Hollywood Should Let Women Fail Upwards Too

Seriously, how does Colin Trevorrow still have a career?

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In a recent study done by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, they uncovered a frightening reality: there has only been minimal change in representation both in front of and behind the camera. Both are important, but representation onscreen is more visible and often gets more attention, so let’s talk for a moment about representation behind the camera, where things are sorely, sorely lacking.

Of the 1,100 films they studied, only 43 women served as directors; the majority of these women were white. Each year, they counted how many women directed a major film; the highest number was 8, in both 2015 and 2017. 64 directors, or 5.4% of all directors in the study, were Black or African-American; 38, or 3.1%, were Asian or Asian American. These numbers are incredibly disheartening—weren’t we supposed to have been making progress at some point?

The problem is is that white men still get multiple chances to succeed no matter the circumstances, ranging from being offered the keys to the kingdom after one successful indie to being allowed to fail upwards over, and over, and over again. Marginalized directors have to make sure that their films are perfect and that they succeed at the box office. Otherwise, their careers will vanish into thin air. The double standard is very much alive and well in Hollywood.

Consider the recent news about how J.J. Abrams said he owes his career to Tom Cruise being a fan of Alias. Abrams is a great director, but he got his first franchise film with a resume that mostly consisted of episodes of television. Or look at Colin Trevorrow and Gareth Edwards, who each made a great indie film that led to each of them being handed films in major franchises with no major franchise experience. Edwards tackled Godzilla and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and Trevorrow was behind Jurassic World and will return to direct the third installment of that franchise following his dismissal from Star Wars: Episode IX.

And yet, there are apparently no women who are qualified enough to direct a Star Wars film. Cue the feminist rage.

There is also the fact that marginalized filmmakers have to make flawless box office successes to continue to have careers. Would there be as much of a push, on the part of movie studios, for female-fronted and directed superhero films if Patty Jenkins had dropped the ball with Wonder Woman? Jenkins knew she had one shot to ensure women would have the opportunity to direct superhero films, which is why she turned down directing Thor: The Dark World years before. Jenkins said to Indiewire:

“If I do it, and it’s what I think it’s gonna be, I can’t help the fact that it will represent women directors everywhere, and then that’s going to be bad for everybody … As heartbreaking as it was, I was also like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t do something I don’t believe in, in that big of a scale. I knew that that was going to set [not only] me back, but also women directors back.’”

The fact that Jenkins had to carry the weight of an entire gender’s future career on her back, as she navigated leaving Marvel behind and crafting Wonder Woman, is an entirely unfair burden that white men just don’t face. Jenkins is one woman. She should not bear the responsibility for the future of women in major genre films. And incidentally, she’s right; director Alan Taylor, who did tackle The Dark World, one of Marvel’s least well-received ventures, was hired to direct Terminator: Genisys following the release of the film, proving that men fail upwards.

Here’s a controversial idea: Let all filmmakers make mediocre movies and still have the chance to grow and advance their careers. Women, directors of color, LGBT+ directors … they all deserve to have a film that isn’t the world’s greatest film, but that isn’t the worst film ever made. Each year, countless mediocre movies are made, and usually the men behind them do just fine, but anyone who isn’t a straight, white man, especially if they’re telling stories about marginalized characters, has to make obscene amounts of money and be a critical darling to succeed. That sets people up for failure.

Let us have mediocre rom-coms, or slapstick, or even bad dramas that are diverse both in front of and behind the scenes, and don’t punish the people who made them. Sometimes, the fact that there is representation elevates a piece beyond a basic premise, and even if it doesn’t, then it’s still a story worth being told, because people deserve to see themselves represented.

It’s true that careers should not be defined solely on one film underperforming, but that should be true for everyone, especially if white male directors barely break their strides. Let more stories be told, regardless of the box office performance or whether or not they’re Oscar bait. Give directors more chances, and better work will surely come.

(image: Universal Pictures)

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Author
Kate Gardner
Kate (they/them) says sorry a lot for someone who is not sorry about the amount of strongly held opinions they have. Raised on a steady diet of The West Wing and classic film, they are now a cosplayer who will fight you over issues of inclusion in media while also writing coffee shop AU fanfic for their favorite rare pairs.