Loving Movies in the Age of #MeToo

Producer Marie Therese Guirgis on her recent struggles to both be a serious cinephile and stay true to her feminist principles.

I held the Roman Polanski box set in my hand nervously, like the copy of Flowers in the Attic that I’d hidden underneath my bed when I was 10. I admired the cool red artwork and read the description of its contents and special features several times. I looked over at the three big bags of DVDs I was about to throw out in my great DVD purge of 2019. In deciding which to keep and which to discard, my rules were the following: Keep all foreign films, classic Hollywood, and “smaller” American independents because streaming services don’t carry most of them and keep all American/studio movies by major directors that feature director commentaries. I’d decided to keep most of my Woody Allen DVDs, even though they don’t have commentary tracks just in case he gets totally “canceled” one day and his films erased from the culture. I’ve had mixed feelings about the question of his guilt and he exists in a grey area on the #MeToo spectrum, so I felt little compunction keeping his movies.

Polanski was different. I’d come to loathe him during the past couple of years. He’d gone from someone whose sins, I believed, absolutely deserved to be behind him to a hugely entitled narcissist whose extreme self-pity and misogynist rage about #MeToo rendered him indefensible. If I met him, I’d spit in his face. But I didn’t want to throw out his fucking movies. Polanski isn’t even in my top 10 favorite directors, not even my top 20 (I don’t really keep a list; more on that later). I admire his movies more than I love them. Knife in the Water, Rosemary’s Baby and especially Chinatown are movies I’ve re-watched in the theater in every decade of my adult life. On a pure filmmaking level, they are masterpieces. Ever since I fell in love with film in my early twenties, I’ve believed that the greatest movies ever made are mostly behind us. I can’t count on the future providing masterpieces like Chinatown and I don’t trust the future distribution landscape to always make it available.

A diary entry written by Marie Therese Guirgis, aged 9.

Somewhat guiltily, I placed the box set in the “keep” pile. It’s not that I really thought I was doing something wrong. I’ve always separated the artist from the art. But so many women I respect had been telling me for months that I shouldn’t any longer. It’s one thing to disagree with those women, but to hold on to the work of a pedophile rapist? To have his work in my home? “If I was a good feminist, I’d set it on fire,” I thought. There it was, that constant bind, more confusing and suffocating than ever since #MeToo: It’s impossible to be a “good feminist” and a hardcore cinephile at the same time.

I didn’t always know that movies – almost all movies – are sexist. I wish I could say that I rejected Sleeping Beauty, Grease, Pretty Woman and the other horribly sexist iconic movies of my youth, but I loved them all enormously. The film that made me decide, at 19, to devote my adult life to movies, Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang, features an ethereally beautiful, child-like female heroine who barely speaks, wanders the streets of Paris like a phantom Virgin Mary, cries without ruining her mascara and, of course, leads the film’s besotted male protagonist to his death. I still have the poster on my bedroom wall. It wasn’t until my feminist awareness grew in college that I began to have a serious problem. Violence toward women, one-dimensional female characters, extreme sexual objectification, reinforcement of misogynist cliches, the sheer absence of female protagonists (let alone interesting and complex ones) – I saw some or all of these in almost every movie I watched. I could no longer watch movies as I had before. I wrote a paper railing against misogyny in the films of Jean-Luc Godard for my Introduction to Film History class. My female professor didn’t seem entirely convinced. I was too naïve to realize what a sacred cow I’d gone after and I didn’t yet recognize the bind that my professor was herself in.

A young Marie Therese Guirgis with her brother Stephen Adly Guirgis, in front of the legendary New Yorker Theater, owned by Dan and Toby Talbot.

Feminist film theorists would say that I was never immune to the damaging effects of movies. I might have only recognized cinematic misogyny in my late teens, but it had been shaping my sense of self, and thus my life trajectory, since the first Disney movie I saw as a young child. Female viewers are always subjugating our subjectivity. We are “othering” ourselves as we watch female characters through male eyes. Those of us who were movie-crazy from a very young age have been choosing movies over self for as long as we can remember.

