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It’s a Problem in Film School Too

Disclaimer: The following article contains discussion of sensitive topics that may be upsetting for some. 

If the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements have taught us anything, it’s that the film industry has a very real, and very serious problem with sexism, sexual assault and harassment. So, if the film industry has such a huge problem, do film schools as well? It’s not as if these people got their foot in the door and suddenly thought that being an abuser was okay. It’s hard to definitively say whether their behaviours started in school though, as there are no statistics that single out film school offenders. What we do know is that within the visual and performing arts programs at Canadian universities (which include film), almost two out of three graduates were women (though it’s more likely to be 50/50 for film programs). We know that one out of every two women who report being sexually assaulted are between the ages of 15 and 24, and that  the average age of a University student in Canada being just under 23 years old. We also know that one in five women attending post-secondary school experience sexual assault. It is unsurprising, then, that a recent American-based study revealed that almost one third of post-secondary male students would rape a woman. Now, none of this means it’s purely a film school problem–it’d be extremely remiss to think so. Prevalent sexual misconduct and sexism are societal issues through and through. But, just because the blame can be assigned to more than one area, does not mean something (or someone) shouldn’t be held any less accountable for contributing to it.

So, why should film school be held accountable? Because it can easily become a breeding ground for sexism, due to the amount of interaction between peers and the power imbalance created when assuming a job for a project. It can also be exacerbated through idea sharing. Unfortunately, there seems to be a theme with many of the male-lead projects pitched in film schools. As stated in the essay “The Woman with the Movie Camera” by Michelle Citron and Ellen Seiter, “Most [students] consider themselves political liberals and have enough consciousness about racism to themselves censor their scenarios for overtly racist content. However, many male students submit film treatments that are extremely sexist. Violence against women is a favorite student theme. That male students have such a lack of consciousness about these issues alarms us.” Essentially, the gross treatment of women (though imagined) doesn’t cross their minds as being problematic. Instead, it seems to be a norm, an exciting plot point to dramatize their film, further allowing these issues of inequality to germinate.  

If you look at first-hand accounts, a grim picture of film school is painted. Back in 2015, student Victoria Rozler spoke about being a woman in film school. Some may dismiss her as being “over-the-top” or “sensitive,” but she’s bringing a very serious issue to light. Sexism is insidious in nature. It may not seem like a big deal at first, but it is, especially as it builds  over time. It has the power to invalidate women, their achievements, and can make them seem and feel inferior.

Rozler’s not the only one who’s noticed this problem. Past film school attendee Erica Rose brings up many of the same points, while also touching on the lack of female-made content within her school’s curriculum. Rose mentions how having a course dedicated to women filmmakers be an elective, in contrast to a similar required class that analyzed important films, which only featured one woman-made work, sends a clear message of whose work is considered more important. If even the schools seem to support such biases, it’s no wonder the students do as well.

I asked a current undergraduate film school student in the Toronto area her thoughts on this issue.

Do you think sexism is a problem in film schools?

Oh, definitely!

What’s been your overall experience as a woman in film school?

I love film school. I would not have applied and agreed to come to film school if I didn’t. Before attending film school, I was always warned that it was male-dominated and that I was most likely going to be “oppressed” for the simple fact that I am a woman. The sad reality is that it’s true, being a woman studying film isn’t the most agreed upon life trail. The overall experience as a woman in film school has been challenging. Myself, along with all the other women I know in the program, face challenges everyday just to prove ourselves… to prove that we belong in this program and in this industry.

Do you think women are treated as equals by their male peers in film school?

Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, no. It all depends on who it is. Some men have no problem having a woman know more about something that they do, but other times they will take total offence to women being knowledgeable about something they may not know much about (or may even know just as much about). Their egos get the best of them and allow them to degrade us or make us feel lesser than them in order to feel powerful. I’ve realized that many men’s egos are very fragile and if they see a woman doing something better than them they will usually try to prove themselves to be better.

Do you feel women are treated as equally/fairly as the men are by their film school teachers? And, if not, why do you think that is?

Again, this all depends on the teacher him/herself. So far, I have not noticed many issues when it comes to TA’s/Profs favouring a certain gender.

Can you give some examples of women being treated poorly (as in sexist, harassing, or assaulting ways in any magnitude) by men in film school?  

There’s a lot. There’s “little” things that us women don’t find little that men do, such as telling us how the camera/equipment works when we have taken the exact same classes as they have. Telling us to do the “feminine” jobs on set like craft or Assistant Directing (which is the toughest job but no man wants to do it cause it’s actual work!), even stuff like grabbing our body parts, whether it be our ass because they think we’re attractive, or grabbing our arm and moving us out of the way. These definitely aren’t “little” things, but to some men that do them, they definitely don’t realize how sexist they are actually coming across as.

I have also found that some men [have] sexually assaulted women. This could definitely be a power thing … because they’re in film school and they believe that they will make it big one day [they think it’s okay to] non-consensually come in contact with women. These types of things make women feel humiliated and therefore lead us to believe that we don’t deserve a higher position on a film set other than craft or something “sissy-like.”

From what I know and have heard, all or most women in film school have experienced some sort of sexism. Thankfully, we are finally realizing that we don’t experience these actions alone and that we can all relate in some aspect and therefore have allowed women to stand up for themselves and become more powerful in the environment.

Do you think anything can be done about the sexism found in film schools?

That’s hard to say. You’re always going to have at least one person thinking that they’re better than everybody else, and that person is usually male. Film has always been considered a male-dominated field and lately women have been finding a great interest in studying it. I definitely can’t say if sexism is ever going to change in film school because technically it hasn’t even changed in our overall society.

As a film school student myself, I’m not surprised by her answers, nor by what anyone else has mentioned. I’ve been subject to (and witnessed) many of the same points brought up. Unfortunately, if one doesn’t want to believe first-hand accounts from the women going through it, it’s hard to combat the matter.

It’s easy to attribute the prevalent sexism in the film industry to just being a “them” problem. “It’s an industry full of egomaniacs. Everyone’s out for themselves” or some variation thereof are common “explanations” for why there’s an issue. But it’s not just the film industry. Misogynistic acts don’t just suddenly start when you enter the workforce. It’s something that starts much earlier, but if schools can’t proactively work on this, the problem will only get worse. A place of higher learning is perfect for teaching those the error of their ways, and to stop this in its tracks. It’s time to stop letting these things slide and do something about it.


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