On cable, tech gods, and the hidden costs of DIY filmmaking:
thoughts on "The Woman with the Movie Camera"

by Ellen Seiter

While the politics of gendered representations in student films and the behavioral dynamics of production classes have remained sadly unchanged, significant changes have also taken place in the realm of work for women and how women are represented on the screen. Here I examine some of the possibilities offered in cable television production and question why technological changes in the movement to digital from analog modes of filmmaking have not had more impact on production students, aspiring filmmakers and mainstream genres, while suggesting that cable television has offered appealing alternatives to the dream of making it in Hollywood.

“Boys still buy the action figures”

Women have made significant inroads and at a surprising rate in many filmmaking fields: teaching film production in the academy, feature film editing, producing, post-production effects and compositing, and screenwriting. In a big cinema school like the University of Southern California, where I teach, women head production tracks, such as sound design, animation, cinematography, interactive media/gaming and editing. Women populate half of USC’s large MFA programs. Directing remains a more elusive, although there are more women coming up through Sundance and university programs in the United States, and through European Union film finance for independent work.

The rise of large-budget, heavily special effects tentpole films (Pirates of the Caribbean, Transformers, Iron Man, and the like) eroded funding for small and mid-range projects and diminished the chances for women to gain experience directing. The rise of big franchises has provided plenty of work for young men who go to Comic-Con, but has tended to limited roles for women to girlfriends or kick-ass supergirls. Because so many of these transmedia (to use Henry Jenkins’s term) properties are based on comic book properties created in the 30s, 40s, and 50s, or from popular action video games, such as Halo, they hold less promise than drama or comedy, for fan girls. Video games are now so important to the entire enterprise of big-budget filmmaking, and video game production is so heavily male-dominated, that it is hard to feel hopeful about the long-term impact of this trend.

Yet women have made greater and more lasting gains as directors, writers, producers and show runners in television rather than film. Television audiences are growing more female all the time, for both broadcast and cable. This leads to more hiring of women in key positions. And women benefit from the more stable working conditions and union protections of the television labor force, the predictable rate of production, that allows the possibility of maintaining a stable residence. Of course, HBO’s legendary series such as Deadwood, The Sopranos and The Wire have been dominated by flashy show runners who perpetuate the same kind of auteur mystique as that in Hollywood features. However, television production because its sheer size and speed provides a big tent, with lots of creative work in directing and writing. Unfortunately, when I visit television sets in Los Angeles, I often find that most of the women crew members are working makeup, wardrobe and script supervision. The directors of photography, gaffers, camera operators, and focus pullers still tend overwhelmingly to be male, although they are more ethnically and racially diverse than what I saw visiting broadcast TV sets in the 1980s and 90s. There are more women in postproduction, however, in the back, less visible, working on computers: the sound mixers, colorists, compositors, editors, 3-D digital effects artists.

Children’s television is one place where a radical breakthrough in opportunities for women occurred beginning in the 1990s. Women producers took the risk of casting girls as leads and succeeded in creating parts for girls such as Shelby Woo, Alex Mack, Clarissa and Angelica who were intelligent, adventurous and physically daring. Off screen, Nickelodeon’s ranks were full of smart women who had a high degree of feminist consciousness—and happened to be mothers. When Vicki Mayer and I interviewed twenty creative producers in children’s entertainment in 1997, they all attributed the stronger presence of women in children’s television to networking among women, women hiring other women, and women’s interest in kids’ programming. Within the television industry, kids’ programming is considered less prestigious than other types of programming no matter what the salary, and for this reason, it has been more open to women. Today there are more women in senior positions in kids’ programming than in all other types of TV. But the proliferation of cable has also meant more and better opportunities for women than feature filmmaking. The problem with children’s TV was not dissimilar to the problem in Hollywood today with big franchise blockbusters:

“The perception out there is that boys will buy the action figures and so they’re worth more money. Girls buy more books and advertisers don’t sell books on television.”

The same logic of the marketplace still drives features films, and (big) boys still buy the action figures, or the video games, or rather, the video games. But Nickelodeon showed that quirky girl characters could appeal to male and female audiences. This quote from a Nickelodeon executive could describe any of the heroines on Showtime regarding their casting decisions:

“We pay more attention to her attitude than the physical aspects. We want someone who could be a kid's friend, not someone more pretty or popular. We don’t want a character to be overly feminine because those are not typical girl characteristics. Those factors influence the way we cast. “ (Seiter 2004)

Cable television is not a bad deal for women as directors, actors and writers, and it bears celebrating and recognizing the possibilities for women to work in a medium that has historically had less sexual violence against women, more experimentation in terms of genre, and better parts for actors than feature films. One of my favorite examples is Nurse Jackie on Showtime—a film with three show runners, two of them women, that incorporates distinguished performances by middle-aged actors such as Edie Falco and Anna Deavere Smith. Additionally the show’s scripts incorporate the problems of full time paid employment work, middle age, female friendship, and child rearing into the series. There are many ways that a show like Nurse Jackie realizes most of the dreams that Ien Ang, Charlotte Brunsdon, Tania Modleski and I had for a feminist soap opera back in the 80s. These premium shows keep the serialized storylines and ensemble acting but switch to more limited runs of episodes (seemingly a necessity for making good TV) and the genre of comedy.

