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What Will Make Women's Work 'Cool'?

Someone asked me the other day, “Why is women’s work in film and theatre never described as ‘cool’? And the same week, our Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition reminded me that people in our culture often use the adjective ‘hot’ to describe women they perceive as cool. And it seems to me on this muggy Friday afternoon, that if our focus is on ‘hot’ women, we’re likely to be interested in their work only when it directly reinforces their perceived ‘hot’-ness rather than in the work itself. Grrrr.

On the bright side, Roseanne Liang's and Rosemary Riddell’s work may encourage the use of ‘cool’ in reference to the work of New Zealand women filmmakers. It’s not long before the release of Roseanne’s romantic comedy My Wedding & Other Secrets. I’ve heard that it’s a very cool movie, and I’ve interviewed Roseanne and her fellow script-writer, Angeline Loo (for publication later this week). And the other week, Empire gave The Insatiable Moon four stars. Rosemary Riddell directed The Insatiable Moon and it’s opening in cinemas in the United Kingdom soon, the first New Zealand film to do that for a while. So Rosemary’s work is arguably very cool, too.

The statistics & cool

But I’ve also seen a whirl of recent statistics about women’s work that show that globally women have a long way to go before our work is ‘cool’. First, Martha Lauzen’s annual film statistics. These show that nothing’s improved for women working in film. And The Count, VIDA’s stats about writers, show that in a selection of prestigious United Kingdom and United States literary journals and pages, women writers are grossly under-represented, though that’s not the case in New Zealand, possibly for reasons I wrote about in parts 4 & 5 of Moving Forward, about the influence of Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML).

The Black List statistics

And then, someone sent me a copy of the 2010 Black List. Two hundred and ninety film executives contributed to this list, not a ‘best of’ list, at most a ‘best liked’ list, according to its intro. Franklin Leonard (now director of development at Universal) started this annual list in 2005, when he e-mailed friends and contacts in the business, and asked them to send him their lists of screenplays written that year that they had liked, and which had yet to be produced. As Franklin Leonard explains in a YouTube clip, the Black List has been very effective at advancing individual writers’ careers. It has helped scripts become movies, and provided good predictions of future award winners. And in Franklin’s view, one of the list’s most useful characteristics is that it shows “What we care about, and what stories we want to tell.”

In 2005, Diablo Cody’s Juno, and Nancy Oliver’s Lars & the Real Girl were two of the three scripts that the participating executives most often mentioned. This year, of the seventy-five films listed, only five are written by women for sure. After I eliminated three projects whose writers’ names are androgynous and whose details I can’t track down, and two projects co-written by women and men, women wrote six out of seventy projects, or 8.5%, an even smaller percentage than Martha Lauzen’s statistics, which show that only 10% of all writers on the US’s 2010 top-grossing 250 films were women. Furthermore, not one of the Black List women’s scripts is anywhere near the top of the list, among the scripts with between thirty-nine and forty-nine mentions from the executives who submitted their selections.

The first project listed with a woman writer (at number 30, with ten mentions) is Katie Lovejoy’s Arsonist’s Love Story: “A young arsonist falls for a woman in the art world he desperately wants to be part of”. The next, at number 37, with nine mentions, is Jenni Ross’ Hot Mess: Four girlfriends make, and then break, a list of rules devised to get the guys of their dreams and discover their inner hot messes in the process”. (Is that a strategic use of ‘hot’?). Megan Martin’s Can You Keep a Secret? is at number 45 with seven mentions: “After a woman spills her secrets to a stranger during a turbulent plane ride, she shows up at work to discover that he is the recently returned CEO of her company”. At place 59 with six mentions is Carrie Evans and Emi Mochizuko’s Boy Scouts vs Zombies: “A troop of Boy Scouts on their weekend camping trip must protect an island town from a zombie outbreak and save the local Girl Scout troop”. At 63, also with six mentions, is Katie Wech’s Prom “high school students prepare for their prom”. At 73 is Brit McAdams’ Paint: “A Bob Ross-esque PBS painting show host must fight for his career when his station brings in a rival painting host”. Apparently, men are central to almost all these stories, as the active agents or the focus of women’s activities.

