more racially and ethnically diverse in
2016-17, with Black and Asian female
characters achieving recent historical
highs. The percentage of Black females
increased from 17% in 2015-16 to 21%
in 2016-17. The percentage of Asian
females increased from 5% in 2015-16
to 7% in 2016-17.

•Latinas continue to be dramatically
underrepresented on broadcast network
programs. Latinas accounted for only
5% of all female characters with
speaking roles in 2016-17. This figure is
even with the number achieved in 2015-
16 and 2010-11.

•Regardless of platform, gender
stereotypes on television programs
abound. Female characters were
younger than their male counterparts,
more likely than men to be identified by
their marital status, and less likely than
men to be seen at work and actually
working.

•Across platforms, female characters
were more likely than males to play
personal life-oriented roles, such as
wife and mother. In contrast, male
characters were more likely than females
to play work-oriented roles, such as
business executive.

•In 2016-17, women comprised 28% of
all creators, directors, writers,
producers, executive producers, editors,
and directors of photography working
on broadcast network, cable, and
streaming programs. This represents an
increase of 2 percentage points from
26% in 2015-16.

•The employment of women working in
key behind-the-scenes positions on
broadcast network programs has
stalled, with no meaningful progress
over the last decade. Women comprised
27% of all creators, directors, writers,
producers, executive producers, editors,
and directors of photography working on
broadcast network programs. This
represents no change from 2015-16, and
an increase of only 1 percentage point
since 2006-07.

•Overall, programs employed behindthe-scenes
women in relatively small
numbers. 50% of programs employed 4
or fewer women in the behind-thescenes
roles considered. In contrast,
only 6% of programs employed 4 or
fewer men. 3% of programs employed
14 or more women in the behind-thescenes
roles considered. In contrast,
47% of programs employed 14 or more
men.

•Across platforms, women fared best as
producers (39%), followed by writers
(33%), executive producers (28%),
creators (23%), editors (22%), directors
(17%), and directors of photography
(3%).

•Across platforms, startlingly high
percentages of programs employed no
women in the behind-the-scenes roles
considered. 97% of the programs
considered had no women directors of
photography, 85% had no women
directors, 75% had no women editors,
74% had no women creators, 67% had
no women writers, 23% had no women
producers, and 20% had no women
executive producers.

•On programs with at least 1 woman
creator, females accounted for 51% of
major characters, achieving parity with
the percentage of girls and women in
the U.S. population. On programs with
exclusively male creators, females
accounted for 38% of major characters.

•Regardless of platform, programs with
at least 1 woman creator featured
substantially higher percentages
women in other key behind-the-scenes
roles. For example, on programs with at
least 1 woman creator, women
comprised 57% of writers. On programs
with exclusively male creators, women
accounted for 21% of writers.

•Across platforms, programs with at
least 1 woman executive producer
featured more female characters and
had higher percentages of women
directors and writers than programs
with exclusively male executive
producers. For example, on programs
with at least 1 woman executive
producer, women accounted for 18% of
directors. On programs with exclusively
male executive producers, women
comprised 8% of directors.

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Gender and Diversity

Dolores Huerta and Peter Bratt on the New Documentary “Dolores”

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Dolores” is a new documentary that tells the story of activist icon Dolores C. Huerta, president and founder of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, co-founder of the United Farm Workers of America. If Ginger Rogers is known for matching Fred Astaire’s steps backwards and in high heels, Huerta was as responsible as the better-recognized Cesar Chavez for bringing the attention of the world to the rights of immigrants, women, and farm workers while raising eleven children as a single mother and constantly being marginalized and underrated because of her race and gender. I spoke to Huerta, who was awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor by President Barack Obama, along with the director of the documentary, Peter Bratt.

In the film, we see you begin by sitting down in living rooms or talking to farm workers in the fields to encourage them to insist on fair treatment. What did you say to them?

Dolores Huerta: When you are organizing a group of people, the first thing that we do is we talk about the history of what other people have been able to accomplish; people that look like them, workers like them, ordinary people, working people, and we give them the list. These are people like yourself, this is what they were able to do in their community. And then we talked about the issues that they’re facing in their own community and then we would say to them, “Well, just like these other people did, they were able to accomplish all these great things. You can do the same thing. But the thing is that you got to do it because if you don’t nobody else is going to do it for you; nobody else is going to come into your community and solve your problems. So you have to take on the issues yourself. You’re the ones who have to volunteer to make the work happen.”

