Una Mullally: ‘Mad Max’ breaks the mould of action film sexism

Why are women continuously absent in Irish films?

‘I almost felt myself sinking lower in my cinema seat, as the dystopian-bikini-clad model-actresses billowed in the wind.’ Above, Charlize Theron in ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’.

‘I almost felt myself sinking lower in my cinema seat, as the dystopian-bikini-clad model-actresses billowed in the wind.’ Above, Charlize Theron in ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’.

 

There are two scenes in George Miller’s new film Mad Max: Fury Road on which everything hangs. The first is when Max (Tom Hardy, née Mel Gibson) makes it to the truck that Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) and her band of sisters, all impossibly beautiful, have hijacked in the middle of a desert landscape. “Oh no,” you think. I almost felt myself sinking lower in my cinema seat, as the dystopian, bikini-clad model-actresses billowed in the wind. “This is the part where I’m let down by an action film because I’m a woman. Again.” But the almost teetering objectification never occurs. There are no jiggling Fast and the Furious butts, or distressed damsels bearing the brunt of James Bond’s misogyny. A while later, as Max struggles with a long-range shot, and aware there is just one bullet left, he hands the gun to Furiosa. Using his shoulder as a rest, she takes out the bad guy.

Mad Max: Fury Road is getting an incredible amount of praise for breaking the mould of inevitable action-film sexism that is so ubiquitous we rarely even flag it any more, which goes to show how rotten, clichéd and insulting so much of blockbuster cinema is. By just having women as equals in a film, Miller has become a veritable steampunk, gun-toting Pankhurst (as it happens, Suffragette, starring Meryl Streep, is out in October).

Why is it so? Why should we expect big, bombastic, popular films to be knuckle-dragging when it comes to depicting women? The shockwaves films cause when they do things a little differently speak loudly about the absence not just of positive or heroic or interesting depictions of women in cinema, but of depictions of women at all.

Take Frozen, the highest-grossing animated film, and third-highest-grossing film of all time. Frozen is a perfectly fine film, but it’s no Lion King or Up or Finding Nemo. Compared to the pedigree of animation we’re now used to seeing conjured up by Pixar and Disney, it’s positively lo-fi. Sure, it has a good tune in Let It Go, but even that’s no Circle of Life.

What Frozen had going for it was two female leads, something groundbreaking in film, even when they’re just cartoons. Disney had a massive awakening. Wait a minute! Young girls watch films! Let’s start making adventurous films with young girls in them! Duh. Its success is almost depressing when you realise how starved young girls are of such depictions.

Irish films and women

Why are women continuously absent in Irish films? Well, by and large, who’s making the films? Last year, the Irish Film Board (IFB) gave development funding to 127 projects

and, of those which had directors attached, 14 had female directors and 58 had male directors. Out of those 127 projects, 116 had male writers and 32 had female writers. In other words, 76 per cent of projects given development funding last year had male directors, and 91 per cent of the writers were male, while just 18 per cent of funded projects with directors had female directors and 25 per cent of funded projects had female writers.

Figures for the previous year weren’t any more inspiring. In 2013, 83 per cent of funded projects with directors had male directors, and 90 per cent had male writers; 18.5 per cent had female directors, and 24 per cent had female writers.

Funding figures are published by the IFB on its website. These would be projects that might never see the light of day, or might end up becoming hits later on. This is the point where embryonic projects first get a sort of development seed money from the IFB.

Now, when you examine the funding over a few years, you’ll notice names repeated as people work across multiple projects. What those multitaskers show is that women’s involvement in Irish film is even less diverse than those figures would indicate, as some of the percentages of funding are going to the same people for multiple projects.

Now I know George Miller is a guy, and therefore you clearly can end up with a feminist film when a man makes it (because women in an action film is automatically “feminist” now). But what I also know is that if you want to get diverse depictions of women in Irish cinema – hell, if you want to get depictions of women in Irish cinema – you need to start helping women make films.

Leverage and mentoring

Enterprise Ireland knows this, that’s why it set up the Competitive Feasibility Fund for Female Entrepreneurs, noting the challenges faced by female entrepreneurs because of their gender. And if female film-makers aren’t applying for funding, then why not? Let’s see how women can be mentored to that stage.

In literature, our female writers are some of the most popular in the world. Where are they in the film world? There are some exciting film board-funded projects coming up in the next 12 months, but let’s not be asking this same question then. Like Miller did so successfully, it’s time to focus on the Furiosas.

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