Why Jo Koy’s Barbie joke didn’t land: the long-standing struggles of female directors in Hollywood

The Golden Globes, which took place earlier this month, featured a monologue from host Jo Koy in which his so called ‘joke’ about The Barbie Movie stood out for all the wrong reasons. He said, ‘Oppenheimer is based on a 721- page Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the Manhattan Project, and Barbie is on a plastic doll with big boobies.’ This comment has been particularly criticised on social media and TikTok, with many people annoyed that this small remark completely missed the point of The Barbie Movie. However, it also trivialised and snubbed the work of one of the few well-known female directors in Hollywood, Greta Gerwig. Despite more recent improvements in the recognition of female directors, this comment highlights that female directors still have much to achieve. However, the early filmmaking industry was arguably not as hostile towards female directors as it is today. 

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, women were often very influential in the direction and production of silent film making.  Alice Guy-Blanché, a Frenchwoman born in 1873, was the first female director and first ever director of a narrative fiction film.  She created around 600 short films in her lifetime and set up her own production company. Many women also moved to Los Angeles in the early twentieth century, inspired by the opportunities the newly developing motion picture industry offered to them – it has been estimated that half of all films released in the silent film era were written by women.  Before the mid to late 1920s, the industry was not considered to be ‘glamorous’ and thus budgets were low; around $500 per project. In these early days, women were well represented, holding considerable power in the direction and production of films. In 1915, the Motion Picture Supplement published an article headlined “Women’s conquest in filmdom”, which said: ‘the fair sex is represented as in no other calling.’ 

However, the industry began to develop more quickly in the 1920s: filmmaking became considerably more profitable with the introduction of the ‘talkies’. As a result, those smaller, independent film companies – often run by women- were shut down. Talking films were not judged as art forms in the same way that silent films had been, and were thus considered businesses, and the making of films developed into a structured production line from which women were prohibited from taking leading roles, such as director, screenwriter and producer.  Antonia Lant, a professor in the department of cinema studies at New York University has observed that ‘By the 1930s [it had been forgotten] that women had even held the posts of director and producer.’ The transformation of cinema in the early twentieth century from a perceived art form into a profitable business is arguably the reason as to the diminishing number of female directors throughout the rest of the century as women were discouraged from active roles.

Female directors who managed to break through in the second half of the twentieth century often faced issues with finances; securing funding for only one film and thus being prohibited from building a body of work. They also faced problems of sexism within the industry as well as maternity issues. Additionally, the lack of female directing role models has potentially discouraged women from choosing it as a viable career option. The additional factors of fame and money in the industry multiply such issues which are of course common across many industries. 

Even where female directors have succeeded, their efforts have not been well celebrated. The 96th Oscars are approaching: over the almost 100 years that the awards have been running, only three female directors have won in the Best Director category and only seven have ever been nominated. Moreover, it takes only a google of the ‘best directors of all time’ to highlight how female directors are non-existent in the halls of fame. This list by ScreenCraft of the ‘The 20 Best Directors of All Time’ features no women, as does this list of the ‘Top 25 Greatest Directors of All Time‘ on IMDb, and this one: the ‘55 Best Movie Directors of All Time and Their Greatest Films’ features a total of three women.

This is arguably because there have not been as many female directors as male directors, demonstrating how difficult it has been for female directors to break through into the ranks of celebrated directors. Despite the improvement in recent years of the inclusion of female directors in the Oscars and Golden Globes, Koy’s comment demonstrates that the industry has much further to progress. That he felt entitled to make such a comment, reducing Barbie to her ‘boobies’ whilst casting Oppenheimer as the intellectually superior film is perhaps conducive as to why it has been so difficult for female directors to make their mark on the industry in the first place.



Image: Kosti Lehtinen on Wikimedia Commons 

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