FILM AND VISUAL ARTS : the gendering of 'culture'

Not one of the 27 films showing in Bristol on 3 July 2023 was directed by a woman. Manfest!  Yet in solo or two person art exhibitions on the same day there was a 50/50 gender balance. No shortfall in the female creativity itself, then – so why the male domination of film and what were the messages the films communicated?


The films

The majority of the films to be seen in Bristol on July 3 2007 might be described as 'man-stories' of various kinds.

The largest single category were tales of male derring-do: action packed and muscular with little reflection. Bruce Willis battled on in Die Hard 4.0; The Flying Scotsman, a biopic about a Scottish cyclist, was described as "an amazing story of fortitude and victory against the odds": i.e. he rode his bike, which he made himself, very fast.  In Ocean's Thirteen a load of guys do their stuff (in this case a bank heist) and in Lucky You men play poker in a narrative that builds to an oedipal showdown. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End gave plenty of opportunity for male swashbuckling and while the delights offered by Johnny Depp might be worth further discussion and Keira Knightley gets a look in, only 2 of the 10 stars are women, with direction, production, scriptwriting, music, editing and cinematography all by men. In Spiderman 3 there was much flexing of male muscle, with the girl friend doing more than her fair share of clinging and weeping. Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer sees muscles gleaming again in fairly mindless action scenarios; the only female superhero, Invisible Woman, does little and is only able to stay invisible for a few seconds at a time in order to keep her protruding chest in frame. For light relief Hot Fuzz takes the micky out of a certain genre of 'man story' in a comedy spoof of Hollywood versions of British detective shows – but its still predicated on and exploring representations of male activity.

Two more serious films went way beyond muscular action but were still absolutely engaged with the masculine. This is England took an earnest and critical look at look at masculinity and male coming of age in the skinhead scene in the 80s. In Sketches of Frank Gehry the director, Sydney Pollack, an aging creative male, offers a macho portrayal of an aging male architect - the tale of male genius springing from nowhere.


Most distressing, though was a category of films regaling in extreme, pornographic violence, against women.  In Hostel: Part II a number of young women, having been sold on an online auction, are, in various degrees of undress, variously tortured and killed. An older authoritative woman does one of the killings and one of the young women does escape, having been facially mutilated (at which point she is re-offered online at a lower price) and in vengeance severs her male persecutor's genitals, leaving him to bleed to death - a story line feeding male castration fears and hatred of women. The main theme, however, remains: women to be bought and sold, used and abused. The other film in this category, Captivity also indulged male sadistic fantasies and played on women's fears of sexual violence, as one on-line critic put it: "the formula is depressingly familiar – Abduction, Confinement, Torture, Termination."  And it must be remembered that both these movies were shown, not in dark-alley venues for rain-coated misfits, but in mainstream cinemas.

If these 'man-stories' were not to your taste you could have chosen from two Bollywood films (Apne and Jhoom Barabar Jhoom), three kids movies (Charlottes Web, Shrek the Third and Bridge to Terabithia), a teen sex comedy (Wedding Daze), two more horror films (Shutter and Vacancy) – all of which would benefit from a gender analysis - an anti-globalisation documentary and the re-showing of a 1930s silent avant garde film (an excuse for The Blessing to provide a live sound track). Admittedly, Golden Door and Lives of Others offered interesting explorations of wider themes, US immigrants in early 20th century and Stazi surveillance, but overall this is a sorry and gender biased picture of the stories our society is willing to invest in producing and which are filling our cinemas. The constant re-iteration of a certain kind of masculinity and the absence of female perspectives, concerns or humour make for a bleak and worrying landscape.

The exhibitions

In solo or duo art exhibitions (ie excluding group shows) the work of an equal number of men and women (10 of each) was on show in Bristol on July 3rd 2007. The women's work ranged from the exquisite, nature based jewellery of Alice Highet, at the Architecture Centre, and Tamarin Norwood's intriguing use of hand made paper, text, video and installation at the tiny Here Gallery in Stokes Croft, through to Lucy Mackenzie's demanding work at the prestigious Arnolfini Art Centre. Until relatively recently this kind of gender balance would have been unthinkable in the arts and the fact that women's creativity and understandings are finding visibility is to be celebrated and recognised as the outcome of decades of feminist battle within the institutions of art.

But why is there this huge disparity between films (0% female directors) and the fine arts (50% of artists being women)? Power, influence and finance are crucial here. Films are expensive to make, access to the necessary finance and distribution is notoriously difficult for all tyro film directors. But the hands on the levers of power are male: male networks must be negotiated within which gendered emotional investments and imaginations hold sway. Art work does not require the same level of financial investment, and the venues for showing it, like cafes, restaurants, independent galleries, are less difficult to access. Government funded sites and funding agencies, succumbing to second wave feminist arguments, have at least a notional commitment to gender 'equality'. When the institutional, financial and social barriers are breached, as has been the case throughout the history of the fine arts in the west, women's creativity flows through.

However, the audience for the fine arts is considerably smaller than that of mainstream cinema and the snapshot of the two provided in Bristol July 3 2007 indicates how far there is to go.   The contrast highlights the fact that the problem lies not with a deficiency in female creative ability but in the wider economic and power structures within which we live. We may not be surprised that it will be guys who persuade guys to cough up money in large quantities to produce the movies that fill the cinemas. But films are how society tells stories to itself about itself, a key site for the formation of the social imaginary. As such the gender bias is really disturbing and must be challenged.

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