“It’s about time to help others…” by Flickr user Leticia Bertin. CC-BY-2.0″
“Observe how far the United States has fallen behind others in endeavors at which others excel…Ride a train in Switzerland after riding one in the United States and the point becomes clear.”
It’s difficult for me to think of political instability in terms of the United States. After all, I grew up indoctrinated with the belief that America excelled at everything. American exceptionalism was learned from a very young age. It wasn’t until I left the country in 2008 for the Peace Corps that I really started to question what American exceptionalism was and how far the reality fell short of the ideal. Throughout my lifetime, America has ignored its issues: crumbling infrastructure, gender and racial inequality, income disparity. These problems have always existed, to be sure, but what’s changed is our awareness of them. When riots happen, we learn about them, often within minutes. Injustices are recorded and broadcast over the internet. Friend networks communicate about discrimination and hate.
“America! F*ck yeah!””
The tongue-in-cheek parody of Team America: World Police seems less and less like parody these days. For the past 100 years, America has seen itself as the world’s protector. Defender of democracy. So we believed during the Cold War. Yet, with its limitless commitment to unending wars, America is now the world’s bull, running amok through the metaphorical china shop. As we relinquish the title of greatest nation on Earth to those nations who practice compassion better than we ever will, America remains steadfastly committed to bootstrapping, and ignorant of how callous that mindset is. Then again, relinquishing the title implies that the title was ours to give up. Perhaps it never was. Perhaps America simply did one good thing one time and coasted on that reputation for the next fifty years.
When I think about the adjectives I would use to describe America, compassion is not one of them. If anything, the opposite is true. America is a hard nation. Social programs that have been in place for decades are slowly being chipped away. College tuition has risen to the point where students graduate with a degree and a monkey on their back. Health-care costs are so routinely exorbitant that people crowdfund their hospital bills. Where is the compassion of this nation? Did it ever exist? At what point does society see the thousands and millions who have fallen behind and decide to give them a helping hand?
If artists hope to effect any sort of change during these times, it must start with compassion. A willingness to help. This can take on many forms, such as giving a voice to the voiceless, supporting fellow artists, or demanding more from our elected officials. Through compassion, artists and creators can work together for positive change. We can make America a little less hard…if we try.
Cover image “Written & Directed” by Flickr user Marco Nürnberger. CC-BY-2.0
Pop quiz: how many female movie directors can you name?
I can name less than a half-dozen, and the only reason that number is so high is because I’ve been watching female-directed features recently for review on my other blog, Dorkadia. My list includes:
Sam Taylor-Johnson (50 Shades of Grey)
Nora Ephron (Sleepless in Seattle)
Catherine Hardwicke (Twilight)
Drew Barrymore (Whip It)
Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker)
See the pattern? With the exception of The Hurt Locker, famous female directors seem confined to romantic thrillers and rom-coms. These isolated incidents either. Animated features, rom-coms, and romantic thrillers dominate this list of the top movies directed by women. The lone exception? Disaster movie Deep Impact, which was the highest-grossing live-action movie directed by a woman until Twilight. Accolades don’t seem to help in women’s’ favor either when it comes to finding work. Since winning the Best Director Oscar for 2008’s The Hurt Locker, Bigelow has only directed two other features.
While diversity in entertainment may not match tech’s horrible numbers, the data shows that Hollywood is still very much a man’s world. In 2013 the New York Film Academy released a sobering infographic on the statistics of gender inequality in film. In front of the camera, only 10.7% of all movies featured a balanced, representative cast. Women are also shoehorned into specific film genres. Women are more than twice as likely to direct documentaries than narrative films, for example. Or take the previously mentioned list of the highest-grossing female directors, whose output consisted of mainly romantic movies.
More recent data agrees with the New York Film Academy’s claims. According to the 2016 Celluloid Ceiling Report, women make up only 17% of behind-the-camera job titles. When examining the top 250 domestic grossing movies of last year, only 17% are cinematographers, directors, editors, executive producers, producers, or writers. This is 2% down from last year and essentially flat with statistics from 1998. And 1998 was considered a high point.
In the face of such disparity, what can be done to increase representation both in front of and behind the camera? Here’s several suggestions.
Recognize how diversity contributes to the bottom line. Adding more women to the mix isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s profitable for studios. Women currently purchase half of all movie tickets sold in the United States. The more representation on screen, the more tickets can be sold as people see themselves represented in pop culture. This goes for women, people of color, or anyone else different from the norm.
