Are Outspoken Feminist Movie Stars Actually Working With Female Directors?

Last month, Flavorwire interviewed director Allison Anders, and at the end of the chat she threw down a challenge for big-name Hollywood actresses who complain about the dearth of female directors and other women behind the scenes: “I hear a lot of actresses these days lamenting about roles for women and saying that more women should be behind the camera,” she said. “But when big stars say that and they haven’t worked with women directors, I wonder why they don’t demand a woman director… Women stars, we know that they can decide. Big stars can have director approval.”

Since then, the chorus has grown only louder, as more stars have felt empowered to speak out about gender issues in the industry. Just as Anders noted, they’ve been discussing everything from the Hollywood pay gap to the lack of good roles for women. At Glamour‘s Woman of the Year event, Reese Witherspoon touted her production company’s focus on strong roles for women. “[Pacific Standard Films has] over 25 films in development and three television shows, and they all have female leads of different ages and different races and different jobs,” Witherspoon said. “Some are astronauts, some are soldiers, some are scientists; one is even a Supreme Court justice. They’re not just good or bad; they’re bold and hunted and dangerous and triumphant, like the real women we meet every single day of our lives.”

She’s not the only megastar using her megaphone; Jennifer Lawrence wrote a piece for Lena Dunham’s newsletter about pay discrimination, Sharon Stone and Gwyneth Paltrow have weighed in, and Meryl Streep in particular sounded off about sexism during her media appearances in advance of the film Suffragette. “Men should look at the world as if something is wrong when their voices predominate,” Streep — who has funded a screenwriting lab for women— said this fall in Time Out (the interview accompanying the very controversial cover photo). “People at agencies and studios, including the parent boards, might look around the table at the decision-making level and feel something is wrong if half their participants are not women.”

But a look at their recent and upcoming films shows that most of these stars, in their capacities as actresses,  are still largely working on films that are written and directed by men. Even Witherspoon’s pet project, Wild, was adapted by Nick Hornby from Cheryl Strayed’s memoir and directed by another man, Jean Marc Vallée. Now, Witherspoon is working on an Alexander Payne film called Downsizing and recently appeared in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice. The (somewhat disastrous) comedy she starred in, Hot Pursuit, had a female director and two male writers.

Streep’s track record is slightly better. Again, she parlayed her highly billed cameo in the female-penned-and-directed Suffragette into a (somewhat) feminist press tour and she starred the Diablo Cody-written Ricki and the Flash, which was directed by Jonathan Demme. And Streep’s other recent and upcoming projects, including Florence Foster Jenkins, Into the Woods, The Homesman, and Hope Springs also come from male screenwriters and filmmakers.

For others, it’s a similarly mixed bag. None of Jennifer Lawrence’s recent films were primarily written or directed by women, although Debra Granik directed and co-wrote (with Anne Rosellini) her 2010 breakthrough, Winter’s Bone, and her roles are generally avatars of female power. Rose McGowan, who gained instant infamy for tweeting a sexist casting call, showed up in one female-helmed flick of late, Lower Bay, written and directed by Jenna Mattison, alone among a handful of recent projects. Patricia Arquette and Maggie Gyllenhaal, two more outspoken actresses, have similar track records.

You get the idea — it’s fairly consistent for all the actresses we counted. One or two female-helmed projects that constitute exceptions to the all-male rule. This isn’t entirely dismal. In fact, given that, of the top 250 films of 2012, only 9% were directed by women and 15% were written by women, most of the actresses I just listed are batting above average and working with more women than they might be if they simply reflected the larger numbers. It may well be that every two or three projects, they’re deliberately seeking out women writers, directors, or auteurs.

And, of course, it’s always a mistake to chalk up systemic inequality to a mere series of individual choices. Streep is right that the blame mostly lies with the studios, the moneymakers, rather than actresses who are already underpaid compared to their peers. And who knows? Some of these actresses might have demanded a female director on certain projects but been ignored or circumvented due to studio politics and contract negotiations. We know many of them are powerful, but their power presumably ranges from project to project.  And the power of the impressive roles these actresses choose, from Arquette’s single mom in Boyhood to Streep’s succession of grande dames to Lawrence’s fierce fighters, certainly matters.

Still, an examination of Vulture’s list of 100 female directors that Hollywood should be hiring reveals that there are too many who haven’t worked in far too long, or who are mostly working in television and independent cinema. Directors like Granik, American Psycho‘s Mary Harron, and Something New’s Sanaa Hamri (she’s been making Empire episodes of late), among many others (Amy Heckerling!), appear to have no current feature film projects on their docket. And for women of color behind the scenes, the problem isn’t just doubled; it appears to be nearly exponentially worse.

Even the basic trawl of IMDb required for this piece reveals how many powerful feminist actresses are working almost exclusively with male directors, while a second search shows how many great female directors have no current projects. Given that juxtaposition and context, Anders’ frustration feels very understandable. It would surely be helpful for these talented but underutilized directors to have a few ultra-powerful actresses in their corner. In Hollywood, only a tiny handful of female directors have any clout, while quite a few actresses are superstars. We’re in the midst of a time when seemingly simple acts of protest, like refusing to play a football game or insisting on reading or reviewing books by women or people of color, are having a huge impact on the culture — so it’s worth noting that these actresses could accomplish a lot by showing a little solidarity.