Can Women Direct Action Films?


"No." Says Susanne Bier, the director of the AMC adaptation of John le Carrè's The Night Manager, non-plussed when asked if being a woman makes it more difficult to direct action. Then she can't help but laugh at the absurdity. "Action is part of visual storytelling and I find it incredibly exciting. It takes accuracy but it's not more difficult." The Limited Series which was filmed across the globe, deals with espionage, and encompasses action, explosions, character subterfuge and love. It is the kind of high-profile testosterone thriller that usually gets awarded to men. The Academy Award winning writer-director for In A Better World suggests that not considering women as directors of action could be due to "conventional thinking and fear of thinking outside of the box." The reason for the discussion of course is that between 2002 and 2014 Woman directed just 4.1% of the top grossing movies, according to a USC study. (Fortune 2015)

Like the dearth of women CEO's in Fortune 500 companies, women directors are still a minority in Hollywood. If you cast your eyes toward the action genre, they are like a rare and exotic species; meaning that their numbers are so low that alarms should ring out across the industry at the blatant lack of parity to men. The picture gets even murkier when you look at summer blockbusters where the big money is made - the Marvel and DC universes - you could go blind trying to find a woman helmer in well - ever. The lack of opportunity for women in this genre ignores the reality that when given a chance women more than deliver. The Hurt Locker is one of the few action-thrillers directed by a woman, and made Kathryn Bigelow the only women to win an Academy Award for Best Director in its 88 year history. Since we are talking 'action' genre, I will not mention the Academy's unforgivable omission of not including Ava DuVernay's direction of Selma for consideration in 2015. The lack of gender parity and minority opportunities in movie directing has long been a discussion that's fallen on deaf ears, but since the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, the lack of power positions for women and minorities is being discussed in a way that might finally bring about real change.

When talking to top women directors they all insist that direct discrimination is not something they have to deal with. The insidious reality is that as a woman, or minority, discrimination is often unconscious. Ava DuVernay put it this way: "I'll turn up for a meeting and there will be a question whether I am the person I say I am." She doesn't 'look' how they expect her to. Then she adds, "But for a black woman in the United States of America there are a hundred mircro aggressions that happen on any given day. Ultimately, if something is egregious not just to me as a black woman, but anyone else, I feel it is wrong not to say it." "My advice is to concentrate on the work. Toni Morrison notes that the whole point of racism (and sexism) is that it's a distraction that prevents us from being full, vibrant human beings."

Liza Johnson director of Elvis & Nixon suggests people may assume female directors have to deal with a sexist set. "That's not true." She asserts. "A movie set is a military hierarchy of which I am the head. However, when we go on a location scout, people will go up to a man thinking he is the director." It's not intentional. Nancy Meyers highlights a different form of bias. She specializes in films that tap into the female zeitgeist. She is one of the most successful directors in the world, her films having made billions, yet she is often slammed by male critics. As she points out, "Many critics on Rotten Tomatoes are men," not her target audience. Her movies appeal across genders. She has a track record of eliciting nuanced performances from high testosterone actors like Jack Nicholson, Alec Baldwin, and in last year's The Intern, Robert De Niro. "My movies are not frequented only by women." Observes Ms. Meyers before adding the pertinent question, "Is the writing and directing less good," because it's a women centric film? "No." She states the overlooked truth. "So why isn't value placed on that?" There's also the issue of women having to be twice as good. When a movie is directed by a woman and it succeeds the success is attributed to events outside of the director. Yet if the same movie should fail, the blame is often placed on the woman director's shoulders. Nancy adds, "When women-centric films succeed at the box office media labels it an 'anomaly' rather than embrace that there is an audience for female centric films." The same is true for minority driven films. Ava DuVernay states it clearly. "With movies like Creed, 12 Years A Slave, Selma, The Barbershop and Tyler Perry films, it has been proven that minority movies are popular. It can no longer be denied. To say that films targeted at minorities do not make money has to be called out as a lie."

Donald Trump not withstanding, people have grown sensitive to actions and words that are obviously discriminating and directly insulting, yet unconscious bias is a truth for women across industries. Almost every woman can point to experiences where subtle slights and putdowns occur that though unwillingly intended, de facto nullify, minimize and leave the female worker wondering if they really did something wrong that they have to fix, or if it is unseen bias that is being exhibited without awareness or consequence for the message that is being conveyed.

The idea that action is best served by a male director is an example of unseen bias. It is also a sociological reflection of gender branding (gender traits reinforced by the media). It is not unusual for women to be portrayed as emotionally and visually focused, while men are portrayed as action oriented and issue resolvers. These traits are conveyed across genders in many forms of media and are subtlety reinforced by society from birth. As Misha Green, one of the Executive Producers and writers of the television series Underground, asks, 'Why is it assumed woman cannot direct action? Do people ask if men can direct emotion? Then why shouldn't women direct action?"

As women move to compete with men for the same resources, gender stereotypes associated with gender branding are blurring. While boys are still encouraged not to show emotion, girls are being encouraged to compete, speak up, and own their wants. Perhaps the in-the-box thinking is a generational one. Studio decision-makers may still be locked into gender branding that is out dated. With the recent focus on gender and minority exclusions, studios and producers are waking up to the inequality. It was recently announced by Warner Bros. that Wonder Woman will be directed by Patty Jenkins and by Sony, that Underworld: Blood Wars will be directed by Anna Foerster. It is a sad state of affairs that it is news-making for women directors to direct women in action films. We welcome the day when women helming tent pole summer blockbusters is simply business as usual. But kudos to those studios for taking a step that should have been made long ago.