Take advantage of the pipeline. Women are both out there making movies and preparing for careers in film. Gender parity exists at several prestigious film schools, according to the Huffington Post. Meanwhile, sites like The Director List maintain a database of women in film with proven track records. Women are out there; they just need their voices to be heard. Which can be done by:
Fund female-centric films. The past few years has seen renewed interest in funding movies written or directed by women. Both Vimeo and the National Film Board of Canada have made pledges to increase funding for female-centric movies. The more women have access to funding, the more movies women will be able to release. More female-driven movies won’t add up to much; however, without:
Support for female-centric films as a moviegoer. This whole blog post coalesced in part thanks to my recent rewatch and review of 2008’s Twilight over at Dorkadia. While Twilight may never make anyone’s list of Earth-shattering films, it’s very female-driven, with a woman writing the source material, adapting the material for the screen, and directing. While Twilight’s domestic gross only puts it in the top 200 of highest-grossing movies of all time, it struck a chord with many people around the world. Certainly the increased tourism it brought changed Forks, Washington for the better. Women did that. Women changed the cultural zeitgeist. And more women can do the same, if given the chance.
Cover image Writing Forever by Flickr user Nilufer Gadgieva. CC BY-NC 2.0.
Is ‘being the next Stephen King’ a realistic goal for a writer? That’s who I wanted to be when I grew up. The first book of Mr. King’s I ever read was Thinner, twenty-four years ago. At the time, I felt like I’d discovered my life’s purpose: I was going to be a writer. I was going to write horror stories like Stephen King and become rich and famous…just like Mr. King.
Time evolved my work, as well as my expectations. I stopped writing horror fiction in high school, turning my attention inward, writing about relationships and the many ways people mess them up. I’ve published two novels, worked on a webcomic, and I write for a few blogs. Yet none of my artistic work has ever made very much money. Instead, my writing income comes from my day job, creating corporate documents for HR clients.
Patronage has historically been how writers and other artists have made their living. From its roots in the 14th century to the Patreon accounts of today, artists have relied on others to sustain their art. Other ways to make money from art also exist. There’s bookselling. Commissions. Government programs. Relying on the generosity of others. In 2015, Ann Bauer wrote a tremendous essay about how her husband’s salary essentially subsidized her own career. Yet each revenue stream comes with catches. Selling art on the open market means that the art must first be marketable, palatable to a mass audience. Patronage and generosity also requires that the patrons enjoy the art to some degree.
Government subsidies comes with their own catches, especially in the United States. The USA has never been a big believer in arts subsidies; the annual budget for the National Endowment for the Arts is $158 million, a pittance compared to some European countries’ arts spending.
When artists don’t have to worry about where their next paycheck is coming from, they have the freedom to be more experimental. Their next work may fail, but the freedom to fail is assured. It’s this freedom to fail that seems missing from the United States. Not just in the artistic world, but everywhere. As I get older, the American Dream has morphed into an ever-present Sword of Damocles. The threat of failure is omnipresent: in the threat of medical bankruptcy, the absence of a social safety net and the crushing weight of student loan debt. When success does come, it’s fleeting: a viral video moment or a spot on the 24-hour news cycle before the world moves on. Sustained success like that enjoyed by Stephen King and others of his generation seems rarefied and more than ever out of reach.
How can artists survive in this climate? There’s no easy answers. To be unafraid to fail, the consequences of failure must be mitigated. Government funding would help, as would more understanding from art buyers. Artists like myself who don’t need to rely on income from their art have the most freedom; our art can be as experimental or niche as we like. But for others, it falls to patrons and other buyers of art to, well, buy art. Seek it out. Recommend it to your friends. The long tail of the internet means it’s never been easier to discover the nichiest of niche materials. Search for those who share your interests; you’re sure to find them.
I think I was somewhere in my mid-twenties when I realized I was never going to achieve the same level of notoriety as Mr. King. My fiction is too insular, too quiet. The webcomic I worked on, Chefs in Black could have been big, had we ever reached an audience of more than fifty. Sure, I could have spread the word, but that would have taken more time than I had available. However, at that age I made a conscious trade: fame for creative control. My work may not ever be seen by more than a dozen people at a time, but it is mine.