The Female Gaze: Directing Films from a woman's point of view
France 1896, Alice Guy Blache is a secretary working at Leon Gaumont Studios, she sets her sights on directing her first film and comes up with an idea to tell a narrative story. It is said to be the first fictional film every made. It is called La Fee aux Choux (The Cabbage Fariy) Alice goes on to become an inspiring force in the film industry, directing over 400 silent films creating her own studio in the United States with her husband Herbert Blache called Solax Studios. Lois Weber also is a writer and director at the American branch of Gaumont Studios and becomes a highly influential film director and takes Frances Marion as her screenwriter who also becomes a huge name in Hollywood . Frances Marion wrote over 150 screenplays for Lois Weber and has power in this new film industry. Between 1911 and 1920 women had the female gaze covered. They were writing, directing, editing, acting, and creating films for women and the general public. It was a golden time for women before Hollywood became a big business.
In 1920 women directors were being fazed out. The Silent Era seemed to have a plethora of female directors but once sound technology had begun to change from silent movies to "talkies" a combination of more money and studio executives created the discrepancy of women to male film directors. The decline for female directors also started with unions and guilds as they were ushering in many men. Women were banished from the Hollywood Kingdom and it was very slim pickings from there on. What allowed women to come back in was the onset of independent film making after the 1960s, and yet we hardly have many women creating, directing, and distributing their own films in the prolific ways women in the silent era had. One of the only two women to direct in the studio era was Dorothy Arzner who had a record set of directing 16 films for Hollywood and Ida Lupito who directed more for television but had been the first women to direct a film noir called The Hitch-Hiker (1953).
Dorothy Arzner defied gender norms, and the heterosexual male gaze in her films. Open about her sexuality as a lesbian she directed strong minded women such as Katherine Hepburn in Christopher Strong (1933) . Hepburn's character Cynthia Darrington is modeled after Amelia Earhart. Darrington wants to set a new world record in her solo flying expeditions, but she has always been single and has to choose between love and career, something the men in her films never have to do. Another characteristic of Arnzer's films tend to have women working together instead of being pitted against each other. Arzner was known for showcasing the psychological aspects of her female leads and driving their feelings and relevance to the audience.
There have been so many underground pioneers in film directing from Kathleen Collins being one of the first African American women to write and direct a film called Losing Ground (1982) that features an educated upper middle class protagonist who is a professor and who has a character that is fully humanized through her failing marriage and choices she has made within her life. An independent women that audiences had never seen before. Funding was nearly impossible for Collins and her work was never appreciated in her lifetime. It was not until scholars and feminist film seekers uncovered her work that is was finally given its due on the big screen in New York.
What can be said about the state of women directors in Hollywood? The statistics are staggering and quite low. According to the Annenberg Inclusion study of 2018 only 4% of films in Hollywood are directed by women. The percentage gets even lower for non white women and the chances of women making more than one film are dismal as well. Looking outside of the Hollywood system makes sense for filmmakers if they want to control their work and fund raise the money for their projects. Ava DuVernay is one exception to the Hollywood rule. She started out raising her own funds for her first films but her tenacity and hard work paid off as she is now the first African American female director to have a budget film of over $250 million dollars. Patty Jenkins will also go on to direct the next Wonder Woman installment with a huge box office draw and big budget.
Avant garde and New Wave Cinema owe a great deal to pioneers such as Agnes Varda who created a new way of filming women's stories as I have written of her before she is a huge influence on the French New Wave and documentary films. Maya Deren also paved the way for avant guard cinema by changing the focus on how films are supposed to be shot and creating a new dynamic of non-linear story telling that went on to inspire many filmmakers such as David Lynch. European filmmakers such as Chantel Akerman's film Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels (1975) was groundbreaking at the time for it's pacing, length, and story depicting the psychology of women's chores, alienation,lack of choice, and Freudian look at the patriarchy of womanhood. The film was also groundbreaking for employing a mostly female production team.