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Suppression of Women's Stories

The suppression of women's stories is at the center of the current Trump trial in New York. While the trial focuses on legal issues related to 34 felony counts in falsifying business records in the first degree, a more central unaddressed concern is the deeply embedded cultural attitude about women's real lives and their / our believability. At the core, is the insistent of some men – in this case Trump – to not have their real natures exposed.

Before college Encampments protesting the war against Gaza, there was in the mid 1980's The Women's Encampment for A Future of Peace and Justice. This image from Joan E. Biren's (JEB) slide show, now a part of her archives in the Sophie Smith Collection at Smith College.

Within mainstream culture, patriarchs constantly suppress the voice and vision of women. Let us not forget at the very time that all these shenanigans about Karen McDougal, the Hollywood Access Tape, and Stormy Daniels were going on behind the scenes within both the Trump 2016 campaign and the Republican Party (should they drop him as their candidate?), Trump's constant refrain from podiums before thousands and thousands of people was “Lock her up. Lock her up.” An aggressive put down off his opponent. No counter-voice arose. This suppression and disregard of women was and remains central to Trump's bully pulpit. As well, political conservatives don't want women to have full rights as their continuing repression of abortion proves. That's why the religious right puts up with Trumpian antics.

The cultural imagery of the time backed up this refrain. Film, as a major entertainment industry, is the dominate cultural influencer. What pictures commanded box offices during 2016 in the run up to the presidential election? “Captain America: Civil War” an anti-government story and “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” a rebellion against “empire” weaponry led the list. They were followed closely by “Finding Dory”, an animation about a 'friendly but forgetful' female blue tang (fish) in search of family and “Zootopia”, another animation, this one of a female rabbit's struggle in joining the police force in an imaginary multi-species world. One Oscar win among all four, they were all male directed and each garnered over a billion dollars, the majority of that from foreign markets. The next six box office successes are also all male directed. Comic book and animal characters prevailed.

Days before the Trump inauguration and the next day's massive Women's March, Martha Lauzen's annual “Celluloid Ceiling” report came out. In reporting on this 19th study of the employment data for women in Hollywood's top 250 grossing films of 2016, the Deadline heading was “Women Working In Film Aren’t Much Better Off Than In 1998, Study Finds.” Women's story-telling in Hollywood – never great in contemporary times – retrogressed. The number of women directors had dropped to 7%. In 2015 and 1998 it had been 9%. In May 2018 an Australian study about the exhibition of women directed films came out. In the US it was a pathetic 2.75% of showings of women-directed films at main movie theaters. This meant that only one-third or less of works actually being made in Hollywood by women were getting seen by US audiences.

The presentation of women's stories within the culture is central to achieving women's equality in society. When women's stories fail to flourish we suffer a second class status. The real experiences of our lives go unknown and unrecorded. This all despite radical change in women's lives since the emergence of the women's liberation movement in the 1970s. A wide range of women have worked to change the everyday picture of women in the culture to make it reflective of our lived experiences. Max Dashu has significantly contributed to unearthing tens of thousands of images of women through her Suppressed Histories Archives. Joan E Biren (AKA JEB) throughout the 1970s until now has been central in documenting Lesbian loves and lives. Her 1987 book, Making A Way: Lesbians Out Front (1987) and a slide show of the Seneca Encampment for Peace and Justice are just a few examples.

Women Make Movies, the organization I co-founded with Sheila Paige, in 1972 is today the globe's largest distributor of women directed films. Those 700 films are primarily documentaries and their reach is largely into the educational market. In the organization's first decade we taught film in a community setting and produced films. Then, 50% of the works we created were dramatic. Prior to establishing the organization in 1972, Sheila and I had gone to distributors with our first films. We were told “Women are not an audience.” Today that translates to “Women are not box office.” This is all myth, emerging from a dominating male perception and control. This male perception sadly is bought into by many women – largely white women. Patriarchy still maintains a stranglehold on the culture and media.

Over the last twenty years I have watched and written about the intersection of women rights, feminist media making and funding. Circa 2005 women filmmakers struggled among the handful of funders getting sometimes as little as 17% of the pie of monies. This funding from the six major funders of documentary is more equitable today, but much of the trade off for women was to not make women-identified stories. They / we feared expressing our own experiences. There was an occasion a few years back when through one of these funders of nineteen projects only one centered on a woman.

Now there is the trend that men, not women, get to tell women's cinematic stories. The Harvey Weinstein produced “Jane Got A Gun” directed by Gavin O'Conner, starring Natalie Portman, was released at the start of 2016 as the presidential campaign warmed up. A year later, Weinstein's company did release the woman directed film “3 Generations” made in 2015 by British actress-director, Gaby Dellal, but it only showed on 37 screens. The gatekeeping Weinstein controlled of emerging talent was sought and lauded in the industry, despite the undercurrent – that rippled through film communities – of his sexual manipulation. His control stymied the careers of two generations of women filmmakers and deprived the public of the many stories by women that were never made or suffered from Weinstein predilections. Sarah Kernochan is explicit about how he wrecked her debut film “All I Wanna Do” and her career. Selma Heyek, had Julie Taymor direct “Frida”. But she paid a stiff price which she unveils in “Harvey Weinstein is My Monster, Too”. Three more years would pass before Weinstein was brought before a New York Court and convicted for rape.

Then as the Trump trial got underway, the New York Court of Appeals threw out the Weinstein conviction claiming he did not get a fair trial. The overturning of the Weinstein conviction was based on the additional women who had suffered from Weinstein's assaults testifying. Their assaults were not actually a part of the charges against him.

These young girls who came to the Women's Encampment in the 1980s are now in their later forties. Another image from JEB's slide show.

What is clear is that law and the legal system have not caught up with societal change. This is not aided by the fact that nor has the imagery presented in the mainstream media caught up with the realities of women's lives. There is a wealth of media/films being produced by women today that exist in another layer of the cultural stratosphere. Catalyst Barbara O'Leary has graciously been at logging this work via #DirectedByWomen and seeing that some of it is written up – another barrier in the mainstream, entertainment rigmarole. Maybe the Judges in the NY Appeals Court might venture to watch Sisters In Law and The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo. This latter film encouraged the United Nations to enact Resolution 1820 making rape a war crime.


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