I felt like I was gonna make this female action picture and we were going to kick through the glass ceiling and that was going to be that. We all know how naive I was.
– Rachel Talalay, director of Tank Girl (1995)
Women-made cinema is often pulled together and compared as if it is a genre – distinctive because of its creator’s gender identity rather than its content. Women directors should not just be the subject of special screenings and seasons to highlight their place in an industry that is still dominated by men. The range of films produced by women across nations, genres, and styles should make a pigeonholing by gender farcical, but curated programmes and festivals celebrating women directors are often the only way that these films are made available for public viewing. As the blurb for one of the earliest women’s film festivals, ‘The Women’s Event’ at Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF) in 1972, remarks: “A festival of men’s films would be simply absurd. It’s because so few women have been able to make films that this festival exists.” This is a depressing explanation that is still enragingly relevant to today’s industry.
I am a science fiction (SF) scholar with a specific interest in the representation of women scientists, and religion and science on screen. But I am often restricted to male-written and male-directed texts for my teaching and research despite my gender-specific specialism. Alarmingly, my forthcoming chapter analysing Alice Lowe’s Prevenge (2016) as medical horror will be my first publication to feature a woman-directed movie. There are comparatively few women-directed SF films, and it has taken me far longer than it should have to build up a list that is even close to comprehensive (see end of post for current list).
In 2019 I taught a course at Manchester’s independent arts venue HOME on Women in Science Fiction. I discovered how challenging it was to locate and get the rights to screen SF movies directed by women. For example, we were denied rights to screen Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995), one of the most accessible and recognised SF films that is known to be directed by a woman. As part of the course I collated a list of women-directed SF with the support of respondents on social media and students in my classes. I produced a list of twenty movies with some entries pushing at the edges of a definition of SF (too much fantasy content – I now concede that Wonder Woman is not really SF).
I have since been adding to the list, finding some more interesting and sometimes obscure examples. With the earliest ones (that I have so far found) dating back to the mid-1980s with light SF comedies like Martha Coolidge’s Real Genius (1985) and Making Mr. Right (1987) directed Susan Seidelman, which was Seidelman’s follow up to Desperately Seeking Susan (1985). Coolidge and Seidelman were two of the few women working as mainstream Hollywood directors in the 1980s, and interestingly both took on SF projects. As of May 2020, I have a list of just over thirty women-directed SF films, which feels great until you compare it to the entire history of (mostly white male) SF filmmaking.
In 2018 women accounted for only 8% of directors, 16% of writers, and 26% of producers working on the top 250 films released that year in Hollywood. A 2017-18 study of US prime-time television showed that women constitute 17% of directors, 25% of writers, and 40% of producers.
There was a whole vocabulary [in the 2000s] of ‘We don’t like working with women directors’, ‘Our show isn’t for you,’ ‘We had a woman director and she didn’t work out’ – it was just completely accepted like smoking on aeroplanes.
Although the statistics suggest that women are better represented in television production, they are still a long way off achieving parity. Filmmakers like Rachel Talalay, who directed the techno-nightmare Ghost in the Machine (1993) and the silly but subversive cult film Tank Girl (1995), may not have become a major movie director of SF, but she has established herself as a prolific TV director. Talalay is credited as a director on major shows like Doctor Who, Haven, and shows across the Arrowverse. On average there is one woman director to every twenty-two men (the majority of which are white men).
Claire Denis’ High Life (2018) is the arthouse director‘s English-language debut and also her first SF film. It may be set in space and lean upon SF tropes concerning the meaning of being human and the futures of fertility, but is still undeniably a Denis film. Its focus on nature, orgasms, sexual politics, and (lack of) bodily autonomy mark it as part her existing cinematic oeuvre. Visually it harks back to male-directed canonical SF with the functional sterility of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and the dingy battered future and unknowable other imagined in Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972). But the science, the madness, and the motivation in High Life predominately emanates from a woman.
Dr Dibs (Juliette Binoche) oversees the crew of death row inmates on a mission to investigate possibilities for harnessing the power of black holes. Having broken the social contracts of Earth – their individual crimes are not that important – the inmate-astronauts have lost their freedom, rights to privacy, and even bodily autonomy. Dibs uses inmates as test subjects in experiments concerning fertility including forced insemination and non-consensual sperm donation. Although she seems to hold power, Dibs is also a prisoner on a ship that she knows is only on a one-way mission.
