01/23/2013 05:42 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Athena Film Festival or Who Gets to Be A Leader?

When you think of what a leader looks like, what comes to mind? A strong person. With influence over their lives and environments. A man, probably white. Maybe he's part of a group of men who lead and take action.

How about weak people, needing protection? Mean people in groups? Do images of women and young girls pop into your head unbidden? How many movies have you seen that up the vulnerability ante by threatening, hurting or killing the male protagonist's daughter/wife/mother/girlfriend?

Our media continue to do a good job making sure that these images aren't changing much.
  • Women are rarely central protagonists -- change agents in the news, movies or on TV. Only 24 percent of news stories feature women, for example -- meaning 76 percent are likely about men.
  • They're infinitely more likely to be isolated by virtue of their gender.
  • Are rarely part of an ensemble cast of women who aren't concerned with marriage.
  • They are twice as likely to be portrayed as victims in media than men are.

This is why the Athena Film Festival, being held Feb. 7-10 in New York, is so important.

ATHENA FILM FESTIVAL 2013 from Athena Film Festival on Vimeo.

The festival, organized by Women and Hollywood and Barnard's Athena Center for Leadership Studies, is dedicated to portrayals of women as thinking change agents in the world... leaders. The thematic focus of the Festival, which has grown each year since its inception three years ago, is on exploring leadership from the perspective of diversity and collaboration.

"Our goal is the blink that you get when you think about what a leader is," explains Kathryn Kolbert, Director of the Athena Center and a co-founder of the Festival. "What's a leader? What's a superhero? Who has power? Those concepts are culturally defined for the most part as white men. We are trying to re-imagine what leadership is. If we are ever going to advance women to leadership across all kinds of industries. It's essential."

The Festival's program includes documentaries, shorts, independent films and major releases. It's an incredibly diverse and fascinating array of movies, made by men and women. The four-day festival includes panels, conversations with directors and actors and actresses and workshops for filmmakers. There are more than 300 films being shown. Even if you cannot attend, you might want to queue the past three years of films.

What does this look like in the real world?

In the aftermath of the Newtown shooting this was sadly notable: six women died and other women came close to dying trying to save children and stop a raging gunman. As Ann Friedman pointed out, not only were they heroes, but women -- mothers and teachers -- just like them are every day. All around me I see women working together, starting businesses, organizations, running for office. They're doctors, soldiers, strategists. And, like the staff at Sandy Hook Elementary, sometimes they are trying to save people. But, as CNN explained: "It's a job description fitting for a soldier or police officer, but for a school teacher -- an elementary school teacher at that?"

Sandy Hook was a tragic and jarring way to have to think about heroism. But, the shock of these women's acts of courage and leadership is the other side of the masculinity/violence coin that we also struggle to talk about publicly. We are all too accustomed to the idea that young men die shielding others. When women do it, we don't have ancient, mythic narratives to fall back on. No gendered tropes. Indeed, our stories of fierce women warriors, like Amazons, were often used to show the "otherness" and inherent inferiority of foreign cultures. And, while we have women warriors these days, they don't act together with other women. So, while women either individually or as a group are obviously working and doing everywhere, they are invisible when we tell stories and use language pertinent to leadership and heroism.

So alien is this idea -- of women confront challenges and evil for the greater good -- that the National Review apparently didn't think twice about running an objectionable piece immediately after the shooting arguing that a "man in the schoolhouse" would have stopped the deaths in Sandy Hook. The writer went so far as to suggest that a "huskier" than average 12-year-old boy would have better served the community. An open letter to the writer by Amelia McDonell-Parry pretty much sums up my feelings in regard to this opinion.

It's not surprising though, in a culture absolutely sodden with images and messages of male aggression and violence conflated with leadership and heroism. Our mainstream stories are made almost exclusively by men, for men with a hyper-gendered, outdated idea of what masculinity means in society. And white to boot. I mean, really, isn't it just bizarre that the male to female ratio in family films remains unchanged since 1946? And, arguably, the representation of women has gotten worse, not better. Gender ratios and communications styles, and how we portray them, make a difference to how we understand influence and power. Before men and women can really trust women as leaders we need to reflect their abilities and competence in our media.

