The recently released historical drama “A Call to Spy” may be set in the popular film era of World War II, but its subject matter veers far from the usual wartime tropes of fighting and bloodshed. Instead, it focuses on a little-known directive given by Winston Churchill to his recently formed spy agency the Special Operations Executive: to recruit and train women as spies. Inspired by true stories, the movie details the work of three women — “spymistress” Vera Atkins and her two new recruits Virginia Hall and Noor Inayat Khan — to build resistance and conduct sabotage, undermining the Nazi regime in France.
In addition to three female leads, the film was also written, produced, and directed by women, a feat that is unfortunately still a rarity even in this day and age. Although the challenges of the film industry’s gender paradox have been combatted through resources and explained with thorough research, we continue to overlook the voices of women in film at a rate that perpetuates the cinema’s homogeneity. Even as the call for diversity has become increasingly prevalent in mainstream media, the percentage of women within the industry has seen minimal gains over the past two decades according to a study conducted by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film. It found that in the 22 year span between 1998 and 2019, the percentage of women cinematographers has only increased by one percent, women producers and executive producers by three percent, women directors by four percent, and women writers by six percent. All of these increases left women’s representation in film still hovering well below the half of the population that they make up.
One area that has been shown to be making more substantial progress for women within the film industry is their inclusion in independent films. In another study published by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, they found that women comprised 38 percent of directors working on narrative features and documentaries, increasing nine percentage points in just two short years, and women’s representation in writing and executive producing increased by six percent in just one year. And yet despite these promising gains, women remain dramatically underrepresented. Independent films employed more than twice as many men as women in the 2019–2020 year, and independent movies directed by men were screened twice as often by film festivals as those directed by women.
The indie film study also revealed that by placing women in directors’ chairs, a ripple effect is created for employment of more women behind the scenes. When women direct films, they disrupt traditional hiring patterns, counteracting the widespread and seemingly intractable bias that has favored male networks. The same study of independent films found that 72 percent of writers on female-directed films were women, but that number shrank to just 11 percent when it came to films directed by men. Clearly, one solution to the systemic problem of representation within the film industry lies within creating a domino effect, as women breaking into the industry will aid those like them in finding a place within it.
But why are female filmmakers important? It comes down to encouraging diversity in our cinemas so that not only will women create the kinds of films that more accurately portray female characters, but it will influence men and others to as well. We often don’t get mainstream movies and TV shows that accurately represent female perspectives and roles, and female filmmakers do a great job of creating stories that fill this void. And although the costly nature of looking into media effects in a large enough group of people over a long enough period of time can make it difficult to quantify this point, research has been consistent enough to show that representation matters.
One study conducted by a team at the University of Michigan, researched television’s effect on self-esteem within children. The 2012 study found that while white boys reported that TV made them feel good about themselves, girls and boys of color found the opposite to be true, reporting lower self-esteem as they watched, and one of the study’s co-authors stated that they felt “pretty comfortable that it’s this lack of representation that could be responsible for this effect.” A 1976 paper entitled “Living with Television” saw researchers George Gerbner and Larry Gross say “representation in the fictional world signifies social existence; absence means symbolic annihilation.” Symbolic annihilation has come to describe the absence of representation, or underrepresentation, of some group of people in the media, the result of which can lead people to question what value society places on them.
In this day and age, visual media such as television and film play an important role in teaching us how the world works and our place in it. The stereotypes we see have the ability to subconsciously shape our worldview, and even if a woman appears in a film, if she is one-dimensional or based on character tropes such as “the crazy girlfriend” or “the nagging housewife” it can have a limiting effect. If all society sees in the media is the male perspective and female roles that come second to the star male role, then we start to feel that this is the only way to do things. Additionally, film teaches us how the world works and our place in it, and as these messages are hammered in over and over across the years it reinforces such stereotypes and makes them harder to break free of.
However, this also means that seeing strong women in film has the ability to reset the prevailing notions. The more strong women that are shown in films, the more our brains will automatically begin to associate “strength” as a feminine trait, and as a result, the more women will be treated as strong, equal members of society. The anecdotal evidence is often striking, when women — and particularly women of color — see pen heartfelt essays on when they saw a female character portrayed authentically for the first time. Somewhere this is most evident is in the realm of science fiction and superhero films. According to a recent study by the Women’s Media Center, only three percent of science fiction and superhero films made in the past decade were directed by women, a miniscule amount compared to the already low 38 percent previously attributed to independent films. On screen, there is also a gross lack of gender representation, with 86 percent of superhero and science fiction films having a male lead or male/female co-leads, with only 14 percent of films having a solo female lead.
Monetarily, studios and investors can’t even argue that more representation will lead to decreased revenue. Researchers with the UCLA-based Center for Scholars and Storytellers analyzed 109 movies released between 2016 and 2019, and found that movie studios can expect to lose big when their offerings lack authentic diversity in their storytelling. For a picture with a $78 million budget, researchers estimate that if there is little diversity among the cast and crew they can expect to lose $13.8 million in opening weekend box-office revenue, and potentially lose $55.2 million in total, accounting for over 70 percent of its budget. The numbers get even worse for large-budget films, with estimations of a $32.2 million loss in the first weekend and a potential total loss of $130 million, or 82 percent of its total budget.
“ A Call to Spy “ has been hailed by many not only for its compelling and nuanced portrayal of complex women, but for the representation that occurred both in front of and behind the camera. It is also important to remember that while increasing the numerical representation of women within film, it must come from a place of true empowerment in order for real change to occur. Writing rooms that facilitate dissenting opinions, a wide net for casting, and encouraging younger, less-tenured voices are all ways in which womens’ representation can be encouraged. Women make up almost exactly half of the world’s population, and without diverse female voices, films will never create an accurate depiction of how life is lived.
Originally published at https://thriveglobal.com.