Grrls Make Movies: The Emergence of Women-Led Filmmaking Initiatives for Teenage Girls

By Sweeney, Kathleen | Afterimage, November-December 2005 | Go to article overview
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Grrls Make Movies: The Emergence of Women-Led Filmmaking Initiatives for Teenage Girls


Sweeney, Kathleen, Afterimage


An initial glance at Martha M. Lauzen's "Celluloid Ceiling" study is enough to induce math anxiety. This annual San Diego State University study has been reporting on statistics related to women working behind the scenes on the top 250 domestic grossing films since 1998. Lauzen's 2003 study found that women made up only 25 percent of producers, 13 percent of writers, 15 percent of editors, and a mere 2 percent of cinematographers. (1) In 2004, despite Sofia Coppola's historic Best Director Academy Award nomination for Lost in Translation, only 5 percent of directors were women. (2) Compared to the field of medicine, where steady annual increases since the 1970s have resulted in a 46.9 percent female medical student population during the 2002-3 academic year, (3) these film-world statistics clearly lag behind. Given the power of global media in imprinting and encoding our identities, this gender imbalance is nothing short of a feature-length wake-up call. With continued bestselling books such as Mary Pipher's 1994 treatise Reviving Ophelia issuing clarion calls about "girls in crisis" in the United States, these factoids provide a clear plan of action. Statistics aside, it's time to get girls to the media-making helm.

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Several national initiatives are taking this challenge head-on. Since the turn of the millennium, women filmmakers, youth advocates, media artists, and self-proclaimed "geek chicks" have moved beyond media critique and hand-wringing to proactive girls programming via digital filmmaking. Some of the most successful programs include GirlsFilmSchool at the College of Santa Fe in New Mexico; Girls-Eye View at Eyebeam's After-School Atelier in New York City; Divas Direct in San Diego, California; Seattle, Washington's Reel Grrls, and Girls Inc.'s national pilot video program for teenage girls, Girls Make the Message. These organizations combine studies of women's learning styles with Lauzen's study and Director's Guild statistics (compiled from annual studies) as part of their strategies to land major funding for women's filmmaking programs taught almost exclusively by women.

In a bold attempt to address the persistence of gender and racial inequities behind the scenes in mediamaking, these initiatives have established girl-friendly environments for mastering filmic arts. The goal of these programs, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, the MacArthur Foundation, and the AOL Time Warner Foundation, among others, is to teach women how to maintain the long-term commitment to script, produce, direct, edit, and distribute films, videos, and Web media, while teaching valuable career skills. Through coalition building with Apple Computer, Girls Clubs, YWCAs, media art centers, university film departments, and local cable stations these national girls film programs are gaining substantial recognition, proving them capable of staying power.

As Deborah Fort, founder of GirlsFilmSchool states, "You cannot grow up gender-neutral in your perceptions of the world, just as you can't grow up class, race, etc., neutral. That is why it is so important to have more diversity amongst those who are creating the images by which we define ourselves." (4)

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The women behind these projects often have their own anecdotes of gender bias from film sets and academic film departments. Some have concluded that the only way to create a viable women's film network in an industry of entrenched gender bias is to inspire teenage girls to explore the power behind the camera as early as middle school. By the time they are ready to navigate film departments and professional work environments, they will have acquired enough fluency in the language of the craft to gain credibility. The mission is to establish a national girls film network, which feeds into and expands the women's film network, with ongoing cross-pollinations of mentorship.

GIRLS GONE DIGITAL

The digital revolution has proven to be a great gender equalizer.

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