Denis’ foray into SF films may signal a shift in who gets to direct SF, even though it is a far cry from the superhero franchise fare that is currently being opened up to women directors including women of colour. The release of High Life also encouraged some cinema programmers to show other SF films directed by women, including screenings of Lizzie Borden’s 1983 revolutionary-feminist docu-drama Born in Flames and Ngozi Onwurah’s British micro-budget indie Welcome II the Terrordome (1993). Both imagine near futures for black women that are still shockingly relevant. Born in Flames imagines an alternate USA that has been liberated in a peaceful socialist revolution. However, women are still subjected to structural injustices and the film imagines an intersectional space of women united in/by activism. Similarly Onwurah’s Welcome II the Terrordome engages with intersectionality, as she remarks: “I’m interested in the relationship between black women and white women because I think for me it’s the crux of intersectionality and it’s a very complicated space.”* Onwurah’s dystopian British slumworld has been shaped by structural inequalities that pit races against each other under the watch of corrupt law enforcement. The film was poorly reviewed on its initial release by predominantly white male critics that saw it as “militant black grandstanding” from an angry black woman. If nothing else, the unusual choice by Claire Denis to direct an SF film offered opportunities for promoting women SF filmmakers and for audiences to access some films that have been commercially unavailable and overshadowed by the man-made mainstream.
We will perhaps (I desperately hope) see a flourish of women directed SF following in the wake of the success of women-directed genre films like Wonder Woman (still not SF), High Life as an ‘art’ genre film, and both Marvel and DC’s decision to include women directors and women-led movies in their extended movie universes. Following the success of Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman and Anna Boden’s co-direction and co-write of Captain Marvel with Ryan Fleck, both franchises have at least two films slated or due to be released directed by women including Chloé Zhao’s Eternals (2021, Marvel) and Ava DuVernay’s recently announced The New Gods (TBA, DC). Several of these SF films are also notably written by women: High Life was co-written by Claire Denis (with early draft work from Zadie Smith), DuVernay is co-writing The New Gods, and Captain Marvel‘s screenplay was co-written by Geneva Robertson-Dworet (story and screenplay) alongside Boden and Fleck (Nicole Perlman and Meg LeFauve are also credited as contributing to the story).
Studios credited male audiences for the success of male-directed hits, assuming that the women in the cinema had simply been dragged in by their dates. With their opinions calcified, producers wouldn’t even give female filmmakers – and female films – a shot.
In a 2015 Female Filmmakers Initiative study supported by Women in Film and the Sundance Institute, it was found that those making industry decisions about who gets to direct big budget movies ‘questioned the degree of interest women have in the directing position generally and genre-based jobs’. Women filmmakers not only have to work hard in a competitive field, but they are also forced to challenge the stereotypes and misinformation that suggest that women lack ambition, such as ‘women aren’t interested in genre films’ and that ‘there aren’t many women directors’ to choose from.
I want to challenge the way we think about women filmmakers and the SF genre that is so often seen as a male space both in terms of creation and reception. According to Cathy Schulman, President of Women In Film Los Angeles, women filmmakers “face deep-rooted presumptions from the film industry about their creative qualifications, sensibilities, tendencies and ambitions”. Films directed by women are perceived as movies intended for small niche audiences, while films directed by men are considered to automatically reach broader and thus financially lucrative parts of the film market.
We need to move away from thinking of women-directed genre films (and specifically science fiction for my work) in terms of gender categorisation and recognise them as a valuable and necessary part of film history and future of the industry.
*Quote from: In Conversation: Director Ngozi Onwurah, HOME Podcast, Friday 8 Feb 2019. https://homemcr.org/media/in-conversation-director-ngozi-onwurah/
Over the next year I am going to (re)watch and write about (hopefully) every film on my women-directed SF list. I am sure I will struggle to find some of them – but I will do my best. I am looking forward to immersing myself in science fictional worlds made and imagined by women. I will tweet about what I am watching using the #WomenMakeSF hashtag so that other people can join in. An updated list will be maintained and can be accessed from the Women Make SF tab on my Homepage.
Please either comment on this post, tweet at me, (using #WomenMakeSF), or send me a message if you know of any more science fiction films (short or feature; old, new, or forthcoming) directed by women. Non-English language film examples are extremely welcome.