Kids grow up with the thinnest media veneer of women as powerful, autonomous agents in the world. Especially non-maternal ones. It's no wonder that young men are unprepared to deal with the real world where they face women clearly making inroads into traditional spheres of male power. What the hell are those women thinking? No one "told" us about them. It's also no wonder that young women question their ability to be leaders. Colin Stokes' TED presentation on why this is important for boys and girls, called "How Movies Teach Manhood," could as easily be called "How Most Movies Teach That Women Are Inconsequential, Isolated and Powerless."

Consider how rare narratives of brave women leaders really rare. Narratives of women acting together to save others, in sorority almost entirely not available. When we do see women together in groups it's usually because they're "mean girls." Of women working together to challenge to male aggression and violence? Good luck with that one. If you doubt what I say, consider the sheer number of top-grossing movies that adhere to the Smurfette Principle and fail the Bechdel Test.

The Smurfette Principle is simple. First coined in the New York Times in 1991 by Katha Pollitt, it describes a tendency in media for there to be one woman in a cast that includes a group of men. That woman represents "all women." The only real deviation from this ratio is in romantic comedies or "women's" movies. And, even then, they often fail the Bechdel Test, being concerned as they often are with landing the man.

The Bechdel Test, first described in 1985 by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, is a test of gender bias in media. It's not even a feminist test per se, but rather is a filter to determine the role and presence of women in media. In order to pass the Bechdel Test a movie must do three seemingly ridiculously low-bar things:

1) It must have two women, preferably with names.

2) They have to talk to one another.

3) When they talk it must be about something other than "the" man.

In other words, girls or women have to be doing stuff and thinking things that have nothing to do with what a male protagonist/s wants. Take five seconds to check out a list of movies at a multiplex near you and there may be two movies that passes this test. If they're Oscar-bound it's less. This is a grossly unbalanced image of the world we are giving children and perpetuating for adults.

When you hear "Leading Men" you probably don't think someone is leading men around, right? No. You think of men who are powerful stars. Leading Men are also, however, men who lead. It's an unqualified combination. Leading Women? First thought? Did the idea of "Who's leading them and where?" maybe fly, ever-so-brieflly, through your head. Remember, also, we don't say "Leading Women," for female movie stars, opting instead for "Leading Ladies." Ladies is a key qualification -- they are well-mannered, rule-following, good girls who don't rock any boats. Remember Todd Akin?? On the other hand, any man can lead. Actually, I mean that literally. Men tend to wake up thinking, for example, that they can just up and run for office. Why not? Women doubt themselves right out of even trying. These things are not unrelated.

Two of my personal favorites in the weekend's lineup are movies featuring young protagonists who could not be more different. Beasts of the Southern Wild, whose insanely impressive nine-year-old star Quvenzhané Wallis is the youngest person ever to be nominated for an Academy Award, and Disney's Brave. Beasts told the story of a strong-willed, courageous girl, dirt-poor and African American, who at one point takes a group of other girls on an actual quest. I was actually initially reluctant to see Brave, having, as a mother of three girls, been subjected to a relentless parade of de rigeur, fulfill-your-biological-destiny Disney princesses. Brave, however, is one of the only movies I can think of in which two women, a daughter and a mother, set out on a quest together, overcome great obstacles and succeed. Compare these two movies to Disney's and Pixar's history of ridiculous insistence that the only friends a girl can have are rodents, small woodland animals or exotic felines and that mothers are either dead or lying, cruel and untrustworthy. Thank you makers of Brave and Beasts.

"Successful movies like The Hunger Games and Zero Dark Thirty hopefully indicate that there is a shifting trend in Hollywood," says Melissa Silverstein, founder of Women and Hollywood. "The festival is about normalizing strong female leads. We try and find films that both inspire younger women and give them models to emulate. It's both about inspiration and aspiration for the younger women." And, I would add, for younger men.

For details and information about the Festival and the movies being aired check here.