Time’s Up for the Male Canon

Girish Shambu

What will it take to break the stranglehold of male domination in filmmaking? Despite the ever-increasing outcry, amplified by social media over the last few years, the work of women filmmakers continues to be overlooked, marginalized, erased. Of the many underlying causes, I would like to focus here on one: the enduring hold, on film culture, of auteurism. Its impact was driven home (yet again) in selections made this year by two of the most powerful film festivals in the world, the auteurist bastions of Cannes and Venice. In 2017, just three of the nineteen films in competition at Cannes were directed by women; Venice was even worse, with just one woman director out of twenty-one. This stark imbalance was greeted by a strong and worldwide media response. But it had zero effect. Fast forward a year and, in 2018, there was no change in the number of films made by women in the competition lineups of either festival.

As a male critic who has spent over three decades in auteurist communities (first in India, then in the United States and online), I have come to notice certain patterns of reaction within these communities when gender inequities are exposed. When a film festival, for instance, announces an overwhelmingly male line-up, an oft-heard response is a wistful sigh: I wish Agnès Varda had made a new film this year. Or Claire Denis, or Lucrecia Martel. These directors, and a handful of others, are candidates offered up, reflexively, to “correct” the omission of women, to “set things right.” But such a response, satisfied with a few small tweaks, ignores the systemic forces that have worked so long and hard to create this male-dominated narrative of film history, this edifice of exclusion, in the first place.

One such systemic force can be seen playing out in the widely embraced auteurist credo, most famously articulated by François Truffaut, that the worst film by an auteur is more interesting than the best film by a non-auteur. When translated into viewing and writing practices, this principle ended up having two important effects. First, it drastically narrowed the domain of work that merited serious writing and conversation, since the title of “auteur” was awarded stingily to only a few filmmakers—usually, men. Second, it trained the focus of criticism on an auteur’s entire oeuvre, returning to it time and again, tunneling ever deeper to explore the stylistic signature and themes of the films, no matter how “good” (or not) these films were deemed to be. Auteurism thus became an ingenious mechanism for ceaselessly multiplying discourse on a limited number of directors: a manspreading machine.

Classical auteurism, shaped by such predictably male figures as the Cahiers du Cinéma critics in France and Andrew Sarris in the United States, bequeathed a powerful and enduring legacy that lives on in film culture today. Along the way, this singular focus on individual authorship received a challenge from those who, invoking Roland Barthes, critiqued its roots in Romantic ideology and declared “the death of the author,” helping usher in post-modernism. But this undermining of the figure of the director was itself quickly suspect. It arrived—strategically, some might say—at a time when activist efforts by women, gays and lesbians, people of color, and anti-racist allies, were becoming more visible. “Depriving us of our voices just as we were speaking more loudly,” Janet Staiger wrote, “seems like a plot.”1

Auteurism has flourished ever since, despite these challenges, although it has morphed over time. Priya Jaikumar, in a recent and essential piece, points out that as the years went by, auteurist criticism was influenced by emerging schools of thought such as structuralism, post-structuralism, Marxism, post-colonialism, and feminism.2 Despite auteurism’s history of excluding women filmmakers, there exists a long and important lineage of feminist film scholars—including Claire Johnston, Kaja Silverman, Judith Mayne, and Sandy Flitterman-Lewis—who have created a valuable body of work on female authorship. Today, in its expanded form—steadily enriched by new ideas and movements—the idea of authorship continues to help multiply writing and conversation about women-made cinema. Patricia White’s invaluable book, Women’s Cinema, World Cinema, furnishes one possible model for such an expanded, critical, interrogatory post-auteurism.3

Despite these positive developments, the doors of auteurism remain hard to breach for women. When asked about the scant record of representation of women filmmakers in competition at Cannes and Venice, the (male) directors of these festivals have responded in disappointingly evasive and disingenuous fashion. Thierry Frémaux, at Cannes, has claimed that “more needs to be done in the film schools, the universities, and the production houses to favor women—and then you will see results.”4 Venice head Alberto Barbera has shown even less interest in addressing female under-representation: “Venice can’t do anything about that. It’s not up to us to change the situation.”5

There are at least two problems with this stance. Cannes and Venice are not mere venues for the screening of films but, importantly, global film-cultural institutions with the power and ability to make systemic change. Consequently, their decision to remain passive—and simply wait for more women-made films to magically appear—is an abdication of responsibility. By passing the buck, such cultural gatekeepers only work to preserve the status quo. The other flaw in the public position of these festivals has been eloquently exposed by the queer and non-binary critic, scholar and activist So Mayer. Borrowing a phrase from the poet Jill McDonough, they call out male-dominated film institutions for inventing a “myth of scarcity.”6 In rebuke, Mayer’s landmark book Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema, covers five hundred works from sixty countries, including independent fiction films, documentaries, short films, television work, web series and videos, experimental films, and installations—almost all made by women in the 21st century.7 Mayer’s definition of “cinema” is centrifugal: it is an art form with its practitioners, but it equally names an immense range of media, physical spaces, audiences, and practices.

Mayer has also critiqued the pervasive but seldom acknowledged norm of “homocitation,” that is, male critics and scholars making reference predominantly to work—whether writings or films—by other men.8 Citation is never neutral. It is always political. It is also, as Sara Ahmed has argued, a “reproductive technology,” one that continually makes and remakes the world not “objectively” or completely but in highly selective fashion. The result is a partial representation of the world that remains silent about its own limitedness.

