Today is the first day of Thelma and Alice, a blog dedicated to films directed and written by women. I could list all the reasons I decided to start this blog, but the real catalyst was the Harvey Weinstein scandal. The news hit me in a personal way, because many of the actresses Weinstein abused are around my age or a little older, and I grew up watching them on screen. It felt like I was hearing traumatic stories from old friends. There was a strange feeling of betrayal, too, because I fell in love with movies as a teenager in the 1990s, when Weinstein-produced films were what everyone was watching and talking about.
I found myself wondering about the movies that might have been. One of the most chilling things about the Weinstein revelations was the way he manipulated the ambitions of female actors. Some careers were stymied, some never got off the ground, some ended abruptly, and some were altered in unknown ways. In an editorial for the New York Times, the actress Salma Hayek described months of harassment and bullying on the set of her film Frida, which she produced, starred in, and spent years researching. Ultimately, she was forced to add a sex scene with nudity. After reading Hayek’s words, I wondered what Frida would have been like without Weinstein’s malevolent hand. I also wondered if Hayek would have produced more films.
Any woman who loves movies has to grapple with the way women are represented on screen. It starts in childhood with the Disney Princesses, whose characterization revolves around their physical appearance and sweetness. As you get older you begin to notice how women get pushed into the supporting roles that exist mainly to motivate the leading man’s actions: the innocent ingénue, the sultry femme fatale, the soulless career woman, the supportive wife, the beleaguered girlfriend, the wise mother, the nameless victim, and of course, the dead body. Even when women get to play roles outside the domestic and personal sphere, they’re still expected to be impeccably groomed, stylishly dressed, and in great shape. To add insult to injury, female characters don’t speak nearly as often as the male characters, and they rarely get screen time that is equal to the male characters—even when they are lead characters.
You may read this and say to yourself: but it’s changing for the better! Look at Wonder Woman! And what about Lady Bird? 2017 had some notable releases with female directors, but the fact is that women are not given the same directing opportunities as men. The studios have the worst record for hiring women, but independent cinema isn’t much better. Women also aren’t writing as many films as men: According to a recent New Yorker article about Hollywood’s post-Weinstein reckoning, more than 70% of Hollywood writers are men. I’ve seen even more alarming percentages elsewhere; a study from Women and Hollywood that looked at highest grossing films of 2016 found that 89% were written by men. (Unsurprisingly, in these films, women comprised only 29% of protagonists. And if you look at all the female characters in these films, regardless of whether or not they were protagonists, 76% of them were white.)
Another problem is that men dominate film criticism, with a recent study showing that 73% of Rotten Tomatoes “top critics” are men. This makes a difference for female filmmakers because male critics are less likely to review films centered on women, and films centered on women are more likely to be directed and written by women. Less attention to female films means a smaller box office, means fewer films made by women, means more little kids seeing men’s faces and hearing men’s words and deducing—as children have been scientifically shown to do—that men are more important than women. That women are less than.
For the past few months, as the #metoo movement has unfolded, I’ve wanted to contribute somehow. I come from the literary world, which is also dealing with pervasive sexism, and one thing that is helping women to achieve parity is to make sure their books receive equal review coverage. On this site, I want, in some small way, to help female fimmakers get equal review coverage. I also want to educate myself and see more films that are created by women. So, I’ll be compiling lists of new films by women, reviewing films by women (both new and old), and writing about women in the film world in general.
One important point of inspiration for this blog was Wesley Morris’s beautiful essay about what it was like to spend an entire summer listening only to female singers. I also want to give a shout-out to Cinema Fanatic’s “A Year With Women,” which I discovered when I was doing research for this blog. I admire the way both these writers took control of their cultural consumption and am eager to undertake a similar experiment. As with all writing projects, I don’t know exactly how this blog will evolve, but I’m curious to find out what it’s like to dedicate a lot of time to films created by women.
Finally, a word about the title, which alludes both to the iconic feminist film, Thelma & Louise (written by a woman, Callie Khouri) and to two women with pioneering careers in film: Thelma Schoonmaker (pictured above, left) and Alice Guy-Blaché (pictured above, right). Thelma is Martin Scorcese’s legendary and indispensible film editor, while Alice was not only the first female film director, but may have been the first person–male or female–to even be a film director. At the very least, she helped to invent the job.
I’ll be writing more about Schoonmaker and Guy-Blaché in upcoming entries. I didn’t know anything about Guy-Blaché until I started brainstorming titles and searched for “first female director.” Schoonmaker, on the other hand, is someone I became aware of when I first started paying attention to film directors. I had a roommate who was a Scorsese devotee, and he told me that Scorsese always used the same film editor, Thelma Schoonmaker — a fact that stuck with me, because Scorsese has been such a huge influence on American film. I realized that at least some of what we think of as “Scorsese” probably has a healthy dose of Schoonmaker, too. Schoonmaker has won three Oscars for her editing, so her contributions haven’t gone unrecognized, but she’s not a household name, either. To me, she’s emblematic of the way women’s contributions to film—and popular culture, in general—are downplayed and overlooked.