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Being a Female Filmmaker

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It's a combination of post-Oscar buzz about women in film, increasing media coverage of the entertainment industry's gender gap, and recent realizations about my stake in all of this that has encouraged me to write today.

Even though this is all deeply personal, and I'm not one for sharing too many of my emotions online, I feel the need to speak publicly for two reasons:

1. I believe a personal account of my experiences will have a greater impact on people I know than will anything I repost about famous strangers, and thus will make a more compelling impetus for change in my local community.

2. I have won half the war against my enemy simply by knowing what it is. I hope this will help other women in similar situations to fight off their demons, too. The more we talk about the sexist mechanism, the more we identify it and understand how it works, the better we can achieve our victory over it.

***

Over the course of the past year, I entered into a vicious battle with my mental health, body image, and career aspirations. Understand, I am not an obvious candidate for any of these problems. I am outgoing. I have several close friends. I am in a committed, long-term relationship with a Charming British Guy (yes, that's a proper noun). I love parties. I attend a top university where I perform well academically and am one of the most involved students in my program. I am relatively thin, pretty, and financially comfortable. I smile a lot.

I never thought all of the things which I knew were so likely to strike young women would get to me, but they did. In October 2013, I became severely depressed. I binged, fasted, and on one horrific occasion, purged. And I seriously questioned whether or not I have what it takes to succeed in the film industry.

I couldn't understand why any of this was suddenly happening to me, and I never realized the connection between these seemingly disparate experiences until now. They have all been driven by a common force. It's the force that, from what I can see, is largely responsible for the scarcity of female leadership in professional film. The very same limiting expectations, unrealistic standards, and deeply ingrained instincts society imparts upon women, those which are wreaking absolute havoc on my mind and body, are also incompatible with the requirements of my dream job. I used to wonder why 98 percent of cinematographers are men. Now, I think I know.

What I have learned about being female directly contradicts what I understand about being a successful filmmaker.

***

I've got news for those of you who haven't heard. Gender as we know it isn't a binary. It's a hierarchy. Sexism constructs and maintains this hierarchy.

The symptoms of sexism are certainly less tangible now than they once were, but that does not make their consequences any less real. Today, these symptoms are a dangerous mix of insidious and ubiquitous. The fact that discrimination is rarely as ostentatious as it used to be makes it even more harmful; its subtlety allows people to underestimate or dismiss it. I have the right to vote and study and work just as men do, so why am I complaining?

Here are some examples from the past month of my life, not of overt "women shouldn't vote" sexism, but of times when limiting expectations for women, and thus for me, were communicated in no uncertain terms:

  • Last week, I visited a production house in downtown Chicago with a group of students from my university. We got a tour of the building and learned about the day-to-day operations of each department. With the exception of perhaps one or two times when our guide said "his or her" while describing an editor's job, every position was explicitly gendered. The director would gather "his" crew, shoot a project, send it on to an assistant editor, who would create "his" assembly cut, and then the "sound guys" would contribute their skills afterward, and so on and so forth, until the cycle repeated when "the girls" in the lobby would receive emails from advertising agencies requesting the next pitch for the next project.
  • Also last week, I got the chance to camera PA on a network television show. The first thing anyone said to me was "Are you here for the makeup department?" I was wearing a utility belt fully equipped with a multitool, a walkie talkie, markers, tape, and work gloves -- lipstick or foundation nowhere in sight.
  • Last month, I served on the grip and electric team for a student film. The key grip and I, both female and neither taller than about five-foot-four, were the only people available to complete the load-in of all the equipment used on set. As we were carrying HMIs (the largest, heaviest light fixtures available at our school, for any wonderful non-production readers still here) back to their place in the studio, a guy loading in equipment for another film started a conversation with us. That conversation ended with him lamenting that he had worked on a set with "so many petite girls" because "they either can't or don't want to carry heavy equipment," and he "couldn't blame them." He said this to our faces while we were doing the very thing he somehow believed was impossible.

