Based on a 
presentation to the 
Members of AAUW Illinois

May 3, 2003

What can YOU can do to smash the Celluloid Ceiling? Memorize & act on the four principles outlined below: 

1.) Make it a regular habit to seek out films by women filmmakers!
2.) Generate “buzz” – Remember the EMILY Principle:
     -  In Politics:
Early Money Is Like Yeast
     -  In Hollywood:
Early Buzz Is Like Yeast
3.) Donate money to your favorite independent women filmmakers! 
4.) Say NO to Play-Doh!

The Celluloid Ceiling is the unofficial, male-dominated system that keeps us from seeing films made by women filmmakers. As difficult as it is to believe, the statistics compiled by Martha Lauzen clearly show that the number of women directors and women screenwriters in Hollywood is actually going down over time, not up. 

It’s 2003. We have women governors, mayors, and senators. We have women soldiers in Iraq being covered by women war correspondents. We’ve sent women into space & lost women brave enough to try. But most women filmmakers still can’t get their movies made, & even when they do, almost no one sees them.

How can this be? Well, if you live in metropolitan Chicago, maybe you’ve noticed that all the film critics at our three major newspapers are men. That’s right. There’s not a single female film critic at the Tribune, at the Sun-Times, or at Reader. We’re in Chicago, the second city. Does this make sense to you? 

Unfortunately, Chicago is not an exception. Who reviews films for the New York Times? Stephen Holden, Elvis Mitchell, & Tony Scott. Who reviews films for the New Yorker? David Denby & Anthony Lane. What about national magazines like Newsweek? Time? The New Republic? Same story. Even the USA Today, which has reviews of new releases by both Mike Clark and Claudia Puig, only carries Mike Clark’s capsule summary when the film comes out on DVD. In fact there’s only one publication I know of that tries to present a balanced view: Entertainment Weekly. (Kudos to Owen Gleiberman and Lisa Schwartzbaum for insisting on a “random draw” so she doesn’t get all the “chick flicks” by default.)

Perhaps most disappointing is the line-up on National Public Radio, incubator of such talented women anchors & reporters as Terry Gross, Cokie Roberts, Susan Stamberg, Nina Totenburg & Linda Wertheimer. But when it comes to film we get only male reviewers (David Edelstein, Elvis Mitchell, Bob Mondello, & Ken Turan on national broadcasts, & Jonathan Miller on local broadcasts.)

Does it matter? You bet it does. How many of you saw THE SAFETY OF OBJECTS by Rose Troche? How many of you even heard of THE SAFETY OF OBJECTS? When it opened in Chicago, Ebert gave it 2 stars & it was gone after barely a week. Fabulous movie. Glenn Close’s part in this movie, Glenn Close the Oscar-winning actress, is phenomenal. 

But Roger Ebert and most of the male critics completely misconstrued what was going on in THE SAFETY OF OBJECTS & they said, basically, “This is junk.” So before we could even argue the point, it was gone. 

So the first thing that YOU have to do is make it a regular habit to seek out films by women filmmakers. And when I say “seek out,” I really mean it. One way to stay informed is subscribe to the online service “The First Weekenders Group.” The First Weekenders Group supports features directed by women the first weekend they arrive at the box office. Buying tickets to women directed features is how we can make the most direct impact on the film industry.

Next, you have to generate buzz. Our model should be EMILY’s List, a fundraising organization that was established right after Geraldine Ferraro was nominated for Vice President in 1984. The name stands for “Early Money Is Like Yeast.” Before EMILY’s List there were very few women in Congress. In the nine elections since 1985, EMILY’s List has helped elect 11 Democratic women senators & 55 congresswomen. Naturally, with pressure like this, the Republican have also increased their own set of female candidates.

Political candidates need money, & when candidates build a “war chest,” people know they are viable. Hollywood runs on “buzz” – word of mouth. But it’s the same principle. How many of you saw MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING? We all loved it, right? Right! Now ask yourself this: how many good reviews did you read by the (mostly male) critics? Very few! They couldn’t understand why it was so popular. They still can’t understand it. But if we support films like MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING, if we turn out in big numbers, we can reverse the critical “kiss of death.”

My favorite success story is FRIDA, one of the very best films of 2002. How many of you saw FRIDA? We all loved it, right? Right! But when he published his Oscar predictions on March 16th, Roger Ebert said: “Salma Hayek has the role of a lifetime in FRIDA but the film got more respect than affection.” I couldn’t believe it! Can you? 

