The Magpie Anthology

Women vs Hollywood: The Fall and Rise of Women in Film

With the BAFTAs just behind us and the Oscars just ahead, there couldn’t be a more apposite time for this book Women vs Hollywood by Helen O’Hara. Hattie Metcalfe explains why…

In a year where trips to the cinema have been rare and savoured, the uncertainty of when we’ll be in the red seats again looming over every visit, Helen O’ Hara’s Women vs. Hollywood is an important taste of what life has been like behind the screen for women in the industry.

Taking us from the silent film industry all the way up to the present day, Women vs. Hollywood’s timeline structure makes a narrative that’s easy to read and digest. Some might feel the number of statics are overwhelming, but they actually reinforce the significance and size of the problem. And by focusing on secular stories from women at the time (such as Alice Guy), you come away from each chapter feeling a deeper understanding of that time. This also makes for surprising revelations; despite studying film at A-Level (a syllabus that I now realise more than ever was severely lacking women), I never knew that women were often the heads of film studios when Hollywood was just beginning. It was only when the industry appealed more to men that women began to get the boot.

As soon as the technology existed, women used it to make films. They directed and produced and headed their own studios before they even won the vote [p1]

And reading it in 2021 feels incredibly meaningful, with record numbers of women having been nominated for ‘best directing’ awards at the Oscars and BAFTAs. Chloé Zhao for Nomadland and Emerald Fennell for Promising Young Women at the Oscars, whilst BAFTA quadrupled the ‘normal’ best director by nominating Zhao, Sarah Gavron for Rocks, Shannon Murphy for Babyteeth and Jasmila Žbanić for Quo Vadis, Aida? This by no means implies the industry bias against women is ‘fixed’. After all, only one woman has ever actually won ‘best director’ at the Oscars and that was back in 2010. 

Seeing just how far women have come in the industry through Women vs. Hollywood and the battles that are still being fought today means that these nominations feel, and are, especially important.

This is also a dangerous time, because it’s tempting to think that the hard work is done and that change will now continue uninterrupted – and history shows that’s not the case. [p295]

O’Hara’s book is not the guidebook on solving the issue of gender equality in the film industry. But by focusing on the severity of the problem, and bringing stories you probably haven’t heard before to light, the Women vs. Hollywood is a rallying cry for change. It’s optimistic tone points to an improved standard of gender equality in film. If someone tells you that maybe ‘women just aren’t good enough directors’ (yes, I’ve been told this before), this is the book you give them. It shows women have always been in Hollywood; and they’ve done their jobs damn well, despite what male counterparts might say. An all-female list of nominations for best director? Well, men have done it enough times…

You can buy Women vs Hollywood HERE

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