So we do a whole series of these little house meetings and you probably get a hundred and fifty people together and out of that group then you have a cadre of them that will come up and they’ll volunteer to do the work that needs to be done and that’s how the leaders are developed. When you go into a community you’ll never know ahead of time who the leaders are going to be. The leaders come up from the volunteers that do the work and it’s amazing because then they do these incredible things in their community that they never thought they had the power to make that happen. Basically, the message is: you have power, the power is in your person and you can make this happen but you can’t do it alone; you’ve got to work with other people to make it happen, you have to make a plan and you have to volunteer. And it works; it’s like magic.

You go out there and you find those people that have this burning passion that they want to change things and you basically are just giving them the tools. This is the way that you do it: you come together with a group of people, you pass petitions, you go to the city council, you go to the board of supervisors and you can make it happen.

Peter Bratt: She actually was telling me a story that she hopped on a Greyhound to northern central California, throughout the bus ride was expecting sixty to seventy people at a house meeting which had only one person, and she said she gave it her all because one person can be the most incredible leader that can change thousands of lives. That was a great lesson.

Why was it important to you to tell this story?

Peter Bratt: Dolores in my view challenges the three pillars of society. She’s challenging patriarchy and yes, that’s part of gender discrimination but it’s also racial. She’s also a Chicana; she’s a woman of color. The third one is as a labor activist she’s challenging the institution of capitalism, and I think those are the three great threats and that made her dangerous. I think those complexities combined to keep her in the margins.

The people who appear in the film are very candid and sometimes very emotional. How do you as a filmmaker develop a sense of trust so that they will share those memories and feelings?

Peter Bratt: I have some history with Dolores. I’ve known her for a little while and I think there was initially a great amount of trust between her and myself and Carlos Santana whose idea this was, and I also knew a few of her daughters from years back. So I think initially there was trust but you still have to prove yourself and earn even more trust. The most important thing as a director is you have to create a safe environment where you make the person feel safe enough to open their heart and reveal the soul; that’s ultimately where you’re trying to get. We interviewed probably about fifty people and the ones that we selected for the film were the ones who we felt truly opened their hearts and spoke their truth.

What has surprised you in terms of how far we’ve come and what has been the most persistently frustrating?

Dolores Huerta: Women are now 50 percent of the law schools and medical schools, so we can look at all the progress that we’ve made, but we can see all the progress that we still need to make and now with the voter suppression going on and with the racism rearing its ugly head we know that we’ve got to really step up our game on the progressive side and get people to vote because a lot of people aren’t voting. They’ve taken civics out of our high schools. People were asleep but I think they’re waking up now. Trump has given everybody a good kick and people are waking up and realizing they’ve got to get involved. That’s the message that we want to send with the film; for people to get involved at the local level, at the community level, at the state level and international level because we can’t afford to let the right wing take over our country. My son Emilio is running for Congress to continue the fight for social justice.

Peter Bratt: Sometimes I just want to put the covers over my head and stay in bed and I feel like no matter what I do it’s ineffectual and I get depressed. So for me having spent these last few years with Dolores, to see her not just doing the work but impassioned about doing the work and getting out there at the grassroots level and she still goes out into the fields in 100 degrees to organize this farm operation, she’s still doing it in the school boards, on water boards, she’s been getting people involved and to see her so engaged and relentless. The fortitude is awe inspiring and yet there is this joy and this passion while continuing to do the work, It encourages me to like quit feeling sorry for myself and get back out there. To me as a filmmaker that’s the biggest reward, to see people lift themselves up and recommit themselves.

A briefer version of this interview originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

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James Cameron Mansplains Wonder Woman

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James Cameron wrote and directed some of the most successful and influential movies in history, including “Avatar,”  “Titanic,” and “Terminator.” But he really should have thought about it before speaking out on this summer’s top box office film, “Wonder Woman.” In an interview with The Guardian, he said “She’s an objectified icon, and it’s just male Hollywood doing the same old thing! I’m not saying I didn’t like the movie but, to me, it’s a step backwards.”  This is especially puzzling because Cameron’s films are notable for their depiction of some of film history’s most notably strong, brave, intelligent women, from Ripley in “Alien” to Sarah Connor in “Terminator.”  It is particularly troubling because he not only insulted the people who made “Wonder Woman” but the people who saw and enjoyed it.

“Wonder Woman” director Patty Jenkins has responded: “James Cameron’s inability to understand what Wonder Woman is, or stands for, to women all over the world is unsurprising as, though he is a great filmmaker, he is not a woman.”

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