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Women Filmmakers Course Centers the Stories Hollywood Ignores

By Sarah Hojsak

Plan B, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and Zola movie posters


March 20, 2023

Women are making many of the most groundbreaking films today, but their accomplishments are rarely reflected in mainstream Hollywood cinema. According to a San Diego State University study, women directed only 18% of top-grossing films in 2022, and only 33% of films featured female protagonists.

Realizing that too many films by young or up-and-coming women directors were not getting the recognition they deserved, Jacqui Sadashige, PhD, had the idea to develop a course that explores women’s representation in film. Sadashige worked with Jennifer Yusin, PhD, director of the women’s and gender studies program, to offer 'Women Filmmakers' in the College of Arts and Sciences this winter term.

“Women filmmakers is, of course, a huge topic,” Sadashige explained. To narrow it down, she decided to focus on films written or directed by women that have been released in recent years and that center topics relevant to women’s lives today. She hopes students see themselves in the films and find stories that resonate with their own lived experiences.

The films on the syllabus span genres including comedy, horror and short film, and explore topics like race and representation, pregnancy and abortion, bodies and identity, the #MeToo movement and the trope of the “messy heroine.”

The first film the class watched was the 2019 French film “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” “It’s a historical fiction film with subtitles, and it’s quite long, so I was debating, ‘Should we open with this film? Is it too slow?’” Sadashige said. “But students who had never seen the film were riveted, and students who had seen it before gained a new appreciation for it.” 

Sadashige also wasn’t sure how students would respond to “Zola,” a 2020 dark comedy based on a viral Twitter thread. “The main character is a Black woman, but she's also an exotic dancer, which led to a conversation about the eroticizing of non-white women’s bodies,” Sadashige said. “Students thought it was refreshing that the writers and directors took something that was just seriously a bunch of tweets and were able to turn it into a very watchable movie that subverts stereotypes and centers a strong, independent female character.”

Another film that students connected with was the 2022 Pixar animated movie “Turning Red.” “We don’t see a lot of recognition of female animators, so I thought having that on the syllabus would be interesting,” Sadashige explained. “Several students said that they felt really seen in this film, even though it was an animated feature. Students of Asian descent felt that “Turning Red” nailed the experience of growing up in an immigrant family and having to navigate two different cultures.”

While the class is made up of students from across the university with a range of majors and interests, Sadashige hopes students find a sense of empowerment and community from having the chance to meet peers who are interested in women’s and gender studies and social justice issues.

Drexel’s women’s and gender studies program, offered as a minor in the College of Arts and Sciences, encourages students to think critically about the ways gender, race, class and sexuality shape social, cultural and political institutions in our world. 

Sadashige hopes students leave her class with a greater appreciation for the breadth of films being made by women, and that they also continue to apply a critical lens to the films they choose to watch in the future. 

“If in the future they seek out women filmmakers, filmmakers of color, queer filmmakers—people whose films don't always get the same attention as huge blockbusters—and support them, then we can grow the community of appreciation and show the people who are funding movies that there is a huge market for stories that are different, unique and being made by non-mainstream filmmakers,” she explained. 

Sadashige would also like to see films made by women and centered on women’s stories become more widely available. While developing the course, she ran into the unexpected challenge of accessing some of the films she wanted to teach—for example, she had to stream “Plan B” on Hulu because it’s not available on DVD or Blu-Ray. 

She hopes the recent success of films like “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” which features a majority Asian American cast, and Sarah Polley’s “Women Talking” will influence the types of stories Hollywood tells. 

“Hopefully we’re seeing greater interest in different kinds of stories,” she said. “Everyone should be able to go to a movie and say, ‘I feel seen,’ or, ‘Wow, that is a story I haven’t heard before. I’m learning something new about the world and the people who live in it by watching this film.’” 

Interested in watching some of the films the class has been studying? Check out the list below.

All Too Well: The Short Film” – written and directed by Taylor Swift
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” – written and directed by Céline Sciamma
“Turning Red” – directed by Domee Shi
“Plan B” – directed by Natalie Morales
“Promising Young Woman” – directed by Emerald Fennell
“Zola” – directed by Janicza Bravo
“Fleabag” – written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge
“I May Destroy You” – created, written and co-directed by Michaela Coel
Suicide by Sunlight” – directed by Nikyatu Jusu
My Final Girl: Black Women in American Horror” – directed by Kristina Leath
“Titane” – directed by Julia Ducournau
“Women Talking” – directed by Sarah Polley