Women in Hollywood: Princesses no more?

March 1

Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee won the Animated Film category for “Frozen” at the British Academy of Film and Arts awards ceremony in London on February 16, 2014. (REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett)

The unlikely protagonist. The nearly impossible journey. The epic story.

Every screenwriter knows you have to have the first two elements in place before you can have a fighting chance at accomplishing the third. And nowhere is that rule more clearly stated than in Disney children’s fare: An awkward fawn has to grow up to become the worthy prince of the forest in “Bambi;” Woody literally needs to find his way home in “Toy Story;” and in this year’s “Frozen,” Anna needs to face her own fears and journey through snow and ice to save her sister and her kingdom.

Since its Thanksgiving opening, “Frozen” has grossed nearly a billion dollars at the box office worldwide and been nominated for an Oscar in the Best Animated Feature category, where it’s the favorite to take home the trophy. Clearly, the story resonates. Finally a princess movie in which the princesses find their power, moms don’t need to grit their teeth as they watch it with their daughters. (One article circulating on the Internet is entitled “7 Moments That Made Frozen the Most Progressive Disney Movie Ever.” My favorite is the one that has Kristoff, one of the main characters in the film, making fun of Disney’s own trope: “Who marries a man they just met?”)

Almost everyone seems to like the onscreen message. But what the movie represents off screen is just as important. In 2013, according to Variety, only two of the 100 top-grossing films were directed by women: “Frozen,” which Jennifer Lee, co-directed with Chris Buck, and Kimberly Peirce’s “Carrie” remake. Is this a typical year? Unfortunately, pretty much.

“Last year women accounted for just 6 percent of directors, a decline of three percentage points from 2012,” Martha M. Lauzen, head of San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, said. “As film directors, women have actually lost ground over the last 16 years. There has not been any progress, which I think is stunning.”

Lauzen publishes an annual report called The Celluloid Ceiling on the state of women in film. The percentage of women directors who directed the top-grossing 250 films in 1998, the first year of her study, was 9 percent, the same percentage as it was in 2012, which was a good year.

Think about that. In the past 16 years, the number of women who have directed successful movies has stayed pretty much the same, even declined in some years. Meanwhile, women graduate from film schools in numbers nearly equal to men, and in the independent sphere women made up roughly half of the directors at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Yet they still struggle to translate festival success into a chance to take the reins of studio-backed films—a pipeline that seems much more wide open for male directors.

Does it matter? “This is not toothpaste, this is our culture,” says Lauzen. “Why is it OK that a small group of people who are in a shrinking demographic are constructing the culture?” If you doubt Lauzen’s point, just reflect a moment on the people who choose Oscar winners: According to a 2012 Los Angeles Times investigation, the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are 94 percent white and 77 percent male, with a median age of 62.

The argument for women directors isn’t just about giving a few lucky women in Hollywood the chance to become the next Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese, it’s about telling stories from our perspectives.

Lauzen has studied thousands of cases with an eye toward subtle details like how often female characters speak and how often they are interrupted. She says her data shows without a doubt that “when you have at least one woman in a position of power behind the scenes … you tend to get more female characters on screen. You also get a different kind of female character, a more powerful character.”

Remember those moms who can finally relax their faces while watching a Disney princess pic? As “Frozen’s” success so mightily illustrates, when studios are open to our stories, everybody wins. It’s not only a win for women who work in film, but it’s a win for audiences and a financial coup for studios.

“Judging by how many films by women have been box-office successes, I can only hope that the studios will see that they’ve been wrong,” “Brave” co-director and writer Brenda Chapman told me. Chapman famously based “Brave’s” heroine Merida on her own adolescent daughter and then criticized Disney for “blatant sexism” in giving Merida a sexy makeover in its marketing.

Clearly Chapman’s success on “Brave,” which marked the first time a woman director garnered an Oscar for Best Animated Feature and which grossed more than $550 million worldwide, gave a helping hand to “Frozen” just one year later. If it weren’t for “Brave’s” success, “Frozen” most likely would have been iced out of the Disney marketing juggernaut that’s so benefitted it.

In “Frozen,” Anna literally has an uphill journey to save her sister and her home. Facing nearly impossible odds, she triumphs. Yes—this is the movies. But heroes are born every day—and sometimes they just need a lucky break.  

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