Dismantling the myth of the ‘male genius’ in filmmaking

How an army of female auteurs are shaping contemporary cinema


Spielberg, Scorsese, Fincher, Tarantino. Nolan, Linklater, del Toro. Villeneuve. Cameron. Aronofsky.

Are you sensing a pattern?

These are the results you get when you type into Google: ‘top current film directors’. And as is the case with all storytellers, these pioneers of cinema tend to draw on their own experiences when choosing which projects to bring to the screen. The result is that many of the protagonists in their stories happen to be straight, white and male.

The industry holds these men up in high acclaim with good reason; they are a talented bunch, and they deserve the freedom to express their visions with all the funding and studio support they can garner. They will undoubtably continue to receive this support, not just because they are great at what they do but also because over the past century of cinema, the traditional archetype of the white male hero has been normalised to audiences. This is what we are used to seeing on screen and will continue to pay money to see. Studios like money, hate risk, and so the cycle continues.

But despite what Google tells us, a slow shift has been occurring throughout the last decade of film; a move towards a more rounded picture of what it means to be a human being in the stories we’re shown. There is more diversity on screen than ever, more chances being taken on women-led features (and the way they are marketed to audiences), and a focus on what’s going on behind the camera as well as in front of it.

Things are improving. But we still have a long way to go.

Let’s take a sample year at random – 2010 – in which, out of the top-grossing 250 films, women accounted for just 7% of directors and 10% of writers. And although we have seen a greater push for diversity and inclusion in the decade since, in 2019 women still only made up 13% of directors and 19% of writers (of the top-grossing 250 films). And for women from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups, the figure falls drastically – a study by USC Annenberg found that over the period 2007-2019, less than 1% of all directors were women of colour.

We cannot underestimate the power of cinema in shaping our core beliefs, as a society and as individuals. This is why it is imperative that all voices are represented in front of, and behind the camera, otherwise we will continue to accept the white, hetero male experience as the default. By championing the work of the amazing women working in film today, we are taking a step towards an industry in which the female filmmaker is given the same freedom, financing and opportunities as her male peer. For so long the myth of the ‘male genius’ has dominated how we view the art of filmmaking (probably helped by the fact that roughly 70% of film critics are men). Let’s not forget that in 93 years of Academy Awards, only one Best Director trophy has ever been handed to a woman.

Here is just a small selection of the fierce and innovative women shaping contemporary cinema, and details of the films they have made which have lit up the screen over the last decade:

Julia Ducournau

With her debut feature Raw in 2016, Ducournau breathed new life into a subgenre that has been historically male-dominated: body horror. A massive ‘fuck you’ to the idea that female-directed films must be frilly and soft-lit, Raw is a bold and squirm-inducing punch in the gut that caused audience members to faint when it was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Raw is available to purchase on iTunes, Google Play and Prime Video

Mira Nair

With her production company Mirabai Films, Nair has made a number of highly acclaimed documentaries and feature films exploring the underbelly of cultural traditions in Indian society. Through her work she reveals the complexities and often misrepresented stories burning beneath the surface of marginalised characters, probing deep into themes of identity and humanity.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is available on Prime Video

Dee Rees

Rees burst onto the scene with her debut film Pariah in 2011, a semi-autobiographical coming-out story which took Rees five years to fund and complete. Her work comes from a place of honesty and true self-expression, a formula which brought her critical acclaim and an Oscar nomination in 2017 for her next project, historical drama Mudbound.

Mudbound is on Netflix

Lynne Ramsay

Ramsay has cemented her status as one of the most exciting directors working in the industry over the last decade (someone tell Google), starting with 2011’s We Need to Talk About Kevin and leading us, strikingly, to 2017’s You Were Never Really Here. She is drawn to complex character studies but approaches them with a stylistic sparsity that hits you like a gust of fresh, Scottish air.

You Were Never Really Here is on Netflix and Prime Video – read our full review here

Lulu Wang

Last year saw the release of Wang’s The Farewell, a tightly written, emotionally resonant family drama with a uniquely Chinese-American sense of humour which was named by the AFI as one of the top 10 films of the year. Wang has quickly established herself as an emerging talent and her next project, a sci-fi adaptation of Alexander Weinstein’s Children of the New World, will be hotly anticipated.

The Farewell is available on Prime Video

Céline Sciamma

Goddess of feminist cinema Céline Sciamma has been making ripples internationally since 2007 when she debuted her first feature, Water Lilies. Since then she has gone from strength to strength, and the culmination of her efforts and growth as a writer-director led to her making 2019’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a stunning 18th Century tale of female empowerment and freedom of sexual expression. I can’t think of a film that was more necessary or pertinent in 2019.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Girlhood are available on Prime Video and Mubi

Ava DuVernay

DuVernay is deservedly becoming a household name and her work has been spread far and wide during the BLM movement due to its blistering prescience in portraying the issues faced by African Americans today. From her urgent examination of racial inequality in the prison system in 2016’s 13th, to her Martin Luther King Jr. biopic Selma and Netflix series When They See Us, she has proven herself to be a master in traversing genres and putting empathy and compassion at the heart of everything she does.

13th and When They See Us are available on Netflix whilst Selma can be found on Prime Video and Mubi

Andrea Arnold

Another director whose style has truly flourished over the last decade, Arnold has brought her naturalistic eye to TV and film, drawing in widespread critical acclaim with her 2016 feature American Honey. Using predominantly non-actors in her film work, there is an unparalleled poignancy in the way she reveals her protagonists’ power to us; we get to watch as they bloom before our eyes as characters, and as real people.

American Honey is available to rent on Prime Video – read our full review here

Debra Granik

2018’s Leave No Trace was a resonant, understated ode to space and silence, a coming-of-age story following a father and daughter living an off-grid existence in a national park in Oregon. A master of minimalism, Granik speaks volumes about modern consumerism and societal conformity by allowing the central relationship to do all the storytelling and never trying to push her message onto the audience. It is intuitive filmmaking at its best.   

Leave No Trace is on Netflix – read our review here

Jennifer Kent

Kent dealt with the themes of motherhood and grief in a completely fresh and innovative way with 2014’s The Babadook, taking the horror genre to new and unexpected places. She continues to tackle darker subject matter with 2018’s The Nightingale, a raw exploration of trauma set against the backdrop of Australian colonization at the turn of the 19th Century.

The Nightingale is available to rent on Prime Video


Check out Mark Cousins’ fantastic documentary series ‘Women Make Film’ on BFI now

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