My guess is that as the Black List became more influential, as a marker of stories with potential commercial value, and of ‘what we care about, and what stories we want to tell’, the inbuilt Hollywood assumption—that stories by and about men carry the most ‘value’—took over. This means that stories by and about women are perceived as less ‘cool’ and less likely to feature on the list. What will bring change?

Relationship capital, ‘holding God’s hand’ & ‘genius’

In the research for Development-the-movie, which started long before I started my scriptwriting apprenticeship, I heard (and I continue to hear) many stories about how women’s work in theatre and film is not cool. And how because the work isn’t cool, it isn’t funded and doesn’t reach the audience it deserves. And I wonder if one area of inter-generational debate may be about how useful it is for women to be associated with men whose work is ‘cool’. If we’re seen as ‘hot’ because of that association, does our work become more or less ‘cool’?

Recently, I’ve read a couple of articles about how ‘sponsors’—or ‘advocates’ are more significant for women than ‘mentors’. In this context, sponsors—both men and women—provide ‘relationship capital’, through linking women to the sponsors' own successes. In this process, the sponsors advocate for women and their work; these women then become ‘cool’. And when advocates take us and our work seriously, they provide us with confidence. They help us augment the resilience we need to deal with because we are not inherently ‘cool’ because of our gender.

When I thought a bit about ‘relationship capital’ I decided that for women filmmakers (all women artists and writers really), ‘domestic relationship capital’ is also handy. I remembered that Nicole Kidman, at a pre-Academy Award Hollywood Reporter round table, talked about how Jane Campion benefitted from having her artist parents. I remembered reading an interview where another filmmaker, Lena Dunham, (Tiny Furniture) talks about her family. I also recalled the women artists and filmmakers I know whose domestic capital includes other artists and writers in the family, supportive partners who aren’t artists, extended family—sometimes live-in—who help with children, the friends who understand the challenges of our work lives and how they affect our domestic lives. We need domestic relationship capital; unlike male filmmakers, we don't have a long and powerful tradition of support from our wives.

Domestic relationship capital helps a woman who works in a creative industry with confidence and resilience. But it isn’t associated with ‘cool’. However, there’s a hybrid relationship capital that is, I think. I suggest that this hybrid relationship capital derives from domestic and public components that reinforce each other; a woman’s work is perceived as cool because of her domestic relationship with another (male) artist or writer or filmmaker who reinforces her confidence and resilience and is a public advocate for her work. But when the domestic relationship ends, advocacy of the woman’s work as ‘cool’ may also disappear, or be significantly reduced. The extent to which this happens may depend on whether she has had, and continues to have, other public advocates as well as her former domestic partner, on whether he also continues to advocate for her work, and, alas, on how ‘hot’ she is perceived to be. This can be very challenging for the woman concerned, because the quality of her work remains the same.

It can be even more challenging when people take sides. Here's one story I've heard or observed in various versions over the year, in a great post about betrayal, from Bidisha:

...a brilliant woman I'd studied with in London was cheated on by her partner for a year. During the six years that followed she absorbed the fallout in waves. Her trust and happiness were replaced with something wired and watchful. She became like an animal by the side of the road, hunkering close to the kerb and the drains, every sense prickling, feeling stunted and hunted. Of course, in time, she recovered and rebuilt herself with all her natural panache, wit and intelligence. Women are strong, as everyone knows. But she lost the career that she had loved: she had been an exceptionally gifted film-maker working in equal partnership with her ex, in the company they created. When the revelation came it was too humiliating to go to meetings, knowing that everyone knew. There was a particular look people had - of revolting open-eyed pity for her, but (strangely) no censure at all for him. Seeing that wonderful 'liberal' industry for the abuse protection racket that it really was poisoned her career. Magically, the perks and job offers went to him and she was frozen out. Her ex’s career flourished. He was awfully embarrassed, of course, though not remorseful, and it was all rather a mess, but frankly he enjoyed himself. He enjoyed his affair. He enjoyed the drama. He is now rich, famous, thriving, happy and busy.

