Socially Conscious Filmmaking

Last week I watched this TED Talk by Colin Stokes, “How movies teach manhood”, and it stirred a more general point in my brain that has been floating around for a while. So my question is this;

To what extent should filmmakers be an instrument of social change?

The talk introduces the Bechdel Test to establish gender bias in films. I think the fact that such a test even exists is proof to some degree of the lack of quality roles (and for that matter films) for women. It got me thinking; if the genders were entirely reversed in my favourite films of all time, the Star Wars trilogy (let’s forget the prequels, shall we?), would I still love it as much as I do? There’s no way of knowing, but I hope that I would. I think that the themes would still apply, as well as the setting, and light-sabres would still be cool. I don’t see why the assumption is made that a man can’t empathise with a female character.

“Elementary” raised a few eyebrows with the casting of Lucy Liu as John (now Joan) Watson. Does it make any difference to my enjoyment of that particular series? So far no. In fact from the episodes I’ve seen (about 8 or so at this point, generally I lose interest due it being massively inferior to the BBC’s “Sherlock”) it really hasn’t made any difference what-so-ever. It’s almost gender diversity for the sake of publicity or just for gender diversity’s sake, which is possibly worse. If we begin to mandate that a certain percentage of the cast *has* to be female (or minorities for that matter) because we don’t want to offend anyone, I think that’s a worse discrimination than just not having women in the cast in the first place.

Because of course, sometimes you don’t have women in the story you’re telling. And whilst the majority of directors of major movies are men (which they are) aren’t they more likely to tell stories about themselves in some form or other? It’s not unreasonable to presume that they might pick a projects because they see something of themselves in the material, maybe even seeing themselves as the lead character, and that’s easier and more obvious if that character is a man.

To cite another example, “Salt” was originally a film that Tom Cruise was going to star in, but when he dropped out Angelina Jolie took his place. The movie is a solid genre piece, elevated in fact because having a woman play that kind of role was (and sadly still is) unusual. In that case it added an interesting dimension; it seemed to me that not much of the plot would have been different if Cruise had starred. So I wonder what other roles of the years might have been more interesting with a woman playing them.

For example; what if in Skyfall, Q had been a woman and Moneypenny had been a man? Why not? Back in the 90’s they made M a woman, and Judi Dench just rules as M, especially in Skyfall when they gave her something interesting to play. The Bond movies are not exactly known for advancing a feminist agenda to say the least.

Films are businesses, and if the studios could be convinced that women were eager to go see films about strong, intelligent women then I’m sure we’d see more films with those kinds of characters. Bring it on I say. I don’t think films succeed or fail financially because of perpetrating a certain view of women, so why not have more realistic women characters?

Maybe this is something that just isn’t a conscious consideration for most writers/directors – I’d be fascinated to know either way. If it’s not something they think about at all maybe it should be at least considered in the process. And I don’t think it stops with gender bias. How about the way violence is seen? How about LGBT issues? How about religion?

I don’t think filmmakers have an obligation to try to change the world. Films are entertainment after all, and to ascribe them some kind of irresistible hypnotic power is going too far. But perhaps collectively we should consider the social responsibility that filmmakers have to their audience beyond entertaining them.

We have an immensely powerful means of communication at our command. And with great power… well, you know…