Where are the Women, Wes?

Eleanor (Anjelica Houston) and Jane (Cate Blanchett) in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004).

In the past few weeks, Hollywood has come forward with revelations about sexual assault by film producer Harvey Weinstein. Several actresses confirmed to have been assaulted by him but kept silent out of fear of being shut out of the film industry. It’s up to men to take responsibility towards women in film. Not only in regards to sexual assault but also when it comes to the representation of women in film.

The main problem is that women are not taken seriously enough in the film industry, which makes it easy for men like Weinstein to take advantage of them. This article will not be about sexual assault in Hollywood, but about another part of the problem, which is the inability of many male directors to think outside their own gender.

One of the most popular directors of the last few years is Wes Anderson. Lots of actresses have great parts in his films. Look at Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelica Houston, Saoirse Ronan, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, and Cate Blanchett. There are a variety of women in his films, they have agency and are well written. But, Anderson’s main characters are always male and the women are always in a minority.

Madame D. (Tilda Swinton) in The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014).

Anderson explained why: He doesn’t know how to write a good lead for a woman. He doesn’t know how to write from a female perspective and is therefore scared to give a woman a lead. He does, however, want to write bigger roles for women as he said:

“(…) but, I would love to write a good, big part where the lead character was a woman. I want to see if I could do that well.”

It isn’t the inability of Anderson to write parts for women. Wes Anderson writes them and he writes them well, he just never made a female lead. It’s the unfamiliarity with the female gender that makes Anderson, and many other directors with him, write about men.

The same goes for many blockbuster films, where many roles are given to men, where they could just be as easily given to women. The problem is not only the lack of women on screen but also behind the scenes. Because if women could have a say, they could give the roles to women. Look at Patty Jenkins who made Wonder Woman (2017). It’s a misunderstanding that women don’t want to make movies like that, as Jurassic World (2015) director Colin Trevorrow stated:

“Many of the top female directors in our industry are not interested in doing a piece of studio business for its own sake.”

Other directors still see women in their films as an obstruction or are scared that their films will be considered a ‘woman’s film’. During a Q&A of the 2013 film Hide Your Smiling Faces, director Daniel Patrick Carbone got the question: “Why aren’t there any women in the film?” His answer was:

“I didn’t think it was necessary. I didn’t want the girls to be a distraction.”

But other directors do better. In Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival (2016), Sicario (2015), and Incendies (2010), the leading stars are female, well-written characters. Even in his latest film, Blade Runner 2049 (2017), he shows that many supporting roles can be female, like the roles of Robin Wright and Sylvia Hoeks. Another director might just as easily given those roles to men.

Denis Villeneuve isn’t afraid to write a good woman’s part, just like Pedro Almovodar, Jonathan Glazer, or David Lynch. Wes Anderson is just writing what he knows. It is for example also what Sofia Coppola does:

“Because I’m a woman I’m drawn to female characters.”

But she also made Somewhere (2010), in which the lead is male and Lost in Translation (2003) was about both Scarlett Johansson as Bill Murray’s characters. So if she can write good male leads, why can’t Wes Anderson? Why can’t a director who has already written good female parts and has a crew with a lot of women, write a female lead? And many other male directors with him? It’s probably because they’re not used to it and aren’t encouraged.

Women are trying to make a difference, but need help from men, because they are in the minority in the film industry. Reese Witherspoon started her own production company with films directed for and by women. Nicole Kidman decided to work with a female director every 18 months, and Jessica Chastain addressed the lack of quality female roles at the Cannes festival this year. Not only need there be more roles for women, the film crew and critics have to be women:

“When you have 90% of film critics as male, and perhaps not able to review a film from a gender-neutral point of view, we need to understand that we need more female critics to let women and men know that stories about women are just as interesting as stories about men.”

Lots of directors are starting to see that women don’t need to just be housewives, beautiful sidekicks, or mothers. Or that a female cast will only attract women. And even if it does: Women are a half the population and frequent visitors of cinemas, and binge-watch more television shows and movies than men do. Change a male role for a female one, even if it might cause outrage like it did in the case of Ghostbusters. Don’t see women as ‘distractions’. And don’t see men as deliberately trying to avoid women on the screen, they just need a little help.

This Essay article was published in October 2017