Tech gods

What surprises me about the continuing gender dynamics in the film production classroom is that the prevalence of digital technologies might have had the effect of opening up production to more women. Work on computers, where after all more and more of the film production process has moved, could be less gender typed than cinematography and lighting, artistic fields that have proven exceptionally difficult for women to break in to. With talents exercised on a laptop, at home and in relative privacy—especially for those who can afford to upgrade hardware and software and keep the highest speed connections going—film going digital should have evened the playing field in the years before students even enter college.

While increases in access to technologies supporting multimedia production provide more opportunities for girls to learn production skills at an early age, there continues to be an urgent need to validate and enhance these talents in the classroom. For five years, I ran an after-school computer class in a Black and Latino, working class neighborhood in San Diego with children ages 8-12 (Seiter 2005). This experience drove me to look to the research literature on computer education to help explain what I observed in my classes—and I have found these tendencies played out in K-12 classrooms across the country, where I do research evaluations for the Macarthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Initiative. Let me share some of that here as a way to echo the importance of pedagogy in the film production classroom, as well as in the non-linear editing lab or post-production suite.

Some computer researchers have noted that girls thrive in environments where equal time on computers is ensured through careful monitoring, and that “gender differences between boys and girls disappear when computers are used for a rather than a fantasy goal and involve interpersonal cooperation” (Huber and Schofield 1998). Margolis and Fisher found that the most effective strategy for getting girls into computing was recruitment of friendship circles, which helps compensate for some of the recurrent disincentives for girls in computer courses, such as the lack of female students, male students making the girls feel incompetent, the risk of seeming like a geek, and the fact that most computer games bore them (2002, 113). Margolis and Fisher identified one common trait among women who persisted in studying computer science at Carnegie Mellon University and reached skill levels at which they began to perceive themselves as competent: they were able to find alternatives to the dominant image of students as male and as “narrowly focused, intense hackers.” (133).

In fact, it was the male hacker image (and we might substitute here the boy genius filmmaker stereotype) that women found most repellent and discouraging in computer science courses. Margolis and Fisher’s project was to test specific educational interventions to improve the success rate of women students. When faculty and students were made more conscious of the ways the ‘boy hacker icon” influenced their course and project design, as well as the culture of the computer lab, a more multidimensional view of computing could be nurtured that was more inviting to female students. In the conclusions to their study, they warn that for teachers to bring about the desired change in the gender dynamics of the classroom requires “a ferocious attention to the quality of the student experience” (2002, 140).

A second dimension of student experience is the lack of public recognition of female expertise with computing. From universities to elementary schools, I have observed that both male and female students confer on male students the status of expert of what Larry Cuban calls “tech god.”(Cuban 2001) Tech gods are those who experience a change in status with increased access to technology because their skills are so widely recognized by adults and fellow students. In the climate of drastic school cutbacks to support staff and AV and computer equipment, teachers and administrators often rely on students to repair, connect and maintain school networks, paying them with independent study credits or free periods instead of cash.

To correct the tendency to identify only those tech gods who are male, I have instituted assignments in my courses in which women are especially encouraged, even required, to take over the teaching during hands-on demonstrations and to act as coaches to other students. Many women have gone from initial reticence to taking on a substantial role as roving helpers during sessions in the computer lab. As teachers we need to question ourselves about which students we perceive as smart about computers and technology and why. There is a tendency to ascribe high intelligence to males who behave in certain ways and display certain skill sets, to make them into “tech gods.” I have often found later that there was a quiet, retiring female student present who knew how to trouble shoot better than the tech god, but was anxious about the public exposure and taint of being perceived as too geeky. The same is often true of students of color and working class students of both genders.

Hidden costs of DIY video

Recently I observed students at the YouMedia lab at the Harold Washington branch of the Chicago Public library. Located on State Street near public transportation, equal numbers of male and female teens, and the majority of them African American, worked on computers and played on video games and laptops creating media. The space was designed to be noisy, interactive, and conducive to peer-to peer learning. It is a real utopian space.

