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Cannes Film Festival 2010: Recognizing Our Low Expectations

May 21, 2010

With the 2010 Cannes Film Festival coming to a close this Sunday, so ends yet another year of men.  Of the 18 films selected this year to compete for Cannes’ highest prize – the Palme D’Or – none of them were directed by a woman.  In response, women directors have rallied together to express their dismay with petitions to Cannes.  British director Ruth Torjussen explained that the lack of female director Cannes nominees was particularly disturbing because Cannes has a better record than the Academy Awards of honoring women in film.  And even the Academy Awards recognized a woman director (Kathryn Bigelow) this year for the first time in its 82 year history!  As Melissa Silverstein of Women and Hollywood wrote: “So much for the Bigelow effect.  We are still going backwards.”

More than any other feminist argument I present to my friends, I receive the most pushback on this one.  And I admit, even a passionate feminist like me had trouble swallowing this condemnation at first.  The only thing the Cannes Film Festival cares about is the art of filmmaking.  What do they care if women or any other identity group is not represented in the Festival?  This isn’t the US Senate after all (oh wait – women still only make up only a pathetic 17% of Congress so I guess diversity isn’t important there either…)  But do we really want the world’s most prestigious film festival to begin nominating women based more on their identity than their artistic accomplishments?

Thanks to the extraordinary insight of writers like Rachel Millward, though, I get it now.  It’s not about lambasting Cannes as a sexist organization that disregards scores of talented women directors.  It’s about recognizing Cannes’ uniform lineup as a deplorable reflection of our persisting gender inequality and low expectations.  As Millward writes, “It matters that there are no women filmmakers in competition at Cannes because it matters that there are so few women succeeding as filmmakers.”

Sure we’ve made strides.  Just last year, a woman - Isabelle Huppert – headed up the Cannes competition jury.  And it’s encouraging to see the growing number of producer women.  But it’s certainly not enough.  “It’s a sad day when we consider a couple of frocks on a line of suits to be best efforts for gender inequality,” Millward writes.  Our expectations for women’s participation in film would be better classified as supplemental rather than essential.  Women make up 51% of the population, yet women audiences are considered a niche in the trade press.  We don’t expect women to participate.  So they don’t.  But we must expect more to achieve more.  We must expect more from Cannes if we ever want to achieve actual gender equality, where women confidently voice their unique perspectives and we all benefit from the synergy of diverse opinions.

So what is the solution to the Cannes male lineup? Maybe Cannes should ensure that selection committees are gender balanced.  Or maybe the film industry needs to better fund the films of women directors.  Or maybe we ought to encourage girls’ interest in film (like WMC’s Girls Investigate program).  The point is we need to do something.  And before we can debate how to amend this injustice, we must recognize it as an injustice in need of our attention.  We must recognize our low bars before we raise them.

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