Thus does a selective narrative—disproportionately dominated by men—install itself, fortress-like, as history. It is an edifice that has been built up over time with the active collaboration of several communities: academia (where graduate students feel compelled to reproduce citation practices of their scholar-models in the field), working critics (traditionally steeped in auteurism), and cinephiles (whose list-making practices are widely acknowledged to be a particularly male propensity). To rewrite history, to create a more fair and balanced narrative, requires the participation of all these communities. Further, especially on the part of men at every level of film culture, it calls for a self-awareness of citation practice, and a conscious striving toward gender equity in this practice.

Film culture also crucially needs fundamental conversations around questions of value. Frémaux and Barbera’s comments are inadvertently instructive in this regard. The former has claimed that “the films that were selected [at Cannes] were chosen for their own intrinsic qualities [my emphasis].”9 Barbera has declared, with a touch of hubris, that he would quit his job at the Venice film festival if he were “forced to select a film only because it’s made by a woman and not on the basis of the quality of the film itself.”10 The clear implication is that both these men know exactly what a good film looks and sounds like—and what criteria to “objectively” apply in order to determine the value of any and every film. Viewed in the context of white male universalism, which has a long history of relegating women artists and their stories to the non-universal and subsidiary—to “niche” status—these comments cry out for debates on taste and its underlying, often unstated criteria.

A key structural barrier against women, resulting from the authority and influence of white men in Western film culture, is the hegemony of formal-aesthetic criteria in auteurist evaluation of films—often at the expense of other elements such as narrative, representation, and subject. There is nothing self-evident about centering formal innovation when evaluating films; it is merely one possible yardstick of judgment, privileging a particular way of watching and valuing films. One might easily imagine otherwise: for instance, a system of values in which cinema is prized, above all, as an instrument of deep curiosity about the world and a critical engagement with it—specifically as regards the subjectivity of marginalized people, their lives, experience and expression. This does not mean that formal, medium-specific inventiveness is not important: merely that it would not be the overriding criterion of value in assessing films.

In my own film-cultural utopia, sophisticated attention to representation and ideology would work in conjunction with a sophisticated attention to film form and style. The cinema of the future, for me, will equally provide pleasure and play a role in changing consciousness: helping—in however modest a fashion—to make the world a better place. This seismic moment of #MeToo and Time’s Up has opened up conversations about the need for transforming existing systems in society and culture. Their call—and the cultural energy behind them—is already impinging on the institution of cinema. I’m cautiously optimistic: the winds of change are beginning to stir.

As it happens, I have just returned from a week at TIFF (the Toronto International Film Festival), where, laudably, a third of the films shown were by women. However, I must confess that I experienced a WTF moment upon noting that there were two documentaries in the festival that centered upon women and film: This Changes Everything, which is about systemic sexism in Hollywood, and Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema, a four-hour work (part of a projected 16-hour opus) that highlights the contributions of women directors in film history. Both films were made by … men.


1. Janet Staiger, “Authorship Approaches,” in Authorship and Film, eds. D.A. Gerstner and J. Staiger (New York: Routledge, 2003).
2. Priya Jaikumar, “Feminist and Non-Western Interrogations of Film Authorship,” in The Routledge Companion to Cinema and Gender, eds. Kristin Lené Hole, Dijana Jelača, E. Ann Kaplan, and Patrice Petro (New York: Routledge, 2016).
3. Patricia White, Women’s Cinema, World Cinema (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015).
4. Kate Erbland, “Cannes 2016: How the Festival Uses Bad Math to Justify the Lack of Female Filmmakers,” IndieWire, May 11, 2016, https://www.indiewire.com/2016/05/cannes-2016-how-the-festival-uses-bad-math-to-justify-the-lack-of-female-filmmakers-girl-talk-290865/
5. Ariston Anderson, “Venice: Festival Head Alberto Barbera Defends Lack of Women in Lineup (Again),” The Hollywood Reporter, July 25, 2018, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/venice-film-festival-head-defends-lack-women-lineup-again-1129767
6. David Spittle, “An Interview with Sophie Mayer,” The Midnight Mollusc, September 29, 2016, http://themidnightmollusc.blogspot.com/2016/09/an-interview-with-sophie-mayer.html
7. So Mayer, Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema (London: I.B. Tauris, 2016).
8. So Mayer, “The Varda Variations: Reintroductions of the Auteure in Documenteur and Beyond,” cléo, Vol. 6, No. 1, April 2018, http://cleojournal.com/2018/04/11/varda-variations-documenteur/
9. Peter Debruge and Elsa Keslassy, “Cannes Lineup Includes New Films from Spike Lee, Jean-Luc Godard,” Variety, April 12, 2018, https://variety.com/2018/film/news/cannes-lineup-includes-new-films-from-spike-lee-jean-luc-godard-1202751300/
10. Ariston Anderson, “Venice: Festival Head Alberto Barbera Defends Lack of Women in Lineup (Again),” The Hollywood Reporter, July 25, 2018, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/venice-film-festival-head-defends-lack-women-lineup-again-1129767

Image from the BFI’s “Woman with a Movie Camera” summit, June 2018, with programmer Anna Bogutskaya. Photo credit: Hannah Leigh Prior (on Twitter).

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