Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: 'Hollywood still remains a sexualised and sexist ecosystem'

Gurinder Chadha and Kathryn Bigelow are the lucky ones. Most female film directors still never get a shot at the big time

Iwould gladly wring her long neck, but that would be to punish idiocy. Sigourney Weaver reckons that James Cameron didn't get his richly deserved Oscar for Avatar because he doesn't have breasts. Obvious innit? It's boob discrimination, the only explanation for why this year, unlike every other since 1929, a man had to concede the big prize to his female better and piquantly, his ex-wife. Maybe Aliens shrivelled Weaver's brain. The spoiler really doesn't get it. Or maybe she still feels she has to flatter men to get coveted roles. Shame.

Our feminist hearts soared like blithe starlings when the awesome Kathryn Bigelow went up to collect her Oscars for The Hurt Locker. Lay aside the silly burble about her frock and hair and the interminable speculation about her divorce. She scaled the most treacherous mountains and made history. What's more, the winning movie, like her other work, is tough and uncompromisingly male. She is a woman making it in a man's world, hacking down assumptions every inch of the way. Her win mattered, but as the euphoria subsides, so too the optimism that cinema has entered a new era of gender equality.

Female film-makers carry on fighting for parity. Professor Martha Lauzen of San Diego State University found in 1998 that only 9% of directors in Hollywood were female. In 2008 the figure was unchanged. Why should that matter? Because it does and because as Jane Campion, who made The Piano and Bright Star, said in Cannes last year: "We represent half the population and give birth to the whole world. Without [female directors] the world is not getting to know the whole story. They must put on their coats of armour and get going." Men are not born to rule. They just believe they are. The unshakeable order is, to them, an evolutionary imperative or the result of intelligent design.

Hollywood, aromatic with the scent of gorgeous and available young women still remains a sexualised and sexist ecosystem. Hierarchies and fear silence complaints, but evidence of animal behaviour leaks out from time to time. Last year a studio Big Beast said to an agent of a (not nubile, but talented) female director he was persuaded to interview: "Never again send me anyone I wouldn't want to fuck".

But what of Britain? Note the significant victory in a related field – smart, witty Claudia Winkleman is to replace Jonathan Ross on the BBC's Film 2010. Hurray! Macho punters are furious, which is even more pleasing. Beeban Kidron, who in the 80s shot to fame with Oranges are Not the Only Fruit has gone on to the internationally popular Bridget Jones: the Edge of Reason. Phyllida Lloyd got the world singing and dancing with the film version of Mamma Mia!, the biggest-grossing British film of all time; Sam Taylor-Wood appeared on the scene and blew away sceptics with Nowhere Boy (and bagged the star, until now a perk for male directors); and Gurinder Chadha, whose new film It's a Wonderful Afterlife is released this week, is another director with huge box-office appeal. The successful films also changed the absurd presumption that audiences were largely made up of young men with disposable incomes. It still hasn't made the going any easier.

Award-winning Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar) was going to and then didn't direct The Lovely Bones, based on the bestselling novel by Alice Sebold. Peter Jackson got the job and made a tepid, some say, vapid movie. Ramsay's work-in-progress is a film version of Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin. In 2007, a list of all the British female directors we have ever had amounted to 12, that is a dozen. They include the names above, the pioneer Jill Craigie, who made her first film in 1948, Antonia Bird and Andrea Arnold – more on her anon.

Chadha has now got herself to a position where she can virtually make any movie she fancies. Thankfully though, she has not succumbed to the myth that her own triumphs have seen off sexism for others. Counterintuitively, her eyes are now more wide open: "It's very hard to make films for everybody. But undeniably the industry is run by men. They respect box office and awards. If a woman makes money, that gives us power. But too few of us get there. I now think there is such a thing as female aesthetic and understanding. The way we look at the world, what we find funny, moving, touching is different. My female characters are always three dimensional. We multitask – incredibly important for directors. Of course some men can do that too, but there is a difference." I heard these same views from other interviewees.

Bird has made several unforgettable, gritty films, among them Priest (1994) about a gay Catholic priest and a paedophile confessor and The Hamburg Cell (2004), a docudrama about the 9/11 terrorists. By now her work should have become a resounding brand as evocative as that of Mike Leigh or Ken Loach. Not yet it seems. If ever.

