Sophie Mathisen responds to James Ricketson’s letter on Gender Matters, quotas

23 February, 2016 by Sophie Mathisen

Sophie Mathisen.

*Sophie Mathisen is the writer-director of Drama, and Festival Director at Sydney's WOW (World of Women) Film Festival.


I would like to address James Ricketson’s open letter regarding his view of gender equality, beginning first with an anecdote.

Recently I was engaged in a robust discussion with a man at a New Years Eve party, who challenged me when I stated I was disappointed by the recent installment of Star Wars. A sly smirk spread across his face as I told him about my qualms. Knowing I am a director, he asked me who I would have preferred at the helm of the film, rather than J.J. Abrams. I offered a list, to which he replied “No, no, what females do you reckon could have done it?” Of course, my gender guides my tastes, rather than investment in the form. I gave him my recommendations, along with the qualifications they possessed to fulfill the role, which he systematically and methodically shut down. This exchange ended with him shouting furiously in my face, “A woman can’t direct Star Wars because women are too emotional!”

Thanking him for his honesty, I remarked to a friend that clearly he missed the emotive through-lines of family, duty, love, sacrifice, risk, fear and loss that underpin the Star Wars franchise. I laughed at the time but secretly I was wounded. Whilst he did not outwardly claim that I was a terrible director, my capabilities were questioned in a more subtle and demeaning way. This parallels James Ricketson’s assertion that steps to address gender inequality are simply an attack on merit, and that attempting to level the playing field will result in films being green-lit that would or should not be made.

Benevolent sexism functions in a different but just as insidious way as overtly hostile sexism does. And whilst Ricketson does not say that female directors are useless or bad, the notion that a female director makes “emotional” work or, as he implied, may not “put bums on seats” is a part of the latent and damaging sexism that undermines female engagement in the film and television sector. Merit does not exist in a vacuum as Ricketson would have us believe. It is the end result of dominant social forces – and prejudices.

Ricketson quotes the large proportion of female bureaucrats at the helm of funding bodies as evidence that the system cannot be prejudiced: as if he believes that women form some kind of eternal sisterhood, forever protecting and championing one another’s causes. It is incredibly naïve to believe sexism is perpetrated only by men. In Ricketson’s mind, women begin and end life as a sorority completely unaffected by what the industry demands of them. The reality is far from that fantasy. 

In an environment of scarce opportunities, I have experienced and witnessed – even, shamefully, perpetrated – both subtle and overt undermining of other women’s work: a misguided attempt to maintain the position I feel I have such a tenuous grasp of. The great feminist entrepreneur Cindy Gallop once told me she called this phenomena ‘Highlander Syndrome’, after the eponymous tagline “There can only be one”.  Antagonism is perpetrated by both men and women who harbour beliefs that work by female makers will be less culturally relevant less popular than work by men, and ultimately speaking to a narrower audience.This is further complicated by the demands of maternity on women, and I challenge Ricketson to concede that Gender Matters provides a platform for women to re-engage in a time-consuming and demanding industry they may have left to tend to the home fires. The fact that Ricketson does not acknowledge the choice often faced by women – between family or career – speaks to his complete denial of the way in which the industry has been structured to benefit the select few who can give it their complete and undivided attention.

Ricketson would have us believe that women are dissuaded from pursuing careers in the screen arts simply through a lack of ambition and will. He points to documentary as a preferred form of expression without acknowledging the reasons that this preference may exist. Much has been written on this topic, specifically by 70’s film theoreticians and scholars such as Laura Mulvey, Claire Johnston and recently by Sue Thornham in her insightful What If I Had Been the Hero?

Documentary perhaps offers women greater flexibility in shooting schedules, deliverables, and a more nuanced approach to creation that serves female pursuit and achievement. It is theorized that females may be afforded a greater sense of agency within the factual genre because they are not fighting against the latent belief that their best attribute is their usefulness as muses for male artists. It is testament to the will of female expression that they have found a strong foothold within factual production, but it’s undeniably problematic that while women keep kicking at the door of narrative filmmaking, it remains locked to most of them.

I am a woman who likes to make fiction and I have found it incredibly difficult to be taken seriously when constantly compared to other female directors – as if my voice is merely an echo of every other female voice and therefore redundant. I have lost count of the times I have read articles in which male directors are described as “wunderkinds” or “trailblazers”. Rarely have I seen the same terminology used to describe their female counterparts. This subtle framing of males as “originators” edges out female voices, creating an environment that feels overwhelmingly and perpetually masculine.

Diversity is diminished by the need to categorise films not by narrative or theme but by clumping them together according to the traits of their makers, as Ricketson does in his piece. By implying that female, gay, Muslim and, transgender or intersex directors would ultimately be chosen for funding only as a flimsy act of tokenism, he implies that our perspective and potential can be summarized simply through the label he applies. It’s like saying that astronauts can write only astronaut stories or that bakers can write only bakers’ stories. If the platitude of “write what you know” is true then Ricketson assumes that women only know what it is like to be women but men know everything.  This assumption allows people like Ricketson to disengage with female voices, to pre-empt what kinds of films women will make, and to damn them as unpopular or niche; destined for a $1 bargain bin in a post office in the middle of nowhere.

The fight for equality is scary because it asks us to interrogate our own inherent bias, eloquently demonstrated by Peggy McIntosh in her lecture “The Knapsack of Invisible Privilege”, used to explain the extent of white privilege in society. It is important to acknowledge the invisible grab-bag of opportunities that are culturally and perhaps unfairly inherited and to be honest about our desire to retain them. It is scary for someone like Ricketson to admit that his version of a meritocracy is suddenly under scrutiny and of course he would seek to protect and defend it. No one wants to admit that they had a head start in the race.

As a white, straight, cisgendered, middle class female, I have had enormous advantages over other filmmakers who have suffered reduced access to the opportunities that have allowed me to make my first feature. It is uncomfortable to acknowledge that within my own backpack are shortcuts to this outcome: despite the fact that my empirical evidence is one of personal hardship and toil. 

It was announced at the Screen Australia Development Roadshow recently that Gender Matters is a one-year only initiative, the result of brutal budget cuts that the national screen body has endured. It is admirable that strong steps have been taken to address gender disparity but an unfortunate reality that this window will be left open for a brief time only.

I hope for Australia’s sake and for our national cinema’s future that women of all races, identities and backgrounds use this opportunity to tap confidently on the glass ceiling (or rather podium) that Ricketson is standing on.