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Anne Curtis in Aurora. Photograph from @aurorabyyamlaranas on Facebook

How the plight of women in Philippine cinema is the reverse of women’s stature in Hollywood

In which our critic wonders why, while we employ so many women in influential posts behind the scenes, our portrayal of females onscreen leaves much to be desired.
Andrew Paredes | Mar 08 2019

International Women’s Day is largely ignored as a public holiday in the Philippines, not because we’re more retrograde than countries like Afghanistan or Guinea-Bissau, but because we just don’t seem to hold ourselves to enough account when it comes to women’s issues.

Just as an obvious example, we don’t hold ourselves up to painstaking scrutiny the way Hollywood does, especially in this age of Time’s Up and inclusion riders. It’s been gratifying to note that, judging by the lead actress nominees in the 91st Academy Awards, female characters have more and more been taking control of the narratives of the movies they appear in. There is an unsung nanny who actually serves as the glue of the family she works for (Yalitza Aparicio in Roma); a wife chafing at being the unacknowledged genius behind her husband’s legacy (Glenn Close in The Wife); a queen desperately trying to locate her sanity but finding the blunt edge of her power instead (eventual Oscar winner Olivia Colman in The Favourite); and an ornery writer who unexpectedly finds her voice after turning to literary forgery  (Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me?). As they must, some pernicious stereotypes still linger: The supportive-wife cliché is alive and well in Lady Gaga’s Ally in A Star Is Born, a role which postulates that a woman’s success must necessarily equal a man’s downfall, but nothing in this world—certainly not an awards lineup—can be perfect.

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Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me? Photograph from Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Things are even less perfect behind the scenes. On January 3, San Diego State University published a report titled “Celluloid Ceiling”, which blasted Hollywood for providing even fewer opportunities for women in such areas as feature film directing, warning that the industry was continuing on a path of “radical underrepresentation”.

The study surveyed the role of women in such behind-the-scenes jobs as directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers in the top 250 domestic grossing films released in 2018—a sample that covered roughly 3,076 individuals. And while it found that women comprised 20% of all the practitioners employed in these roles—an uptick of two percentage points from 18% in 2017—only 1% of the 250 films employed 10 or more women in those surveyed roles, compared to 74% of films that employed 10 or more men.

Dr. Martha Lauzen, executive director of the SDSU Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film and the author of “Celluloid Ceiling”, concluded that “The study provides no evidence that the mainstream film industry has experienced the profound positive shift predicted by so many industry observers over the last year.” More gloomily, she noted that “This radical underrepresentation is unlikely to be remedied by the voluntary efforts of a few individuals or a single studio.”

I have found no recent equivalent study for the Philippine movie industry. Since I work as an industry insider and have no hard numbers on hand, I can only judge by what my eyes see—and what I see is heartening where below-the-line employment is concerned. The Philippine film industry is teeming with women directors, producers, executive producers, and editors. I myself work with and report to a number of females in my day job. The industry just seems to take it for granted that women have the creativity, organizational know-how, and attention to detail required to fill these roles.

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Gloria Romero in Rainbow's Sunset

But we are also the reverse of Hollywood. We may not be lagging in affording women the opportunity to work behind the scenes, but our recent portrayals of women onscreen leave much to be desired. The female protagonists of our mainstream movies—whether they are slickly produced studio fare or studio fare with a veneer of independent grit—are all too often addled by love. Or, if they aren’t busy making romance the be-all and end-all of their lives, women are the headlining victims menaced by the supernatural in horror movies. It’s telling that, among the three winning films of last year’s Metro Manila Film Festival, one had an elderly woman playing support to her beloved gay husband, another had a woman confronting apparitions on a marooned ship, and another had a woman facing a quandary in her love life.

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Brie Larson in Captain Marvel. Photograph from Marvel Studios

It’s interesting that you’ve clicked on this essay while Captain Marvel has a virtual monopoly on our cineplexes. As a piece of feminist cinema, Captain Marvel is sweaty and strains to meet its intersectional quotas…but at least it’s making the effort. I wish I could say that our local film industry is making an equivalent effort, its neck tendons popping as we strive to do better at holding up a mirror to the messy complexity of being a woman in Philippine society today.


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