While promoting her latest film, "Macbeth," actress Marion Cotillard came out with a salvo denying the existence of sexism in Hollywood and the need for feminism in an interview with Porter magazine. Cottilard stated:
“Film-making is not about gender. You cannot ask a president in a festival like Cannes to have, like, five movies directed by women and five by men.
For me it doesn’t create equality, it creates separation. I mean, I don’t qualify myself as a feminist.
We need to fight for women’s rights but I don’t want to separate women from men. We’re separated already because we’re not made the same and it’s the difference that creates this energy in creation and love. Sometimes in the word feminism there’s too much separation.”
This is an issue that goes beyond the semantics and personal politics of “are you a feminist,” because Cotillard isn’t just speaking about whether she’s experienced sexism on the job, but about whether sexism exists in her entire industry. Yes, she’s wrong about the basic definition of feminism, but she’s also more than entitled not to identify as a feminist. What would be problematic is if those with the power to fund films, and film festivals, listened to this nonsense. When Cottilard says, “five movies directed by women and five by men,” she makes it sound as if advocates for gender equality are using gender as the sole barometer for a film’s worth, rather than one factor.
Feminists also care about what’s happening in a film, and what women are talking about. Cue The Bechdel Test, named after "Fun Home" author and illustrator Alison Bechdel. As she described the test to NPR, it was inspired by her friend Liz Wallace, who said, “I'll only see a movie if it has at least two women in it who talk to each other about something besides a man."
As further proof that people do indeed care passionately about the substance of women in film, The Bechdel Test inspired the formation of a Toronto organization called The Bechdel Bill, which, according to The Mary Sue, “hopes to get film companies and filmmakers to vow that 80 per cent of their films will pass the Bechdel Test, or rather, feature at least two named women who speak to each other about something other than men.”
In a previous interview, Cotillard argued that she doesn’t want to be seen only as beautiful, but capable, telling UK magazine Hello! that, "I'm very appreciative of the special beauty that Penélope Cruz and Jessica Chastain have and how they are able to throw themselves into so many different kinds of parts where you don't necessarily pay attention to their looks. That is how I hope people see me.” Not having your looks be the most important thing about you? She can thank feminism for that.
What’s disturbing is her insistence that gender doesn’t play a role already in film. No, it may not be at the forefront of every filmmaker’s mind—even female filmmakers—but gender ratios, age differences, female representation onscreen and off, a film’s marketing, etc., all matter. Her quotes are surprising given the number of women and men who are speaking out about precisely the kind of discrimination, on big and small scales, that prevents women from getting ahead in front of and behind the cameras.
The Guardian offered a telling roundup of ways sexism comes into play in Hollywood. Actress Emma Watson stated, “I have experienced sexism in that I have been directed by male directors 17 times and only twice by women. Of the producers I’ve worked with 13 have been male and only one has been a woman.”
Even more damning, from director Lexi Alexander: “I would say 99% of women working in the film and television industries have experienced sexism. I can list endless examples, from the driver who refused to take me because he was told to wait for the director (which was me) to the executives who insist they need a male director for a film about boxing and fighting, then hire a guy who never had a fight in his life, while I spent the better part of my youth being an international competitive fighting champion. Once someone said to me: “We really wanted you to direct this movie, but ‘anonymous male action star’ refuses to be directed by a woman.”
“Crew members are horny. They get frustrated that it’s not the 1980s anymore and that there are sexual harassment laws that prevent them from hitting on every girl at work. But movie sets are still kind of fair game, a place where people can openly flirt. But crew members often won’t hook up or have ‘locationship’ because they work with each other again and again. That’s where the stand-ins come in.”
Nope, no sexism there!
Geena Davis recently told The Guardian that there’s been an extremely disappointing lack of true progress in terms of gender equality onscreen, despite hits like her extremely popular role in :Thelma & Louise." "[T]he ratio of male to female characters has been exactly the same since 1946. So all the times that the press has announced that now things are better, or now things are changing, they haven’t,” said Davis. To combat this, Davis started the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, whose goal is “to engage, educate, and influence the need to dramatically improve, gender balance, reduce stereotyping and create diverse female characters in entertainment targeting children 11 and under.”
There are seemingly countless examples of ways sexism plays a role in film (for 10 recent ones, see Salon’s roundup). Cate Blanchett recently told The New York Times, in an article on the “stubborn sexism” of Hollywood, “I do think there’s a sense in the industry, and in most industries, that a woman can’t screw up. Look at the number of second-time male directors: If for some reason their film doesn’t do well, in eight to 12 months they’re back in there again, someone backs them.”
Men and women are getting creative in how to attack this problem. Take George Clooney, who, in his role as producer, gave the starring role in October’s "Our Brand Is Crisis," a drama about a political campaign strategist, which was originally written for a man, to actress Sandra Bullock. During a Q&A following the film’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Clooney explained, “Sandy called and said she wanted to do the role that was originally developed for a man to do, and once we realized that you could change it really easily, it made you realize that there are an awful lot of women’s roles that could be out there if people just started thinking in this way.”
At Vanity Fair, Katey Rich suggests that Cotillard, like Taylor Swift and Beyoncé before her, may once embrace the very same feminism she is now denouncing. While that may be true, and would be welcome, I don’t think that’s really the issue at hand. We shouldn’t be suggesting that actresses, or anyone else, simply parrot ideas they don’t believe in. What’s more important is that consumers vote with their dollars and support TV shows and movies that are equal behind the scenes.
In the meantime, rather than nitpicking over what one actress has said, I suggest we follow Julianne Moore’s lead. She told The New York Times, “Vote with your money. If there’s something you don’t like, don’t go, don’t pay for it. And if there’s a female-driven movie out there that you want to see, buy a ticket. That’s really what makes a difference. My husband laughs at me, but I just won’t go see movies with only men in them. I just can’t bear it.”