Like a virus, discrimination is highly adaptable, infectious, and subversive. Though its presence in written law is dwindling, its influence remains alive and well in our culture. Ethnographic research shows again and again that even in a world where Kathryn Bigelow has won an Oscar and Hillary Clinton is a serious contender for the presidency, we subconsciously and consistently teach girls that their personhood is just as dependent on their looks as it is on their choices and abilities. Boys as young as five years old are far more likely to list a talent as the thing they like best about themselves than are girls of the same age, who almost always cite a physical feature or the fact that they are "nice" as their crowning achievement. Ultimately, we learn that we are not to be actors in our own lives, but rather that we exist to be acted upon by others in their lives. We are taught to submit to dominant figures.

I can attest to the truth of these statements because I have lived it.

I apologize. For everything. All the time. I even want to say sorry for writing this and for the fact that it is so lengthy. Part of me feels guilty that I have shared this because some people don't like seeing touchy-feely things about feminism and mental health on social media. I often deny or downplay ownership over my accomplishments, and I habitually seek the approval of peers or superiors before acting on choices that have nothing to do with them. I desperately want everyone to like me. I am so, so afraid of displeasing others.

I argue that these personality traits are distinctly feminine and recognize that I must actively suppress these traits when making films. I therefore postulate that female filmmakers are so few and far between because they must negotiate a conflict that pits deep-seated components of their identities against the demands of their work.

***

I shot a film this past fall during which a number of things went wrong on the first night of principal photography -- some due to my own lack of preparation and some entirely beyond my control. I had improperly set up a jib, and it would not hold the weight of the camera. I mistakenly thought I had rented the wrong skate wheels for our dolly (I hadn't, but this only worsened my panic). Torrential rain plagued our night exterior. Eventually, we had to pack up without shooting a single take. It was the first set dozens of freshmen had ever been on. They had been hearing all week about how exciting, fun, and rewarding it is to make movies.

The rest of the film went far more smoothly, but memories of that night haunted me every time I made a mistake, no matter how small. It still hurts when I hear my friends jokingly call this film "The House That Rain Built" instead of "The House That Wren Built." It reminds me that incompetence is always lurking, and that I am never truly safe from it.

In case you've ever wondered, the most powerful way to insult a Northwestern film major is to declare them incompetent. After that shoot, I too often stayed up late in worry, the dreaded I-word running circles around my mind all night. What would people say about me? Was I fit to command a crew? Did I even know how? Did I even deserve to? These may be fears that trouble every crew head at some point, but the difference between male and female crew heads is that when it comes to incompetence, men are conditioned to feel innocent until proven guilty, while women feel guilty until proven innocent. The aforementioned combination of disastrous circumstances crushed me not because they dashed my hopes for success, but because they confirmed the suspicions of imminent failure I had for my future.

I've had these suspicions for as long as I can remember. As hard as it is for women to fight others' expectations for us, it is sometimes an even greater challenge to overcome those we have for ourselves. I waited for so long to simply go out and shoot projects. "I'm not as good as the others," I thought. "I'm not as knowledgeable. I haven't earned it." I was caught in the trap of lacking experience and being too afraid to gain it. I distinctly remember a time when I was deciding whether I should grip or serve on art crew for a film a couple of years ago. Much to the chagrin of my future self, I wasn't sure if I should grip because, in my own words, "I probably wouldn't be a big help loading the truck or setting up lights." I was scared to show up, have no idea what I was doing, and fail to do the heavy lifting.

Despite any progress I made since that time, my fears continued to linger until they exploded in the fall. I had never been on a set where equipment had been unloaded only to be turned right back around into the truck. "If it had to happen though," I thought, "it makes sense that it would be on the set I was in charge of." It seemed only natural that I should be responsible for the absolute biggest clusterfuck I had ever seen in my four years at Northwestern.

For this reason and many others, I grew to hate myself. I slowly but surely succumbed to depression. Though I didn't have suicidal thoughts, I understood for the first time in my life why mental illness drives people to kill themselves. Nothing I could do was of value. A constant buzzing lurked in my head, the sound of the never-ending battle between my desire to accomplish and the creeping hands twisting the knife in my brain and whispering that they knew that I knew this desire was pointless.