The dream of working in film, music, advertising, design, or gaming of all kinds has now been disseminated on a vast scale—to boys and to girls, to working class as well as middle class teens. The proliferation of computers in the lives of youth and the broader availability of desktop video, animation programs such as Flash, non linear editing programs such as Final Cut Pro, sound programs such as Pro Tools have accelerated the numbers of those aspiring to work in the entertainment industries. For a decade parents and students were encouraged to demand new technologies as the top funding priority, and schools such as charter schools that threw out traditional curricula in favor of multimedia learning, learning through digital media became the most popular in all school districts. In fact, the rapid spread of digital media as communication technologies and leisure among youth has encouraged legions of students (and often their parents) to dream of escaping the dull grind for a cool job. Because the last thirty years has seen these developments spread beyond the elite college classroom with 16mm film equipment to everyday laptops, prosumer and consumer models, more young women now aspire to film production than they did thirty years ago (I was the only woman in my cohort in the first MFA class at Northwestern University, for example). But the barriers to women’s participation in film remain high. There is a wide gap between the capability of doing creative work in a digital environment and the requirements of successful careers: insane hours, total devotion to work, and financial risk.

Two important effects are the expansion of dreams of “making it” in the creative industries and the promotion of a new model of training in which young people are encouraged to invest enormous resources in training, self-promotion, technology, and unpaid content creation—what is called “entrepreneurial labor” (Neff et al. 2005). Entrepreneurial labor may not be new to Hollywood—schmoozing of all kinds, unremunerated work, and vast investments in self-improvement—have been a staple for a century. Digital labor has the potential to vastly increase the degree to which media corporations can manage to off-load the costs of media production and entice potential employees to invest huge amounts of time on unremunerated tasks.

The digitization of media work has made costs even more prohibitive than 16mm was. While the overall costs of production have famously been lowered due to desktop video, the planned obsolescence of so much hardware and software, the treadmill of upgrades and replacements, and the soaring costs of technical support, cause digital production to strain—if not break—the budgets of educational institutions at all levels. At the high end of elite private education, the costs are increasingly passed on to the students. In my book, The Internet Playground (2005), I discuss the ways that these dreams have led schools to accept unprecedented amounts of corporate control, encouraged the hiring of non-union teachers, opened school boards and administrations to those with corporate rather than educational experience, and left public schools with vast costs for maintaining new technologies (Seiter, 2007).

The digital realm appears to be more open to larger numbers of women than analog production: a meritocracy of talent, young people being discovered from their You Tube posts without bothering with the costs of film school, the possibility of working from home. Stanley Aronowitz has argued that what is hidden in most discussions of media jobs, is the ways that they impose tremendous levels of financial risk, and as such women are still vulnerable (2004).

“These most desirable kinds of jobs in terms of closeness of ‘cool’ media, informal work environments and flexible schedules are scarce, and even at that they have evolved to impose far more risk on individuals than similar white collar jobs.”

The boy-genius atmosphere of computer science and gaming programs have proven extremely tough for attracting female students. Extended periods of unemployment also entail the acceptance of jobs with no benefits, long hours, part-time work, and short-term contracts. As educators it is important to think through and to talk about with young people the realities of these newer technologies of creative work (Seiter 2007). Young people famously use digital communications—instant messaging, cell phone texting, social networking websites, texting, to maintain their social capital—at least with those peers who can afford to keep up with costly requirements of these technologies. Yet there is nothing inherently democratic about the young and the digital. It’s a (rich, white) boys’ club, too.

Works cited

Aronowitz, Stanley (2004) "Against Schooling: Education and Social Class." Social Text (22: 2), Summer 2004, pp. 13-35

Cuban, Larry. 2001. Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Huber, B. R., and J. W. Schofield. 1998. “Gender and the sociocultural context of computing in Costa Rica.” In Education/Technology/Power: Educational Computing as a Social Practice, ed. Hank Bromley and Michael W. Apple. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Neff, Gina, Elizabeth Wissinger and Sharon Sukin (2005) “Entrepreneurial Labor among Cultural Producers: ‘Cool’ Jobs in ‘Hot’ Industries.” Social Semiotics vol. 15, no. 3, 307-334.

Margolis, Jane, and Allan Fisher. 2002. Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Seiter, Ellen. 2007. “Practicing at Home: Computers, Pianos and Cultural Capital.” Ed. Tara McPherson, Digital Youth, Innovation and the Unexpected (Cambridge: MIT Press, MacArthur Foundation Digital Media Learning Series, 2007)

Seiter, Ellen. 2005. The Internet Playground: Children’s Access, Entertainment and Mis-Education. New York: Peter Lang.

Seiter, Ellen. 2004. “After Saturday Morning: Diversifying Children’s Television” in The Nickelodeon Book, Ed. Heather Hendershot, New York University Press.

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