I’m holding in my hand a copy of the November 11th issue the New Yorker magazine. Here we have a picture of Eminem starring in 8 MILE. David Denby gave 4 columns, 4 full columns, to his review of 8 MILE. He gave one half of one column to his review of FRIDA. And you can see, I have something underlined here:

“I have to admit that after an hour or so of this Punch-and-Judy show with its noisy drinking, hurling of brightly painted kitchen items, partings and reconciliations, I was ready to knock both lovers flat with a large red chili pepper. Still, given its ramshackle construction and its repetitions, FRIDA is much better than it has any right to be.”

Is this the FRIDA you saw? I think the greatest travesty of the year was that, despite 6 Oscar nominations for FRIDA, Julie Taymor was not nominated for Best Director. But when the night was over, the FRIDA team left the hall with 2 Oscars. Meanwhile the male critics’ darling GANGS OF NEW YORK (horrible, relentlessly violent, atrocious film) walked out with zero. That is our victory. 

Donate money to your favorite independent women filmmakers? Yes, this IS something YOU can do! When the credits roll at end of a typical indie, there’s a long list of people who receive the filmmaker’s thanks. You can be one of those people. You can have your name in the credits at the end. If you can afford to do this, then you will make a valuable contribution. Remember, no money, no art. 

Which brings us to Play-Doh. What is a Play-Doh part? A Play-Doh part is a woman’s role with only 2 functions: she is there so that the male lead can tell his sad story to someone sympathetic, & she is there so that the male lead can relieve his sexual tension. Otherwise, you know almost nothing about her. She has no backstory. She has no future of her own beyond the role she might play in the hero’s future.

Do you think I am kidding? Did any of you see CITY BY THE SEA, Robert De Niro’s latest film? Frances McDormand, an Oscar-winning actress, had a Play-Doh part in CITY BY THE SEA. Did you see THE BOURNE IDENTITY? What did you know about “the woman”? Nothing. This is an actress, Franka Potente, a German actress, who starred in an energetic, exciting movie called RUN LOLA RUN. On the basis of Lola, she’s brought to Hollywood, where she gets to play… Play-Doh. 

Now, the guys in Hollywood have made some progress. Play-Doh used to just come in just one form: thin, blonde, young, & white. But in our newly liberal world, Play-Doh comes in all colors: African-American, Asian-American, Mexican-American, brunettes, redheads, whatever. It all stinks. 

So I want you to buy yourself some Play-Doh. I want you to really smell it, & if you are obsessive like me, you can stick a tiny piece in your nose like Vicks Vaporub, because Play-Doh is our enemy. When you see these films I want your nose to tingle. I want you to say to yourself: “This is not right.” Then exercise your option as a consumer. Tell your friends. Say no to Play-Doh! 

Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that every man who makes a film writes the woman’s part that’s Play-Doh. That would be foolish. There have been some great female characters written by male screenwriters & directed by male directors. I am not saying all men are evil. On the other hand, I’m not saying all films by women filmmakers are good, because some of them are not. 

It’s not like we only want a world of women filmmakers. We still want male filmmakers. But the statistics right now are dismal – less than 10%. I’d be happy with a third. I am not even going for a half. A third would be good, right? Right!

I’d like to close with some upbeat words from Lizzy Weiss, the young screenwriter who scored a hit with BLUE CRUSH last summer: 

“Creatively speaking, we've come a long way from PORKY’s, in which the girls onscreen were mostly topless & idiotic. That's what I remember from being a kid & looking to Hollywood to portray me. Hopefully, when young girls today are asked how they saw themselves on celluloid, they will recall a kick-ass surf chick who got the wave & the guy, without once being topless or idiotic. Yeah, I know things aren't perfect; particularly glaring are the lack of interesting women characters over 40 and the lack of non-white women characters. But we're trying! This industry is full of smart, caring women at all levels who are doing their damndest to get brave, intelligent girls onscreen. And with encouragement from viewers like you, I know we're gonna have a happy Hollywood ending.”

It’s up to YOU, ladies. Let’s not let Lizzy & her colleagues down.


For More Information, Follow these Links

For related articles on FF2:

Click here for a summary of Martha Lauzen’s 2002 Celluloid Ceiling report.
Click here for FF2 chat with Professor Lauzen.
Click here for treasures by women filmmakers.

For organizations mentioned in this article:

Follow this link to learn more about AAUW 
(the American Association of University Women).
Follow this link to learn more about EMILY’s List
Follow this link to learn more about the FIRST WEEKENDERS GROUP.

© Jan Lisa Huttner (8/25/03)