Talking to the journalist Kate Kellaway in 2007, Bird cut to the chase: "We are still living in a very sexist society ... there are so few of us for the same reason there are so few women in parliament and the City of London. [The guys] want to keep power for themselves. The business side of directing – raising money – is hindered by being female." Never discount that reason for why white men still control the economy, public life, the entertainment business and all that matters. Give it time, they always say. Or it's too challenging, too tough. (What, more than shooting down the enemy or going to the moon?) Or women (and black and Asian people too) need training on how to enter these professions, rise to the top. Fudge, fudge and duplicity.

Three years on, I ask Bird if it is getting easier. "No, I really wish it was. What exactly is causing the logjam? The problem goes in so many different directions. For women it is still hard to get an idea through. Those who have broken through are tough, have strong personalities and feelings – in a good way. Women with these qualities are seen differently by men." Bird confesses she has learnt to hold back her real self and tame her high passion – "passion is not attractive" – after being described in the industry as a "female Mike Tyson". Both Bird and Chadha think – though they still have to fight sexism – that women have more of a chance in Hollywood than they do in the UK.

When access and success are so long denied, it must follow that women still don't quite know how to play the game. Some, for sure, must come across as desperate, others timid. Selling oneself doesn't come easy to my gender. When taking proposals to studios and backers, many a talented woman finds it impossible to sound off in that blokey way. Nice girls don't pitch. As a result, the bosses, maybe unconsciously, reject the director and her ideas more readily.

The young seem to believe that all you need is spunk. Blogs are full of upbeat youth-views: "I truly think that things are a-changin'. It's about attitude. There's a whole new generation of strong women out there who have grown up knowing and demanding their rights" or "...if an individual wants to make it in pictures, then make it." Vicky Jewson, the young director who made Lady Godiva, sincerely believes that: "When you are raising finance you get more success with the men because you can appeal to them with female charm." Is she savvy or naïve? We shall see.

Women now make up 34 per cent of those admitted to British film schools and academies. So I found two of them – one who finished in 2008 and another who is mid-course. They were both smart and personable, wore short skirts and haircuts. You meet them and think, yes they can, this generation will do what Campion called out for. Only, five minutes into the spritzers, I realised that they were really scared of doing anything that could stop them going places. Don't use our name, don't describe what we look like, or where we met. "A" said: "It is whimsical, the business. The people have your life in their hands. I would never sleep with them and have never been pressured, but they tell you all the time that they can make or break you." "B" did unpaid work experience with a director who said that young women film-makers were "like here today, gone tomorrow, hopefully. Where are the great women painters? Where are the composers? They can't hack it. You'll go off and have babies before you have learnt the graft."

Ah, women and babies, can't pull them apart, not even when it comes to metaphors. Bigelow describes her films as her babies, babies she nurtures like a mother. The great Kurosawa thought directing was like leading an army. There's the difference – and it might explain why so many female directors nurture new talent. Chadha brought on Parminder Nagra, Aaron Johnson and in her new film gives Goldy Notay her big moment. Bird mentors young people and fought to use Arab actors for The Hamburg Cell.

There is the real business of making and rearing children, too. All the directors I talked to agreed that the demands of the job make it hellishly difficult for mums. Men never feel the same guilt or pressures. Kidron has admitted motherhood made her change her priorities. The two young women above said they would not have children because that would sap their creativity. Bird told me wistfully: "I have never managed to have time to have children. The job is 18 hours a day, it would have been impossibly difficult." Chadha does have young twins and a wonderfully supportive husband who is the primary carer. That has only made her more aware of the cost of motherhood for her peers.

Maybe this complicated inner life draws women directors to sensitive and quirky art films – rather than blockbusters. Chadha and other established directors admire that alternative choice. Oscar- winning Andrea Arnold is the queen of the brave and pioneering. In 2009 her film Fish Tank won prestigious awards at Cannes and in Britain. But this year there are barely any female names among the Cannes nominations. Success, even when it comes, is fleeting – here today and gone tomorrow, hopefully, as the tutor said to his ardent trainee.

'Breaking In: How 20 Film Directors Got Their Start', by Nicholas Jarecki (Random House)

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor