Sophie Mathisen responds to James Ricketson’s letter on Gender Matters, quotas

Sophie Mathisen.

*Sophie Mathisen is the writer-director of Drama, and Festival Director at Sydney's WOW (World of Women) Film Festival.

I would like to address James Ricketson’s open letter regarding his view of gender equality, beginning first with an anecdote.

Recently I was engaged in a robust discussion with a man at a New Years Eve party, who challenged me when I stated I was disappointed by the recent installment of Star Wars. A sly smirk spread across his face as I told him about my qualms. Knowing I am a director, he asked me who I would have preferred at the helm of the film, rather than J.J. Abrams. I offered a list, to which he replied “No, no, what females do you reckon could have done it?” Of course, my gender guides my tastes, rather than investment in the form. I gave him my recommendations, along with the qualifications they possessed to fulfill the role, which he systematically and methodically shut down. This exchange ended with him shouting furiously in my face, “A woman can’t direct Star Wars because women are too emotional!”

Thanking him for his honesty, I remarked to a friend that clearly he missed the emotive through-lines of family, duty, love, sacrifice, risk, fear and loss that underpin the Star Wars franchise. I laughed at the time but secretly I was wounded. Whilst he did not outwardly claim that I was a terrible director, my capabilities were questioned in a more subtle and demeaning way. This parallels James Ricketson’s assertion that steps to address gender inequality are simply an attack on merit, and that attempting to level the playing field will result in films being green-lit that would or should not be made.

Benevolent sexism functions in a different but just as insidious way as overtly hostile sexism does. And whilst Ricketson does not say that female directors are useless or bad, the notion that a female director makes “emotional” work or, as he implied, may not “put bums on seats” is a part of the latent and damaging sexism that undermines female engagement in the film and television sector. Merit does not exist in a vacuum as Ricketson would have us believe. It is the end result of dominant social forces – and prejudices.

Ricketson quotes the large proportion of female bureaucrats at the helm of funding bodies as evidence that the system cannot be prejudiced: as if he believes that women form some kind of eternal sisterhood, forever protecting and championing one another’s causes. It is incredibly naïve to believe sexism is perpetrated only by men. In Ricketson’s mind, women begin and end life as a sorority completely unaffected by what the industry demands of them. The reality is far from that fantasy. 

In an environment of scarce opportunities, I have experienced and witnessed – even, shamefully, perpetrated – both subtle and overt undermining of other women’s work: a misguided attempt to maintain the position I feel I have such a tenuous grasp of. The great feminist entrepreneur Cindy Gallop once told me she called this phenomena ‘Highlander Syndrome’, after the eponymous tagline “There can only be one”.  Antagonism is perpetrated by both men and women who harbour beliefs that work by female makers will be less culturally relevant less popular than work by men, and ultimately speaking to a narrower audience.This is further complicated by the demands of maternity on women, and I challenge Ricketson to concede that Gender Matters provides a platform for women to re-engage in a time-consuming and demanding industry they may have left to tend to the home fires. The fact that Ricketson does not acknowledge the choice often faced by women – between family or career – speaks to his complete denial of the way in which the industry has been structured to benefit the select few who can give it their complete and undivided attention.

Ricketson would have us believe that women are dissuaded from pursuing careers in the screen arts simply through a lack of ambition and will. He points to documentary as a preferred form of expression without acknowledging the reasons that this preference may exist. Much has been written on this topic, specifically by 70’s film theoreticians and scholars such as Laura Mulvey, Claire Johnston and recently by Sue Thornham in her insightful What If I Had Been the Hero?

Documentary perhaps offers women greater flexibility in shooting schedules, deliverables, and a more nuanced approach to creation that serves female pursuit and achievement. It is theorized that females may be afforded a greater sense of agency within the factual genre because they are not fighting against the latent belief that their best attribute is their usefulness as muses for male artists. It is testament to the will of female expression that they have found a strong foothold within factual production, but it’s undeniably problematic that while women keep kicking at the door of narrative filmmaking, it remains locked to most of them.

I am a woman who likes to make fiction and I have found it incredibly difficult to be taken seriously when constantly compared to other female directors – as if my voice is merely an echo of every other female voice and therefore redundant. I have lost count of the times I have read articles in which male directors are described as “wunderkinds” or “trailblazers”. Rarely have I seen the same terminology used to describe their female counterparts. This subtle framing of males as “originators” edges out female voices, creating an environment that feels overwhelmingly and perpetually masculine.

Diversity is diminished by the need to categorise films not by narrative or theme but by clumping them together according to the traits of their makers, as Ricketson does in his piece. By implying that female, gay, Muslim and, transgender or intersex directors would ultimately be chosen for funding only as a flimsy act of tokenism, he implies that our perspective and potential can be summarized simply through the label he applies. It’s like saying that astronauts can write only astronaut stories or that bakers can write only bakers’ stories. If the platitude of “write what you know” is true then Ricketson assumes that women only know what it is like to be women but men know everything.  This assumption allows people like Ricketson to disengage with female voices, to pre-empt what kinds of films women will make, and to damn them as unpopular or niche; destined for a $1 bargain bin in a post office in the middle of nowhere.

