Why we’re celebrating women filmmakers this Oscar season

Greta Gerwig has become the fifth woman to be nominated for Best Director in the Academy Awards’ 90 year history. And only one woman, Kathryn Bigelow, has ever won the award. In a Q&A after a screening of her film, Lady BirdGerwig noted the importance of women storytellers and why their work should be recognized: “I think women tend to focus on stories that men don’t have the privilege of seeing. … It felt like there was this whole world left to be explored that had been largely undocumented.”

Women and people of color have historically been underrepresented in the film industry. Take the famous Bechdel test, the standard against which a number of the top movies in the business fail. The test asks three things of a film:

  • Does it feature two female characters?
  • Do those two characters talk to each other?
  • Do they talk about something other than a man?

Considering how simple these criteria sound, you may be surprised by how many top blockbusters failed this year.

The Bechdel test doesn’t focus on representation beyond female characters, so women in the Hollywood film industry have imagined the next Bechdel tests to hold the industry accountable. These tests focus on representation behind the camera, as well as in front of it. They also question thematic elements of storytelling and if a movie upholds sexist or racist stereotyping.

Since the success of stories directed by women and featuring strong female characters this year, it looks as though the film industry may be moving toward a more equity-focused approach. The success of Black Panther, for example, is proving that better representation of people of color and strong female characters in film and production teams are not only highly desired, but also extremely profitable.

As mentioned in this FiveThirtyEight analysis of the importance of Black Panther character Shuri, when people see themselves represented in film, they are inspired to pursue industries and careers they might not have believed were open to them before. These blockbusters have a wide audience, and therefore a huge influence.

Wikipedia, similarly, has a big impact on the public. About 450 million users access the site every month. But like the film industry, stories and biographies of men are disproportionately represented. Only about 17% of the biographies on Wikipedia are about women. And more than 80% of volunteers who regularly contribute information to the site are men.

At Wiki Education, we’re committed to increasing Wikipedia’s coverage of all histories and engaging more voices in that knowledge production. 68% of students who learn how to edit Wikipedia in our program identify as women. And when they improve and create biography articles of women, they’re exposed to careers and fields that are traditionally thought of as male dominated. They also help to improve Wikipedia’s coverage of these women’s lives and accomplishments. Improving representation of careers is particularly relevant for women in STEM as shown in this study from 2013.

Representation, whether it be in movies or on Wikipedia, matters!

That’s why we’re proud to feature student work this week from Jennifer Nichols Fall 2016 course at the University of Arizona. As seen in the examples below, and throughout the course, students improved Wikipedia articles about women directors, many of whom are women of color. Documenting the accomplishments and impact women have had in the film industry is important work. Not only can young women read about potential careers and see what could be possible for them, but it helps to round out Wikipedia’s coverage of women throughout history.

Ava DuVernay is a film director, producer, and screenwriter from the United States. She’s best known for directing Selma, which received an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture and Best Original Song. She’s the first African-American woman director to have had her film nominated for Best Picture, although she was not nominated for her directorial role. DuVernay has directed a variety of films, from big-budget blockbusters like A Wrinkle in Time to documentary work like her film 13th. She’s also produced and directed videos for advertising campaigns, as well as music videos for artists like Jay-Z.

Matilde Landeta was a filmmaker active during the Golden Age of Mexican cinema in the early 20th century. She was the first woman to take part in the period as a director. Landeta first encountered the film industry visiting her brother, actor Eduardo Landeta, on set. She was first offered a job as a make-up artist, and eventually the job of script supervisor in 1932. She became an assistant director in 1945 and worked with some of the greats of the period. Neither production companies or labor unions offered support for her own directorial career. So in 1948, Landeta sold her car and held her house as collateral for a loan to start her own production company. Her first two films were boycotted by distribution companies and her career suffered a blow. She continued writing screenplays (over 100 shorts!), but did not return to directing until several decades later. A student significantly expanded the article about her to include all of these details!

Dawn Porter is a documentary filmmaker and founder of production company Trilogy Films. Porter went to school to become an attorney, then began her film career working as an executive producer for various documentary films. Her latest film, Trapped, examines TRAP Laws (“Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers”) in the southern United States. These laws disproportionately limit access to abortion for poor women and women of color.

Students improve Wikipedia articles in all disciplines in our Classroom Program. To learn about how you and your students can make Wikipedia more representative of all people, visit our information page or reach out to contact@wikiedu.org with questions.

Header image: File:Ava DuVernay, David Oyelowo and Colman Domingo Febrauary 2015.jpg, usbotschaftberlin, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.


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