Why do images of male directors generally portray them pointing and shouting, whereas female directors on set are smiling and poised? Tatum Dooley discusses the representation of female directors, and how the rejection of this demure image by legendary director Agnès Varda’s is inspiring women behind the camera today.
A photo appeared on Twitter last week of Greta Gerwig wearing a white t-shirt that read: “AGNES VARDA”. Another photo, from the Independent Spirit Awards, shows Gerwig bending down, her hand on her chest, swooning over Varda. Both directors were nominated for Oscars last Sunday, Varda in the category of Best Documentary Film and Gerwig for Best Director. Introducing the latter award, Emma Stone pointedly noted: “These four men and Greta Gerwig created their own masterpieces this year.” The gender ratio of this year’s directors continues a tradition in film production: a surplus of male directors. The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University noted in 2016 that of the top 250 highest grossing domestic releases, only 7% were directed by women. This lack of female directors logically means that we see less photos of women directing. When there are photos, more often than not they’re posed and demure. But not in the cases of Varda and Gerwig.
Agnès Varda is not very tall, which explains a photograph of her directing her first film, La Pointe Courte (1954), employing a series of complex mechanisms in order to get the perfect shot. She is standing on top of a kneeling man’s back, himself on top of a crate, which is on top of a table. It’s not surprising that Varda—often referred to as the grandmother of the French New Wave, who became, earlier this year, the first woman director to receive an Academy Honorary Award—would go to such byzantine lengths to get the shot she wanted. But the photo feels significant regardless: it is an early image of a woman director in action, totally absorbed by her work.
“While the photographs of women directors are not glaringly sexist, there is a double standard of how women are represented simmering below the surface.”
I never thought too much about the way female directors were photographed until I heard the writer Claire Lehmann speak during a panel titled “Woman with a Camera,” at the FotoFocus symposium last November. Lehmann spoke on the gendered representation of women pictured with a camera in the archive of educational materials that Kodak and other film companies put out to teach users how to use their cameras. “It was shocking that women were really only pictured with a camera in hand in very specific poses, which, 98 percent of the time, [featured them] taking pictures of flowers in their backyard.” Lehmann continued, “It’s this very feminine subject, domesticated beauty. Whereas men [were shown] taking close ups of fauna, starfish…women were always taking pictures of flowers.”
Following Lehmann’s talk, I realized that photos of women directing subscribe to the same semiotic markers; women directors photographed smiling and posing are another iteration of the educational material that shows women taking pictures of flowers. These ways of portraying female artists are no accident—they are a way to dictate appropriate subjects for focus and how women should look doing it. Lehmann explains how the “Kodak Girl” went from a mascot of the woman photographer to a bikini-clad pin-up girl whose cardboard cut-out was a fixture at Kodak stores. Women directors are submitted to a similar fate. Overwhelmingly photographed posed and smiling, women who yield power with their cameras are made to look amenable and unassertive – cardboard cut-outs of themselves.
Unsurprisingly, men aren’t married to the same rules of representation. Shots of men directing are plentiful, and they usually fall under the category of “action shots”. So much so that there’s a running meme of “pictures of male directors yelling and pointing” that contains an archive of pictures of male directors in action: mouth agape mid-command, pointing their finger to an unseen object just out of view. Pictures of male directors smiling while directing are a rarity that borders on an extinction.
Finding a photograph of a woman directing smiling in front of the camera doesn’t prove as difficult. Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a photograph of someone smiling while doing their job. Yet, in a professional setting, these posed shots of women directors don’t do justice to the difficulties and nuances that directing entails – instead they present female directors as simply accessories to their cameras. Women directors are already represented significantly less than their male counterparts, which makes it easy to accept any form of representation as empowering. But I think we should demand more. Not only does representation matter, but the way women are represented matters just as much.
This premise—that the way women filmmakers are represented is equally important—takes its cue from the work of Anne Collier, a photographer who, in her series “Woman With A Camera,” photographed found-photographs of women holding cameras. By taking a photo of a photo, Collier turns the photograph into a still-life, which forces the viewer to see the original image in a new light. Michael Darling, the chief curator at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, remarks that Collier’s series “can, of course, be seen as images of female empowerment and agency or perhaps some kind of reversal of the male gaze, but Collier’s deeper skepticism simmers beneath their surfaces.” What I am proposing in this essay is a deeper skepticism. While the photographs of women directors are not glaringly sexist, there is a double standard of how women are represented simmering below the surface.
- Alice Guy-Blache
Photographs of Lois Weber, a female director from the 1920s, show a smiling woman who could easily be mistaken for a film-star. Weber’s image was carefully curated to be friendly and inviting – she is always shown directing with a smile or assisting cast members behind-the-scenes. In her book Lois Weber in Early Hollywood, Shelley Stamp explains the emphasis on Weber’s image behind-the-camera, and how it doesn’t coincide with the content she was producing. Publicity at the time (and subsequent historians) attempted to position her as a matronly embodiment of refinement behind the scenes, but a closer look at Weber’s comments on screenwriting and, especially, her films reveals a much more radical approach to filmmaking than a simple feminine filter.
The intent of photographing and crafting Weber’s image as motherly and feminine works to soften the blow of a woman in a role of power and the radical content she was making. The harm is that in portraying Weber in this way, notions of her work persist that categorizes her as “simple” and “feminine.” This disservice is why it’s important to demand more of representation. In contrast to Weber, photographs of Varda directing differ greatly: and this is because she takes them herself.
Varda defiantly rejects the posed smiles that haunt women directors and is photographed just as her male contemporaries are: in action. To do this, she inserts images of herself directing into her films. By filming herself filming, a kind of cinematic selfie, Varda takes agency over her image. In Jane B par Agnès V, Varda films Jane Birkin looking into a mirror. “But you won’t be alone in the mirror. There’ll be the camera (it’s a bit of me). Too bad if I appear in the mirror or the background.” Varda says. She urges Birkin to look into the camera, “If not, you won’t be looking at me.”
- Jane B par Agnès V
Varda pioneered a way of seeing female directors as hardworking, creative, and in charge of their own image. A video published on The Upcoming’s Youtube channel shows Gerwig directing—seven whole minutes of it. Throughout the video Gerwig points, yells, laughs, confers with actors one-on-one, and directs the crew. This representation, perhaps (if subconsciously) inspired by seeing film and images of Varda directing, should be the norm. Gerwig isn’t performing a role – the camera beside her is not incidental – she’s embodying an honest depiction of what being a director looks like.
While we can celebrate the fact that photographs of pioneering women in film exist at all, we need to demand more. The action shots of Varda directing shift the visual narrative of women directors to create a more honest and crucial depiction. “It’s only after Second Wave Feminism had been around for about a decade that you see women with a camera in popular photography as if it’s their profession,” notes Lehmann. By taking representation into her own hands and filming herself directing, Varda paved a way for contemporary women directors like Gerwig, who no longer have to conform to archaic notions of what a woman should look like in the director’s chair.
Tatum Dooley is a writer living in Toronto.