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Women in film fare worse now than 30 years ago — where do we go from here?

Julie Sprankles is a freelance writer living in the storied city of Charleston, SC. When she isn't slinging sass for SheKnows, she enjoys watching campy SyFy creature features (Pirahnaconda, anyone?), trolling the internet for dance work...

Trailblazing Women's Illeana Douglas highlights gender bias, proving women's stories need to be told more

One week ago, Jennifer Lawrence wrote an online essay decrying gender pay inequality. Four days ago, Bradley Cooper vowed to reveal his salary to any female costars before contract negotiations. And one day ago, Ariana Grande and her mother took to Twitter to call attention to sexism proliferated by the media.

If gender bias wasn't on your radar before, it likely is now. So here's another figure for you: zero.

That's the number of female filmmakers that acclaimed actress, director, screenwriter and producer Illeana Douglas discovered while browsing the American Film Institute's list of the 100 Greatest American Movies.

Zero. Of course, it isn't for lack of trying or talent. In fact, as Douglas delves into as host of the groundbreaking Turner Classic Movies (TCM) series, Trailblazing Women, a female filmmaker was responsible for the first narrative film ever made. It was called The Cabbage Fairy and it was the brainchild of Alice Guy-Blaché in 1896. For that matter, a female filmmaker — Dorothy Arzner — was responsible for revolutionizing the film industry by using a boom mic for the first time.

More: Jennifer Lawrence has conquered the wage gap with her new film

Which begs the question: Were women purposefully left out of the equation of filmmaking? "I just think it is a glaring reminder that if you can't even put women on a list of the best films in the history of filmmaking when women were there at the beginning, what does that say to the young filmmakers out there now?" says Douglas.

Enter Trailblazing Women, the multi-year programming initiative by TCM aimed at raising awareness about the historical contributions of women working behind the camera. It was through research for her role as host that Douglas noticed a troubling trend — the very trend that is now sparking the attention of young Hollywood monoliths like Lawrence.

"We're in 2015, and some of the issues that I saw for women filmmakers in the silent era are still happening, where women are not getting paid as well and they're not receiving credit for their work," says Douglas, "and they're not being put on lists where their films would stand equal to men's."

Despite the passage of several decades, things are getting decidedly worse as opposed to better. There was a slight uptick, considering there were only three female directors from 1896 until the '70s, when women behind the camera began experiencing a bit of a boom.

So much so, many of us don't even realize how many of the most popular films of the past were directed by women.

In the '70s, we had Penelope Spheeris' The Decline of Western Civilization. In the '80s, Martha Coolidge's Valley Girl and Real Genius, Amy Heckerling's Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Penny Marshall's Big and Mary Lambert's Pet Sematary. In the '90s, Marshall's A League of Their Own, Heckerling's Look Who's Talking and Clueless, Lesli Linka Glatter's Now and Then, Spheeris' Wayne's World, Barbra Streisand's The Prince of Tides, Nora Ephron's Sleepless in Seattle and Kathryn Bigelow's Point Break.

These movies were mainstream — they featured female filmmakers, yes, but also female crew members. They were great films, not simply "women's films." Then, as Douglas points out, "Starting around 2005, things began narrowing again... [now] you just don't see women operating cameras, you don't see them on the crew, and you don't see female directors as much."

And, well, those figures prove stark. Today, men outnumber women 23-to-1 as directors of the top-grossing films since 2002. There is a 5-to-1 ratio of men working on films to women — with only 2 percent of cinematographers being female.

These statistics seem especially problematic in light of the fact that Douglas didn't observe the same issues in other countries. "This was a uniquely American problem," she says, "where there is just this really bad gender bias."

What gives, right? Who's to blame for this regression and how do we stop it in its tracks?

We reveal it, like Jennifer Lawrence. We question it, like Ariana Grande. We challenge it, like Bradley Cooper. And we talk about it, like Illeana Douglas and Trailblazing Women.

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"This year we are focusing on the historical contributions of women in film — showing movies going all the way back from 1896 to the present, with people like Kathryn Bigelow — and we're getting the conversation started," says Douglas. "So let's see where we are next year! But I really feel like the ball is rolling now. We're blazing that trail again."

The trail certainly does seem to be catching fire. Just last week, news broke that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is now interviewing female directors to determine if legal action against the industry should be taken for discrimination against women in film and TV.

As they say, actions speak louder than words and, in this case, Douglas agrees that action is needed to effect change. "I'm not a lawyer so I can't speak from a legal point of view, but I'm saying as a female writer, director, producer and actress, there is gender bias in the industry. There is," she shares. "And if women are given a forum to talk about it, then the floodgates are gonna open."

Douglas is realistic, though. There seems to be some sort of learning curve to gender equality we've yet to put our finger on, so lasting change will be actualized by laying the groundwork now for future generations.

"If we're watching these movies together and posing a lot of questions, and then we come to the last night of shows moving into the next generation of filmmakers, hopefully with that momentum we can come out of this series and get one film — just one, that's all I'm asking for — directed by a woman to be put on the AFI Top 100 Films list," Douglas explains, adding, "I think that if we can start there, that if we can start to make some changes, that momentum will continue."

Because it isn't just women who suffer from this societal oversight, says Douglas. "I think men, too, feel the loss of not having women's stories told. All of these stories we're talking about, it's like a quilt starting from 1896 to the present. We're going to educate people with entertainment and that's what to me is really the most rewarding thing — getting to see great movies directed by women. Let's get more of 'em!"

And that sounds like a pretty fantastic jumping-off place.

More: New study shows Hollywood's made zero progress representing women in film

Don't miss Trailblazing Women every Tuesday and Thursday starting at 8 p.m. ET on TCM.

Trailblazing Women's Illeana Douglas highlights gender bias, proving women's stories need to be told more
Image: WENN

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