Movies had been my great escape and my greatest joy since childhood. My feminist awakening threatened to ruin movies forever. I couldn’t let that happen. So, unconsciously, I created a system, my own internal MPAA. Films now had degrees of misogyny. Reinforcement of stereotypical gender roles, I could mostly handle. Sexual objectification of women up to a certain degree, I’d live with. Absence of female protagonists, OK, fine. Female characters who bear no resemblance to any woman I’ve ever encountered in otherwise “realist” American independent films, no fucking way. (See: all of mumblecore.) Humiliation of women for the hell of it, not acceptable. Humiliation of women as commentary on misogyny, up for discussion. (See: Antichrist.) Gratuitous rape scenes in puerile movies masquerading as “art,” the director can go to hell. (See: Irreversible.) The more talented the director and/or greater the film, the more likely I am to tolerate sexism and misogyny. That’s a hard-to-justify footnote in my system. And I can deem certain films by a director misogynist while still loving the director’s work as a whole.

Almost every time I watch a film, I compartmentalize my feminist principles to some degree. That’s the female cinephile bind.

Marie Therese Guirgis on the set of Keep the Lights On, with writer-director Ira Sachs.

Early in my film career in New York, I discovered that as a young woman who was a very “serious” film lover with a deep knowledge of film history and the ability to influence film culture, I was an outlier. The cinephile world that I partly inhabited was overwhelmingly male. Almost all critics, programmers, and curators who wielded influence and “decided” which films and filmmakers were “great” were men. Almost all the opinions that mattered in the life of a film were those of men. I wasn’t intimidated because I was confident in my film knowledge and taste. But I certainly felt like an outsider all the time. And I occasionally also felt that I had to prove my cinephile bonafides because I wasn’t automatically presumed “serious” the way my male colleagues and peers were. My male peers were always making and discussing lists. To list your favorite films was not only to demonstrate your taste, but also the depth of your knowledge. Male editors of film publications asked me for my top 10 lists. I didn’t think about films that way. I didn’t rank them. But I started keeping a top 10 list every year, because I didn’t want to be left out of the conversation.

There was power in being a minority, for sure. Meeting some male peers for the first time I could sometimes sense their surprise and even awe in encountering a woman who knew as much or even more about film than they did. I was the sole female on many of the film festival juries and panels on which I served, both in the U.S. and abroad. In trade and other news articles, I was often the only female executive quoted. Rather than feeling like a “token,” I felt uncomfortably proud. I was taken seriously. Looking back, I’m a little ashamed that I didn’t challenge the festival and panel organizers on this gender inequality.

#MeToo caused my two worlds – movies and feminism – to collide, and it’s made it that much more painful to be a female cinephile. I was used to arguing with men about movies. I was used to being the lone voice in a room or on a call pointing out the misogyny in a film, script, or actions of an industry figure. I was so used to speaking up on behalf of women that I felt bereft when #MeToo demanded that I choose feminism over film. My “system” had worked for so many years. I hadn’t had to explain or justify it to anyone. For the first time, women who had nothing to do with film started to speak out loudly about my world. Women en masse called for accused filmmakers and other industry figures such as critics to be “canceled.” What started as justifiable outrage over the most egregious allegations of rape and assault became, alarmingly, a movement to boycott and even eliminate male directors with questionable affiliations and debatably misogynist bodies of work, such as Quentin Tarantino.

When Bernardo Bertolucci died, countless women condemned him as, essentially, a rapist, because of one infamous scene in Last Tango in Paris. The accusation was stunningly inaccurate. I was alarmed by how many of these women had clearly never seen the movie and were describing the scene in question and its backstory incorrectly. Smart women had bought into fake news, but this time fake news about one of the world’s greatest directors. If I’m honest, I’ll admit to feeling some disdain for these women, many of whom had little to no expertise in film. To declare even on Facebook that, no, neither Bertolucci nor Brando raped Maria Schneider during filming of Last Tango in Paris – as I did, amidst the fury – was scary. But now I wasn’t afraid of alienating male colleagues, I was afraid of being judged harshly by women. In choosing to stand up for facts that I knew well, I risked losing my feminist bonafides, or worse, being accused of internalized misogyny.

Margot Robbie with Quentin Tarantino on the set of Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. (Image: Andrew Cooper / Sony.)

I don’t think Quentin Tarantino is any more misogynist than the average male. He has, in fact, created some of the most memorable and empowered female characters in recent American film. He has given several actresses the roles of their careers, emotionally and physically challenging roles that showed off acting ranges many in Hollywood never thought they had. If you see Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood and think that Margot Robbie was demeaned by her role and that she should have had much more dialogue and screen time, then I truly believe you don’t understand the movie. Robbie’s Sharon Tate is a loving homage and the first time a work of popular culture has allowed us to appreciate the artistic and human potential, joy and hope that were savagely killed when she was slaughtered. You can disagree with me about all of this, but my opinions about Tarantino and OUATIH don’t make me less of a feminist. If you don’t love film like I do, don’t know as much about film as I do, or don’t devote as large a part of your life to film as I do, please give me the benefit of the doubt. And please know that I’ve been thinking about misogyny in the film culture a lot longer and probably a lot more deeply than you have.

