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The Name Game: Let’s Make Female Film Directors More Visible

There’s this game that I play when I have trouble falling asleep: I start listing female film directors. I usually doze off when reaching number 20–25; if my insomnia is particularly bad, I can go up to 60.

Month after month, I am reminded of the importance of this seemingly trivial little game: that’s because even the most prominent actors and directors working in Hollywood have a hard time naming more than one female film director – as evidenced in this recent report by The Cut. I shouldn’t have been all that surprised: as a female director under 40, I have been having a really hard time being taken seriously in this industry. When asked what my profession is — and I answer “I’m a film director,” the usual follow-up question is: “Oh, are you a film student?” or “What kind of projects you do? Short videos?” I love to see eyes open wide when I answer, “No, I just finished a 90 minute documentary, shot in 8 countries.” But more often than not, the looks of skepticism persist.

I believe that ultimately, in order to have a change in consciousness, we need to have more visible examples of female filmmakers. As Marian Wright Edelman famously said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” We need to see female directors, we need to watch their movies, and importantly, we need to talk about them. At least, that’s what I strive to do.

So back to my game: I make it a point to keep up to date with the work of female directors. The other day, I decided to do a Google search, in order to get inspired about new female talent. Instead of searching for “female film director” though, I simply typed “film director” and clicked on Google Images to see who would come up. I fully expected to see at the top people like Ava DuVernay, Sofia Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow, the first (and only) filmmaker to have won an Academy Award for Best Director. Well, the results made my jaw drop. I even said out loud, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” Here’s what I found, summarized in a tweet:

Yes, the first “female” director to appear in my search results was “Barbie Film Director.”

The first real woman to appear following Barbie was Sofia Coppola, but her picture was buried deep below in the results, after a sea of men, and even well after illustrations and stock photos of pretend male directors.

Why is this troublesome? Chief reason: Google shapes the way we see the world. Every single day, its search engine is used billions of times by people all over the world and it’s regarded as a reference and authority for any given topic. The formula for Google’s algorithm may be secretive and constantly evolving, and Google is not directly responsible for the rankings of photos that show up in the search for “film director.” But what this means is: not that many prominent sources are covering or cross-linking stories about female filmmakers. Or maybe now they are doing so more and more, but given the history of the Internet, stories about male directors seem to have dominated — and still dominate — the web. Ultimately, this is reflected in Google Image results for “film director.”

I decided to dig a little deeper today. I logged out of my Google account, cleared cookies, selected the .com search engine and ran another query for “film director” to see again which results would show up in Google Images.

More shocking surprises ensued.

Google search film director

To summarize:

  • To see 10 female filmmakers, I had to go through 155 photos.
  • The first female film director to show up was Sofia Coppola (39th picture from the top). A step up from last Friday (“Barbie Film Director”) but still, she was number 39, after at least 13 stock photos of pretend directors and a few unknown male filmmakers.
  • I couldn’t recognize the second woman in the results (picture #51 from the top) but maybe you can help (link here).
  • The third result was Haifaa Al Mansour, the first Saudi film director, in an article from CNN. 55th picture from the top.




female-film director Google results elena rossini

Hello, it’s me! Did NOT see this coming.

  • … it was followed by Angelina Jolie (pic no. 98).
  • To see the 8th female film director, I had to go through 108 pictures; it was Dorothy Arzner (1900–1979), from this post.
  • Number 9 was a black and white stock photo of an attractive young woman holding a clapper (no. 151 from the top). Interestingly, I don’t know a single director who is in charge of the clapper, but that’s a whole other story.
  • The 10th female film director was Margarethe Von Trotta, a German New Wave film director. On the upside, I had never heard of her before, so now I have a new name for my female film director list.

A pretty sad picture to look at, overall. What can be done to improve the current situation? Exasperation and bitterness may be natural knee-jerk reactions, but they aren’t very constructive.

As an audience, if we want to support the careers of female directors, we have to go see their movies… and talk about them with the people around us.

In my personal life, I have shared the background of the female director naming game with my boyfriend. We’ve had a long conversation about it and now, from time to time, out of the blue I go, “name 10 female directors.” I’m pleased to report he does better than Idris Elba… And he isn’t even in the film business.

I know what else I have to do. Keep doing my work, keep releasing projects and talking about them online. Keep showing up. Because it’s my responsibility too, to promote my work and make myself visible.

And finally, here are 10 names (and faces) to remember, culled from my list of female filmmakers. Their work is brilliant and thought-provoking. Pick any of their films, watch them with friends, and discuss them. If you want to dig deeper, The Director List and Women Occupy Hollywood are incredible resources.

Let’s make female filmmakers more visible.

female film directors

image sources: IMDb

From left to right:
Agnès VardaAva DuVernayMaiwennAlina MarazziJane Campion

female film directors

image sources: IMDb

Mira NairAmma AsanteLaura PoitrasSamira MakhmalbafSofia Coppola

Bonus point: you also know my name.


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