It is no secret that the film industry is a historically male-dominated field. However, decades of efforts by filmmakers of all genders, working in all genres, have led to incredible strides in representation across the industry.
At the Athena Film Festival this past weekend, female authors and filmmakers specializing in science fiction and horror presented their work and invoked discussion on the intersection of feminism with science fiction. In these traditionally male-dominated genres, the works produced by these women highlighted the progress in gender inclusivity in film.
Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin
By merging science fiction and feminism, “Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin” gives a first-hand, in-depth look at the life and career of award-winning science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin.
Directed by Arwen Curry, the documentary screened Friday night in Barnard’s Lehman Auditorium.
In a brief Q&A session after the screening, Curry emphasized how Le Guin’s work directly impacted her personal development.
“In every case when we’re talking about her work, I’m trying to tie it into her life, and what’s going on with her own development as a person and as a writer,” Curry said.
The documentary, which was 10 years in the making, presented Le Guin’s struggle with establishing a literary career while critics viewed the sci-fi genre as a worthless form of escapism.
In the film, Le Guin emphasized that science fiction is not about escapism; rather, it is about exploring alternative realities that question what society perceives as “normal.” Through her work, Le Guin challenges her audience to question societal traditions that often go unnoticed.
For example, in one of her most well-known works, “The Left Hand of Darkness,” an entirely androgynous human race becomes a cry for gender equality. In “The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia,” a utopian anarchist society serves as a way to explore the problems with capitalism.
Though her groundbreaking work in science fiction eventually earned her respect among writers and critics alike, her writing was frequently criticized by the ongoing feminist movement for not being “feminist” enough.
Le Guin took this criticism to heart, championing independent female characters and rejecting the use of a default male pronoun in her subsequent works. The problems in her previous writing, Le Guin observed, were due to her tendency to think like a man when she wrote, a consequence of male dominance in the literary field.
Even in the later years of her life, Le Guin continued to question traditional societal roles. At the 2014 National Book Awards, Le Guin boldly called out capitalism and how it encourages publishers to value profit over art.
“Books aren’t just commodities,” Le Guin said. “The profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable—but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.”
Women & Horror
When asked about the general preconception that women cannot handle the horror genre, the panel of horror filmmakers and scholars, all of them women, returned blank faces. They quickly broke into skeptical smiles, all too prepared to pick apart the notion that horror movies are men’s domain.
Hosted in the James Room in Barnard Hall, the Women & Horror panel featured Ashlee Blackwell, a scholar of black women in the horror and science fiction genres; Christina Raia, a director, writer, and producer whose feature film “Summit” won Best Horror Film at the 2015 Manhattan Film Festival; Nancy Stephens, an actress known for her role as Nurse Marion Chambers in the “Halloween” films; and Jenn Wexler, a director and producer known for “The Ranger.”
The panelists discussed women in horror, both behind the camera and in front of it. In horror movies, a common trope is the “final girl:” the last one standing who ultimately kills the killer and lives to tell the story. Though the trope can be limiting, the panelists acknowledged that the final girl is a rare and inspiring depiction of female strength in movies.
“Growing up, I rarely saw girls being heroes. Horror was definitely empowering,” Raia said.
Wexler mentioned the impact of the #MeToo movement, which has created more opportunities for women to make horror films and is guiding a shift in how women are represented in films. The values of the #MeToo movement combat the idea that only one woman can be left standing: Why can’t there be a group of “final girls?”
Clearly, the final girl trope is evolving. In “The Ranger,” Wexler aimed to flesh out her final girl’s back story, creating a more dynamic character that the audience can identify with from the movie’s outset. In addition, Blackwell mentioned that she hopes to see more women of color playing the roles of final girls.
#MeToo is not the first social movement to make its mark on the horror genre. The panelists agreed that horror films have long been avenues for social commentary. As a mode of reflecting and commenting on women’s experiences, the genre is particularly fitting.
“Women have so much to be afraid of and all these anxieties that we need to exercise through art,” Wexler said.