Patti Smith’s superb memoir Just Kids, about her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, documents the development of what seems to me to be an ideal kind of hybrid relationship capital, where the perception of a woman and her work as ‘cool’ remains after the domestic relationship ends. (Just Kids is also a LOT more than this; and the deep friendship endured until Robert Mapplethorpe died.) In a wonderful Charlie Rose video interview, Patti Smith concludes that what Robert Mapplethorpe gave her was confidence. And the strength of their hybrid relationship, and Patti Smith’s concurrent and non-domestic relationships with other advocates—like Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs—ensured that she was ‘cool’ enough to stay cool when her domestic relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe ended. It may also have helped that, as Robert Mapplethorpe acknowledged and she records in Just Kids, she became ‘famous’ before he did.

Because relationship capital of any kind is often serendipitous, what about the rest of us? I’ve concluded, as I’ve thought more about the benefits of hybrid relationship capital, that an institution can also provide these. And because the ‘domestic’ element of the relationship is with an institution rather than an individual, the capital is more likely to endure after the domestic relationship ends. I think that IIML offers a good example, and placing IIML in this context helps explain further why the gender statistics relating to literature in New Zealand show that women writers do well here. In IIML’s Glen Schaeffer House, a very domestic environment, with its kitchen and cosy library, the undergraduate and postgraduate workshops build and reinforce women’s skills, knowledge and networks, their confidence and resilience. Out in the world, association with—and, often, advocacy from—IIML helps increase our work's ‘cool’ factor, especially if we write for the page; writing for production introduces more complex factors, because of the resources and collaboration required. Are there other similar institutions around the globe?

Recently, I've been introduced to two new ideas about other possible external sources of strength available to all of us, that transcend ideas about being ‘cool’ or being ‘hot’: Robert Mapplethorpe's concept of 'God', and Elizabeth Gilbert's understanding of 'genius'.

As a priest’s daughter who knew as a small child that Christianity was not for her, I’m not much into God. But in Just Kids there’s a section about a letter that Robert Mapplethorpe wrote to Patti Smith, to explain what was on his mind, which I found very moving. Robert Mapplethorpe wrote “‘I stand naked when I draw. God holds my hand and we sing together.’ His manifesto as an artist”. Patti Smith “accepted those words as a communion wafer”.

I thought of this immediately when a couple of days later, I can’t remember how, I received a link to a talk by Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love. I didn’t read the book or see the film, and may never do so. But I loved the talk, Nurturing Creativity. In it, Elizabeth Gilbert talks about ‘genius’ as a concept that makes it possible to turn up to write every day (even, perhaps especially, when she acknowledges that her best-known and most-appreciated work may be behind her). According to Elizabeth Gilbert no person is a genius. A guardian deity or genius is the spirit that watches over each one of us and infuses our work, the genius in the corner of the room, at each writer’s (artist’s/filmmaker’s) shoulder. From the Latin word gignere, to beget, or produce. She provides some wonderful examples of the way their geniuses pursue some writers, and pointers on how to communicate with your genius.

Elizabeth is very amusing. And I think I understand what she’s talking about. I think she’s saying the same thing as Robert Mapplethorpe, using different language: “Genius holds my hand and we sing together”. Genius will do this when we turn up to do the work. Whether we’re ‘hot’ or our work is ‘cool’ is irrelevant then.

But that relationship capital is very handy to help us to access the resources to turn up, and once we want an audience. Let's talk about it more, all of us who write.


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