What 2017 meant for women in film

Megan Harding 15 January 2018

It might seem backward to write an overview of the year that has just passed when TCS’s first print theme this term was ‘Beginnings’. But, though 2017 was a year a lot of people were glad to see the back of, it also felt like the start of something. Female filmmakers have long been underrepresented, but last year felt like a turning point after years of gradual progression, with films from directors such as Kathryn Bigelow, and the female-centric Three Billboards and Lady Macbeth, among others. No longer were women always the generous mother figures, or the emotional labourers; they were vindictive, vengeful, angry, justified, bitter, proactive, and most importantly, human. And what I find most impressive about these movies is that they don’t judge their women for being rude, or brash, or even murderous – they observe and sympathise with their actions.

Meanwhile a more relatable quotidian of female life was present on screen last year thanks to Greta Gerwig’s sparkling directing debut Lady Bird, one of 2017’s most hyped indie films (and winner of two Golden Globes – Best Motion Picture: Musical or Comedy, and Best Actress for Saoirse Ronan). Gerwig has said that Lady Bird is less an autobiographical character, and more an amalgamation of all the traits that she wished she possessed at that age. To me, this is important, because in the hands of another director, Lady Bird could easily have become the stereotypical Manic Pixie Dream Girl serving a man’s ego. But here she is her own person, aided by the female perspective behind the camera. Gerwig is aware of the frustration of watching male characters come of age, while the women around him become over-sexualised, quirky personas that bear no resemblance to reality. Whereas Lady Bird’s flaws are portrayed with equal significance to her quirks, most often within her turbulent relationship to her mother (the stunning Laurie Metcalf). When watching the film, this is what stood out to me the most: how little these achingly important mother-daughter relationships are ever explored in the medium of film, ever.

The celebration of women was continued by the knockout writing team of Kenya Barris and Tracy Oliver, to which we owe Girls Trip, a film demonstrating the fun and carefree side of modern black American women’s lives – something that audiences want to see on our screens, if Girls Trip's success as the most profitable comedy of 2017 tells us anything. This goes for superhero movies, too: Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman defied expectations (and became DC’s first solid success) by recognising Diana’s optimism and warmth as an asset in a genre that is traditionally grim and gritty, and creating strength out of traits typically used to mark out women as weak or subservient.

Reclaiming autonomy became a recurring theme for 2017’s women in film, best exemplified by the fact that there were more female writers, directors and producers than ever before. Director Reed Morano won an Emmy for her work on Hulu phenomenon The Handmaid’s Tale, a show aptly centred around the struggle for female freedom in a dystopian (but not altogether unfamiliar) society. Director Dee Rees helmed Mudbound, one of Netflix’s most acclaimed new movies, about the complex race dynamics of post-WWII America, starring Mary J Blige and Carey Mulligan, and French director Julia Ducornau released Raw, a horror exploring female sexuality. These films aren’t all as hopeful as Diana Prince or Lady Bird. In fact, horrors like Raw, or the communities of women in Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled or Jean-Marc Vallée’s Big Little Lies, exact their fulfilment by exceedingly violent means. These characters are angry. Which means to an extent that the female filmmakers behind them are angry, too.

And they have reason to be. Women still make up only 14% of all directors, writers, producers, and cinematographers. Meanwhile, the #TIMESUP movement has highlighted the desperate need to rectify the epidemic of Hollywood sexual abuse. We can never expect more women to succeed in film if they are vulnerable to the whims of predatory men whose power goes unchecked, or the inequalities of a pay check, like Academy Award nominee Michelle Williams, who earned just 1% of co-star Mark Wahlberg’s salary for last-minute reshoots of All The Money in the World (which, to cap off the irony, was altered to remove all trace of the sexual predator Kevin Spacey from the film). Clearly, gender is still an issue in Hollywood.

But things have been changing, and in 2017 more than ever. The variety of women present on (and behind) camera this year has allowed women to be women in every sense of the word: human beings who are joyful, experience life and love, celebrate their sexuality, but are also wronged and can do wrong, and who want answers for everything they have been through. They don’t always come out as winners, or angels, but if they did, it wouldn’t be a very accurate representation. And if we want more compelling and realistic women on our screens, we need more women representing them behind the camera. To make that happen, the film industry needs to keep working towards making TV and cinema a safe place for us to work.