The fight for equality is scary because it asks us to interrogate our own inherent bias, eloquently demonstrated by Peggy McIntosh in her lecture “The Knapsack of Invisible Privilege”, used to explain the extent of white privilege in society. It is important to acknowledge the invisible grab-bag of opportunities that are culturally and perhaps unfairly inherited and to be honest about our desire to retain them. It is scary for someone like Ricketson to admit that his version of a meritocracy is suddenly under scrutiny and of course he would seek to protect and defend it. No one wants to admit that they had a head start in the race.

As a white, straight, cisgendered, middle class female, I have had enormous advantages over other filmmakers who have suffered reduced access to the opportunities that have allowed me to make my first feature. It is uncomfortable to acknowledge that within my own backpack are shortcuts to this outcome: despite the fact that my empirical evidence is one of personal hardship and toil. 

It was announced at the Screen Australia Development Roadshow recently that Gender Matters is a one-year only initiative, the result of brutal budget cuts that the national screen body has endured. It is admirable that strong steps have been taken to address gender disparity but an unfortunate reality that this window will be left open for a brief time only.

I hope for Australia’s sake and for our national cinema’s future that women of all races, identities and backgrounds use this opportunity to tap confidently on the glass ceiling (or rather podium) that Ricketson is standing on. 

  1. Great insight.
    As a female actor/writer and on the board for WIFT Vic, it still frustrates me that in 2016 women are constantly having to defend our stance on gender equality. That we are not afforded the same opportunities. That as we get older instead of seeing us as experienced some are looking for more youthful counterparts particularly on screen. Ageism in our industry is a disgrace.
    It is never about male vs female who is better? Both men and women are capable of directing any genre of film. Its about not being close minded. This crap about being too emotional is horse shit. When it comes to directing, writing etc it isn’t about gender and who is better gender wise. That is preposterous. Its about talent, dedication and hard work.

  2. Once again we have an actress of no note crying foul and demanding concessions to draw attention to herself and promote her career. Steps to address the so-called “gender inequality” ARE simply an attack on merit, nothing more. It’s never been easier or cheaper to make a film. Nothing is holding anyone back so stop complaining. Men have it just as tough as women in the film industry, if not more.

  3. Words….followed by more and more and more words.

    The truth may never be known, but I doubt that it will be known clearly in this or the next generation, and maybe not even the generation after that.

    To suppose that there is some form of fair or natural or socially controllable gender equality, is almost as mad as supposing that honesty is always the best policy, or that the truly talented will naturally rise to the top.

    He or she who expounds the theory, or even the suspicion that, one gender is more capable at writing, directing, acting or any other artistic endeavour, is in need of a long rest followed by an intensive re-education exercise.

    The world is inhabited by animals of many kinds, most, including ourselves, are almost entirely grouped into male and female forms. We must live and work together or we would eventually die out after a long period of dwindling happiness and growing unfulfillment.

    Two unquestionably great writers: Thomas Hardy and George Elliot. Two unquestionably great actors:Paul Scofield and Simone Signoret. Two great directors: David Lean, Ida Lupino. One great way to live: In a society consisting of mixed gender and mixed ideas and feelings. One lousy way to live: Divided by gender identified endeavours, and assigned to one set of rules and ideas specific to ones clearly identified gender, race, age, politics or financial standing.

    Women and Men, need to stop carping about gender and start working at whatever we happen to be good at.

    Football? Well, of course mixed gender teams would be madness, but all male teams competing in the major league is equally mad, so why do we not have mixed matches in the major league? Because men think they are better players? Because the public wants it that way? No no no; it has always been this way and the majority now think it is the norm, it isn’t and it should change, it must change.

  4. Dear Sophie
    Thank you for this thoughtful, well argued and necessary response to James Ricketson’s letter.
    Mira Robertson

  5. Well said Sophie. Go reach the heights.

    James, seriously, stop being such a reactionary dick. When did you become so bitter and angry? I remember you as a gentle, loving and open-minded inclusive young man. Could we please have that person back.

  6. By the way, men can apply to the Gender Matters fund so long as they can fulfil the three ticks test. So certainly not exclusive.

  7. female director, female writer, female protagonist and/or female producer. If this is not exclusive, I should hate to see the proposal for a model of exclusivity.

    When was there a system mooted to allow funding only for films with a male director, male writer, male protagonist and/or producer?

    This entire initiative is a poorly conceived attention grabber, wrought in the interests of nobody in particular, and certainly not in the interests of business or artistic endevour.

    Anyone can make a film today, the streets are bustling with film school graduates announcing themselves as “film makers” and dreaming of producing not a feature film, but THE feature film.

    We scarcely have an industry, let alone one buoyant enough to accommodate a split. This will simply make it easier for the US and British industry to step up the play. They have private investors feeding an industry that we passively help them to build by, inter alia, squandering government funding on what, essentially, may well prove to be tokenism.

  8. Jessica – or is that actually Jessie or maybe even James – please make sure you’re appropriately informed before you criticise an initiative you seem not to understand. In fact you don’t need to have women in all four elements, just three and – surprise – men too can apply. Come out from behind your cloak of anonymity and be brave enough to announce who you are.

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