The statistics are startling. Fewer than 2% of working cinematographers are women. No female cinematographer has been nominated for an Academy Award. There are 11 active women in the ASC–out of 330+ active members. The first studio film to have a female cinematographer was released in 1980.
Women have been discouraged from getting behind the camera for decades, and these statistics prove that the problem is systemic and culturally enforced. Laura Mulvey’s much-discussed concept of the “male gaze” puts women’s place in front of the camera, as living props to be photographed and judged, not to make decisions about how they are portrayed or participate in the creation of their own image.
Rarely do you see a set with women in the camera department, which I lovingly dub the “dude swarm”. There’s nothing wrong with the dude swarm, inherently, except it creates a set culture where anyone not wearing cargo shorts is an outsider. And too many women in the camera department as treated as outsiders.
I’ve heard plenty of horror stories–women cinematographers with strong reels who, making it to a live interview, are told “oh, we thought you were a man,” and suddenly not the right fit for the job. I’ve had male crew members fight every camera choice I make on set, I’ve seen female cinematographers work retail at clothing stores because directors (90% male) didn’t have confidence in their abilities. The cycle is vicious; men and women start in the industry as equally green amateurs, and as men hire more men, suddenly the women become “unqualified” to work alongside their former peers.
As Rosalind C. Barnett and Caryl Rivers wrote in the LA Times this past December, studies show that “for promising men, potential is enough, whereas women are judged on what they’ve actually done.” In the film industry, men judge each other on what they could do, if they pooled their resources and worked together as a team.
Women don’t count as resources because, with “potential” and brains left out of the equation, women are less likely to own the expensive, tangible resources like film equipment that more and more play a deciding factor in who gets hired for what job. But how can a woman cinematographer who has to fight for the lowest of the low jobs afford the hot new camera on the block? They can’t.
Women are less likely to own equipment not only because of the cost of equipment versus the amount of work they’re being hired for, but because women are taught to look and not to touch when it comes to technology. I can’t count the male and female partners I encounter at trade shows where the male partner grabs a camera excitedly while his female partner watches passively over his shoulder. And try to engage a single woman perusing a tech booth? Forget it–ask if they have any questions and the answer is “no thank you” and they’re gone. Women aren’t taught to be entitled to technology in the way that men are. Men are entitled to put their hands on cool gadgets. Women are entitled to watch, but not to participate.
Just listen to the way men explain technology to women at a trade show and this dichotomy becomes readily clear. Women are expected not to be able to use technology, instead of trying it for themselves and playing, they must be hand held, guided, ‘splained. And that’s a huge turn off to wanting to participate. It’s not a surprise to me that 99 of 100 requests I get to borrow one of our cameras for a project come from men. Women are taught not to ask. And if we as a company choose to work with, say, 5% of people requesting cameras, the numbers aren’t looking too great for the ladyfolk.
But let’s say that’s not the case. Let’s say a woman has surpassed all these odds, and has a fancy camera and knows how to use it. Would the industry be willing to accept the potential of such a woman and hire her to shoot a film?
I think so.
Which is why I’m going to stop soapboxing on the internet (okay, maybe not) and put my money where my mouth is. I’m very pleased to announce the Digital Bolex Grant for Women Cinematographers.
Starting this summer, we will be offering a pair of Digital Bolex D16 kits, featuring $10,000 in gear and accessories from some wonderful soon-to-be-announced sponsors, on a rolling basis to any narrative short or feature film project to be shot by a female cinematographer.
As one of a handful of female cinematographers at the SXSW Film Festival, I am acutely aware that my ability to purchase, train with, and bring equipment to gigs over the past decade is what has gotten me to this wonderful festival with a feature film. I want to give other women that same ability to use their potential.
The relationship between a director and cinematographer is perhaps the most important in filmmaking–we see male duos with collaborative relationships spanning decades creating masterpieces. I’d like to see women involved in that kind of intimate collaborative process, and I hope that I can start to help move our industry in that direction.
Stayed tuned over the next few weeks to hear about our sponsors and application process. And for those extra proactive ladies, feel free to start reaching out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org