***

I mentioned earlier that I worked on a television show last week. When the crew had some down time, one of the older men in the camera department, Charlie*, gave me a bit of advice. "Here's the thing about working with men," he said. "You've got to be direct." He went on to describe an experience he had on set when a female DP wasn't sure what she wanted. She was indecisive, saying something along the lines of "Maybe we could put this over here, but we could do it this way too ... I just don't know."

Don't misunderstand me. I'm not trying to call Charlie out for sexism. What he said is true -- I'm just a student and I already know that indecision will get you nowhere in the professional world. But when Charlie told this story, it suddenly hit me that women are so much more likely to make this fatal mistake. In true flashback form, I realized at once how strongly that tendency characterized my own behavior, and more importantly, what had been at the root of it all.

Think about the characteristics you'd attribute to a respectable director or DP. They're those of a person who commands respect, assertively executes her vision, knows what she wants, and isn't afraid to act on it. They're those of a person whose priorities aren't clouded by the fear of failing to meet everyone's expectations. Think about this, and think about the way we as a society raise girls. Think about what I have been through, and if you are a woman, what you have been through, too.

I have come to realize why I felt so paralyzed on the worst night of my life and on many other occasions. After undergoing 20 years of gendered conditioning, learning to be overly polite, always modifying my opinions with a doe-eyed "but what do you think?," it's no fucking wonder I had trouble commanding a crew the first time I built up the nerve to try it. It's no wonder I wasn't comfortable when it was finally my turn to answer people's questions instead of to be the one asking them. It's no wonder second-guessing myself and doubting my skills hindered my creative work. Two years and three short films later, I am finally beginning to understand why. It's difficult to lean in when deeply ingrained instincts are constantly pulling you back. And it's frustrating to know that you should be fearless and decisive and confident, but for some itching, unidentifiable reason you find it harder than it seems to be for everyone else around you.

I have the following to say to any other woman who has felt this horrible anguish: you are not alone. You are not crazy. And no matter what you may think about yourself, you are not inherently less capable than anyone else you know. You have simply chosen to join a community in which success is predicated upon authority, self-confidence, and a sense of initiative -- all three of which you were statistically disadvantaged to achieve from the day you were born. This is not to say that being female should absolve one of all personal responsibility for failure, but rather to acknowledge that when a woman rises to prominence as a filmmaker, she has not simply learned and employed a set of skills. She has also unlearned a lifetime's worth of prescribed practices that would have, if left intact, destroyed any possibility of her success.

***

I am not sharing any of this because I want you to feel sorry for women or for me. I am sharing this because the situation at hand is a huge problem for everyone. If women don't make movies, good stories will be left untold. Luckily, if you are aware of this problem, you can begin to solve it right here and right now. "But I'm just a male crew head," you may say. Or maybe you're a crew head of any gender. Doesn't matter. "How could I possibly make a difference?" you may ask.

Thank you for your interest in making the world a better place. Here are some suggestions as to how you may proceed:

  • Ask women to work on your film in every capacity. We are equally competent in production design, crafty, camera, and grip and electric.
  • When you need something, don't say "I need a grip!" Ask for a particular grip. Female hands on set are not any less capable of completing tasks, but we are probably less likely to volunteer for them. This is not because we are lazy or stupid or useless. This is because we have grown up in a society that conditions us to let others take the reins before trying it ourselves. Cut us a break. We're working on it.
  • Be conscious of how often you ask women to do things in comparison to how often you ask men. You would be surprised how much you lean one way when you're not keeping track.
  • Be kind. Whether they mean to or not, upperclassmen far too often make younger or less seasoned students feel stupid for asking questions or making mistakes. You're not a better filmmaker if you shame someone for not knowing how to set up a C-stand after they've only been shown how once. You're just an asshole. As a Cage employee, I know I've been that asshole before. I am sorry for it. It is not excusable. And it is all the more hurtful to a sect of people who are implicitly deemed by others -- and even worse, by themselves -- as less capable, less knowledgeable, and less deserving than anyone else.

I know that none of these realizations or suggestions will immediately change the fabric of institutionalized sexism, either in the film industry or otherwise. I don't believe for a minute that I won't have to spend the coming decades being half as demanding and twice as impressive as my male competitors to gain equal recognition. But now, for the first time in my life, I finally feel empowered to try.

*Name has been changed