Sunday, February 20, 2011

What Will Make Women's Work 'Cool'?

Someone asked me the other day, “Why is women’s work in film and theatre never described as ‘cool’? And the same week, our Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition reminded me that people in our culture often use the adjective ‘hot’ to describe women they perceive as cool. And it seems to me on this muggy Friday afternoon, that if our focus is on ‘hot’ women, we’re likely to be interested in their work only when it directly reinforces their perceived ‘hot’-ness rather than in the work itself. Grrrr.

On the bright side, Roseanne Liang's and Rosemary Riddell’s work may encourage the use of ‘cool’ in reference to the work of New Zealand women filmmakers. It’s not long before the release of Roseanne’s romantic comedy My Wedding & Other Secrets. I’ve heard that it’s a very cool movie, and I’ve interviewed Roseanne and her fellow script-writer, Angeline Loo (for publication later this week). And the other week, Empire gave The Insatiable Moon four stars. Rosemary Riddell directed The Insatiable Moon and it’s opening in cinemas in the United Kingdom soon, the first New Zealand film to do that for a while. So Rosemary’s work is arguably very cool, too.

The statistics & cool

But I’ve also seen a whirl of recent statistics about women’s work that show that globally women have a long way to go before our work is ‘cool’. First, Martha Lauzen’s annual film statistics. These show that nothing’s improved for women working in film. And The Count, VIDA’s stats about writers, show that in a selection of prestigious United Kingdom and United States literary journals and pages, women writers are grossly under-represented, though that’s not the case in New Zealand, possibly for reasons I wrote about in parts 4 & 5 of Moving Forward, about the influence of Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML).

The Black List statistics

And then, someone sent me a copy of the 2010 Black List. Two hundred and ninety film executives contributed to this list, not a ‘best of’ list, at most a ‘best liked’ list, according to its intro. Franklin Leonard (now director of development at Universal) started this annual list in 2005, when he e-mailed friends and contacts in the business, and asked them to send him their lists of screenplays written that year that they had liked, and which had yet to be produced. As Franklin Leonard explains in a YouTube clip, the Black List has been very effective at advancing individual writers’ careers. It has helped scripts become movies, and provided good predictions of future award winners. And in Franklin’s view, one of the list’s most useful characteristics is that it shows “What we care about, and what stories we want to tell.”

In 2005, Diablo Cody’s Juno, and Nancy Oliver’s Lars & the Real Girl were two of the three scripts that the participating executives most often mentioned. This year, of the seventy-five films listed, only five are written by women for sure. After I eliminated three projects whose writers’ names are androgynous and whose details I can’t track down, and two projects co-written by women and men, women wrote six out of seventy projects, or 8.5%, an even smaller percentage than Martha Lauzen’s statistics, which show that only 10% of all writers on the US’s 2010 top-grossing 250 films were women. Furthermore, not one of the Black List women’s scripts is anywhere near the top of the list, among the scripts with between thirty-nine and forty-nine mentions from the executives who submitted their selections.

The first project listed with a woman writer (at number 30, with ten mentions) is Katie Lovejoy’s Arsonist’s Love Story: “A young arsonist falls for a woman in the art world he desperately wants to be part of”. The next, at number 37, with nine mentions, is Jenni Ross’ Hot Mess: Four girlfriends make, and then break, a list of rules devised to get the guys of their dreams and discover their inner hot messes in the process”. (Is that a strategic use of ‘hot’?). Megan Martin’s Can You Keep a Secret? is at number 45 with seven mentions: “After a woman spills her secrets to a stranger during a turbulent plane ride, she shows up at work to discover that he is the recently returned CEO of her company”. At place 59 with six mentions is Carrie Evans and Emi Mochizuko’s Boy Scouts vs Zombies: “A troop of Boy Scouts on their weekend camping trip must protect an island town from a zombie outbreak and save the local Girl Scout troop”. At 63, also with six mentions, is Katie Wech’s Prom “high school students prepare for their prom”. At 73 is Brit McAdams’ Paint: “A Bob Ross-esque PBS painting show host must fight for his career when his station brings in a rival painting host”. Apparently, men are central to almost all these stories, as the active agents or the focus of women’s activities.

My guess is that as the Black List became more influential, as a marker of stories with potential commercial value, and of ‘what we care about, and what stories we want to tell’, the inbuilt Hollywood assumption—that stories by and about men carry the most ‘value’—took over. This means that stories by and about women are perceived as less ‘cool’ and less likely to feature on the list. What will bring change?