SF feature films DIRECTED BY WOMEN
Advantageous (Jennifer Phang, 2015, USA)
Altered Perception (Kate Rees Davies, 2017, USA)
Æon Flux (Karyn Kusama, 2005, USA)
Aniara (Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja, 2019, Sweden)
Born in Flames (Lizzie Borden, 1983, USA)
The Bad Batch (Ana Lily Amirpour, 2016, USA)
Captain Marvel (Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, 2019, USA)
Cloud Atlas (Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski, Tom Twyker, 2012, USA)
Conceiving Ada (Lynn Hershman-Leeson, 1999, USA)
The Darkest Minds (Jennifer Yuh Nelson, 2018, USA)
Deep Impact (Mimi Leder, 1998, USA).
Évolution (Lucile Hadžihalilović, 2015, France)
Ghost in the Machine (Rachel Talalay, 1993, USA)
High Life (Clair Denis, 2018, France)
Honeymoon (Leigh Janiak, 2015, USA)
Into the Forest (Patricia Rozema, 2015, Canada)
Jupiter Ascending (Lana Wachowski and Lily Wachowski, 2015, USA)
Little Joe (Jessica Hausner, 2019, UK)
Lords of the Deep (Mary Ann Fisher, 1989, USA)
Making Mr Right (Susan Seidelman, 1987, USA)
Paradise Hills (Alice Waddington, 2019, USA)
The Quiet Hour (Stéphanie Joalland, 2014, UK)
Rabid (Jen and Sylvia Soska, 2019, Canada)
Real Genius (Martha Coolidge, 1985, USA)
The Sticky Fingers of Time (Hilary Brougher, 1997, USA)
Strange Days (Kathryn Bigelow, 1995, USA)
Stranded (Luna/María Lidón, 2001, Spain)
Tank Girl (Rachel Talalay, 1995, USA/UK)
Teknolust (Lynn Hershman-Leeson, 2002, USA)
Testament (Lynne Littman, 1983, USA)
Vanishing Waves (Kristina Buožytė, 2012, Lithuania)
Welcome II the Terrordome (Ngozi Onwurah, 1993, UK)
Wolf’s Cabin/Vlčí Bouda (Věra Chytilová, 1987, Czechoslovakia)
Forthcoming SF feature films DIRECTED BY WOMEN:
Eternals (Chloé Zhao, 2021, USA)
The Matrix 4 (Lana Wachowski, 2021, USA)
The New Gods (Ava DuVernay, TBA, USA)
Reminiscence (Lisa Joy, 2020, USA)
SF short films DIRECTED BY WOMEN:
Afronauts (Nuotama Bodomo, 2014, USA)
Elf (Amy Van Houten, 2015, South Africa)
Pumzi (Wanuri Kahiu, 2009, South Africa/Kenya)
Virtually Impossible (Kate Rees Davies, 2010, USA)
X-Gen (Kate Rees Davies, 2018, USA)
Films that are too fantasy but DIRECTED BY WOMEN:
Big (Penny Marshall, 1988, USA)
Orlando (Sally Potter, 1992, UK)
Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins, 2017, USA)
A Wrinkle in Time (Ava DuVernay, 2018, USA)
I’m angry that I’m eating at the table, and I finally got to the table and it’s crap. I am very upset with a lot of the pioneers in this business because they ran it like a frat house and now, we’re just sitting here trying to clean it up.
– Jen Soska, co-director of the 2019 remake of Cronenberg’s body bio-horror Rabid
Further viewing: #WomenMakeFilm
On 18th May, Mark Cousin’s newest film odyssey project Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema is being released on DVD/BluRay and on BFI Player. It’s a potentially fascinating 14-hour project that exclusively uses films directed by women (almost a thousand clips) to tell the history of cinema. It is a version of this history as seen through the lens of filmmaking’s hidden figures: the women of international film history. It will include a section on ‘science fiction’ so I am hoping that Mark Cousin and the project research team will have some more examples for me there!
Birds’ Eye View, a London-based charity that promotes women-made films, will launch an extension of its #ReclaimTheFrame campaign, that focusses on the need to #ReclaimTheCanon. They will be hosting weekly home “viewing parties” for each section of Cousin’s documentary, with Facebook Live responses from women filmmakers and debates afterwards. Prof. Laura Mulvey is onboard as a contributor and is delighted that the work she started with the EIFF ‘Women’s Event’ is being carried on with previously unknown woman filmmakers being given a platform and a broad audience.
With this new compilation, an exciting staging post has been reached in the long process of recovery. [It] has the potential to bring women directors out of gender categorisation and into film history as such. But it also offers an unprecedented opportunity to enjoy women’s cinematic vision and reflect on the way women have seen and indeed made the world through film – a source of wonder and of speculation!
– Prof. Laura Mulvey