When the Academy Awards nominations were announced last month, once again I was afraid to express my opinion, lest women both in and out of the film industry judge me as a “bad feminist.” Many women I know immediately expressed outrage on social media that Greta Gerwig wasn’t nominated for Best Director and that only one out of the nine Best Picture nominees was directed by a woman. Journalists just as quickly published statistical breakdowns of all the nominations by gender. Many women I know declared that Hustlers and The Farewell, both directed by women, should have been nominated for Best Picture. I felt ashamed because I didn’t agree with the outrage. I don’t think The Farewell and Hustlers deserved nominations for Best Picture and I don’t think either is more deserving of one than the any of the films nominated this year. It happens to be a very strong year. I can’t point to one of the nominated movies and say it’s totally undeserving, as I’ve done in past years.

I can’t even shout “Greta Gerwig was robbed!!” with utter conviction. Little Women is beautifully and boldly directed. Greta Gerwig takes formal risks and successfully flies in the face of many Hollywood filmmaking conventions. Her direction of the actors is wonderful. But the only director I can imagine Gerwig replacing in the Best Director category is Todd Phillips, and I can’t say with total conviction that she should have been nominated instead of him. All things being equal, yes, I would nominate Gerwig over Phillips.

I’d like to see more women nominated for Best Director and Best Picture. I’d like to see more women with films in competition at Cannes. I just don’t know if mandating parity in awards nominations and film festival selection before there’s a critical mass of female directors equal in experience making an equal number of films per year as men is smart. My experience tells me that unless the films by women that are programmed and/or nominated are as undeniably accomplished and masterful as those by men, there will be backlash and women will have even fewer opportunities going forward. And I don’t think we’re there yet – not because there aren’t as many inherently talented women, but because women aren’t being given nearly enough opportunity to make films, or to even dream of making films.

Greta Gerwig with Meryl Streep on the set of Little Women. (Image by Wilson Webb / Sony)

It’s hugely important to note that all of this year’s Oscar-nominated directors have made many previous movies. They’ve had years of experience to hone their skills and explore their natural talent. Little Women is only Gerwig’s third movie as a director. I am so excited to see what her fourth and fifth look like. I am extremely eager to see what Lulu Wang’s next movie is like. Most of all, I desperately want there to be more women making movies. I strongly believe that the most destructive force working against women is neither awards bodies nor film festivals, but the business of filmmaking. I could write a whole other piece on gender and racial inequality in the film business. From studios to independent film companies, from producers to distributors, decision-making lies almost entirely with men – white men. White men greenlight production and acquisitions. If you look at film criticism and film exhibition, there again you have white male domination. Almost everyone crucially important to the life of a movie is a white man. When we address this outrageous inequality, we will see more movies by women. And the more movies made by women, the more likely young girls will envision themselves as movie directors.

There is one more thing that needs to happen in order for more women to make movies, but it’s less tangible and a little harder to explain. Girls and women have to feel entitled to direct movies. Unlike other major arts, such as writing or painting, you need significant capital to make a movie and you need a crew of people to work for you to fulfill your vision. A director is not only a boss on set, they’re also an entrepreneur who has to convince people to both financially invest in their vision and to come work for them based on a relatively abstract thing: a script or an idea. You have to believe that your idea – a thought that came into your head one day – deserves to be realized. On set, you have to lead a team of sometimes hundreds of people in the realization of your idea. In my experience, all of this requires a healthy ego and sense of entitlement (the good kind of entitlement). Our culture has historically failed to bestow either on girls and young women. We haven’t encouraged leadership in girls. We haven’t encouraged girls to command attention for anything but their appearance. We haven’t encouraged women to take up space. In fact, we’ve often tormented women who do. And it’s much worse for women of color – we eviscerate them. There won’t be an equal number of women directing movies until girls feel as entitled to everything as boys do, and are allowed to take it all.

When women are running the business of film in equal numbers, the film culture will change. Female cinephiles will no longer find themselves in a torturous bind. We won’t have to choose between movies and ourselves.

Marie Therese Guirgis is a film producer who has worked in both fiction and documentary film. She recently produced The Brink, by Alison Klayman.