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Girl Power: How Women Drastically Shifted Film and TV Culture

A brief look at the seemingly untold history of women in film and television

Into and just beyond the first quarter of the 20th century, before big business monopolized and recast the film industry, women screenwriters, editors, and designers were not uncommon.

Back then, inside the infant playground of motion pictures, gender wasn't much of an issue. Many silent film plots arose from synopses written by women and were posted in response to magazine advertisements and competitions. By the time grubby storefront Nickelodeons had been replaced by pristine movie palaces, as the late film critic Richard Corliss commented, "The industry's leading scenarists were, by a large majority, women." It made sense then for otherwise restricted lives to flock to and fully embrace this burgeoning new industry, and to tell stories from the perspective of, and indeed outside of, the female experience.

As for the performers, some of the first Hollywood stars were initially uncredited. Sensing this injustice had a lot to do with studios scrimping on budgets, the likes of Florence Lawrence and Mary Pickford, in their persistent response to an adoring public, became billboard names in their own right. Pickford, dubbed "America's Sweetheart," would go on to co-found United Artists with D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, and husband Douglas Fairbanks, while establishing herself as Hollywood royalty. Pickford's name comes up a lot in any film fan compendium because of her standing as an exceptional minority. Female exceptions, as with corresponding accolades and opportunities, have formed an uneven pattern in the history of film and television.

Mounting Hollywood scandals and risqué film releases, in particular, 1933's Baby Face about a social climbing speakeasy prostitute, came to a head with the emergence of the Motion Picture Production Code, the self-censoring solution to potential industry killing intervention by the Federal Government. Known as the Hays Code (named after Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America president William H. Hays), the new censorship laws clamped down on material that could be perceived as having lewd content. Fully enforced after 1934, for the next three decades, marital relationships were restricted to separate beds and passion to one foot on the bedroom floor.

The by-product of suppressing onscreen sexuality meant that actresses, no longer fed with bawdy lines, inhabited meatier roles and plot lines that could be about things other than sex. Enter stage right Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn and post-Baby Face Barbara Stanwyck, fast-talking shoulder-padded career women or crooks with pretty faces and brains. By the end of the 1960s, a lift on censorship dissolved the Hays Code and those old female power roles faded from the mainstream.

Talent is seldom enough to procure work. Consequently, the rise of working women in entertainment has been a slow, unsteady, and inconsistent climb. The early 1900s film industry may have seemed like a free-for-all, but it was a tiny platform within a world of heavy social constraints and amendments not yet realized. The sex-banning Hays Code, while inadvertently adding depth to female roles, barely altered the way in which male-dominated studios were run.

Since then, television, far more than film, is where women have flourished on screen and behind it. The soaps and lifestyle-preaching daytime shows of previous decades, designed around selling products to housewives, have been replaced, in part, by dramas and current affairs-focused magazine formats. A gradual, long-seasoned spring cleaning has feather dusted away the role of the ditzy klutz: the vulnerable, kooky, can't follow directions gals whose haircuts used to make headlines. As with television, the marginal majority of movie theater audiences have traditionally been female and the moves to reflect this seem to be in motion.

Outside of purported traditional female interests, screenwriters Jane Goldman (Kingsman, Kickass) and Nicole Perlman (Guardians of the Galaxy), as well as Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break, The Hurt Locker, Detroit), stand out in a film industry that has a lot of catching up to do with its equal opportunity small screen counterpart. A century on from the Mary Pickford era, at least two generations of movie actresses who have experienced the predictable dearth of work beyond their thirties have returned in TV form, smaller in projection but bigger than ever, as leading actresses and producers (Big Little Lies, Homecoming).

Today's TV and streaming service production standards are cinematic, and the combination therein of high drama and introspection has increasingly been absorbed and interpreted through the female gaze, (Scandal, Homeland, Grace and Frankie, My Brilliant Friend, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel). Netflix's female crop just keeps on growing thanks to the success of Melissa Rosenberg's Jessica Jones, Black Mirror (co-created by Charlie Brooker's longtime professional partner Annabel Jones), the Lifetime-poached You (co-developed by Sera Gamble), Dawn Porter's excellent RFK character study documentary Bobby Kennedy for President, and the recent record-breaking hit, Bird Box, directed by former Dogme 95 Manifesto filmmaker Susanne Bier.

The power-heavy media door, where women's long haul labor has wedged a foot strong enough to support the Shonda Rhimes all-rounder power brand, has swung off its hinges in the wake of the contract revising Times Up movement. That showbiz power tic for exhibitionist showering and masturbating and belt-slipping bathrobes are on the decline since the fall of Harvey Weinstein. Caught in the headlights, media organizations have played to the gallery by replacing a conveyor belt of disgraced male actors, presenters, studio heads (Amazon), and a TV president (House of Cards) - not with substitute tokens, but instead, a procession of accomplished, at-the-ready women.

So, what will having more women on the studio and office floors mean for the future of film and television? Will the narratives change the future of snack-happy entertainment? Does it matter who or what is behind the output so long as the output is good, or at least entertaining? Scripted reality and a celebrity chain gang of hot topics continue to possess an illusionist hold over attention spans. However, emerging voices can flip any formula, while quantity and quality have become surprising bedfellows. Widening the point-of-view landscapes are bound to make plot-twists less calculable, even amid the true crime format, a statistic-heavy femme favorite.

Time will tell on shifts in content and demographics. Thus far, whether it be envelope-pushing originality or join the dots tedium, film and television have succeeded in holding a mirror up to the changeable forum of behavior, good and bad. As with age-old motion picture entertainment, the reflection of effort, or the measure of ratings, do score higher and further when there are an assortment and contrast of ideas and idea makers.


Krombie is a writer, reviewer and incidental performer living in Astoria.


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