Some of the most inspiring films I watched this year were made by women who wore long skirts and high-button boots and couldn’t yet vote for president. You can find some of their work in “Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers,” a recently released DVD box set from Kino Lorber and the Library of Congress. (The Blu-ray version has more titles.) Some of these movies were featured in a program at Brooklyn Academy of Music that ran in July, one of several surveys that this vital arts center has dedicated to forgotten and overlooked female directors.
The more I watched these films from the beginning of the 20th century, the more I began to think about the movie world — the Hollywood — that could have been. By the late 1920s, women were largely shut out of directing in the American industry until the mid-1960s. If film pioneers like Lois Weber and Alice Guy Blaché had continued, it’s possible that a radically different movie world might have emerged. In my alt-Hollywood fantasy, female and male filmmakers would have worked side by side, perhaps giving us unimagined stories and heroines. That history in turn might have laid the foundation for an equitable present rather than an industry defined by entrenched sexism.
This inequity shows no real signs of abating, presumably because sexism has never damaged the movie industry’s bottom line. As of this writing, only a couple of the top 20 movies at the domestic box office have female-driven stories; in a few titles, the prominent female character shares the screen either as part of a romantic couple or a family. None of the 20 were directed by women. And then there is the continuing fallout from the Harvey Weinstein allegations and the #MeToo movement, which my colleague Brooks Barnes reported in November are greatly contributing to a “profound malaise” in the movie capital.