Department of Theatre and Film
Conceptions of Cool in American Society
by Carolyn Jambard-Sweet
Carolyn Sweet received a Bachelors of Art with a specialization in Art History from The Ohio State University in 2004, a Masters of Art with a specialization in Art History from Bowling Green State University in 2006 and is currently working towards a doctorate in American Culture Studies at BGSU. She has taught in the Humanities department at Washtenaw Community College in Ann Arbor Michigan since 2006.
Christina Lane’s essay, Just Another Girl Outside the Neo-Indie, addresses the difficulties women directors face in the male dominated film industry. Lane elucidates the discriminatory production-distribution methods that stem from the “shortsighted process of catering to young, white, male audiences.” According to a study conducted by Martha Lauzen, Lane’s claims are not exaggerated; “In 2006, women comprised 15% of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films.” The “Unchain the Women Directors” billboard created by the neo-feminist group the Guerilla Girls in association with Movies by Women cleverly announces Lauzen’s sad statistics in the heart of Hollywood. The Peter Pan syndrome sells and movie executives know it. So is it really any wonder that the film industry fails to commission women to make movies for men? The lack of faith that the film industry imparts on women directors raises the question of whether or not chicks are cool enough to make movies that guys will dig, or more importantly if women even have the ability to be cool.
While discussing the concept of cool over the last few weeks I have heard it several times from men, not just any men, but intelligent, educated, likable, men; “girls aren’t cool.” That problematic declaration has plagued my thoughts for quite awhile now and I have come to the conclusion that it is in fact true. Deeply ingrained societal ideals do indeed deny women the capacity to be cool. In his book The Conquest of Cool, Thomas Frank cites Norman Mailer’s mythic criteria for cool as the quest for pleasure and “the ability to divorce oneself from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey with the rebellious imperatives of the self.” The constructed identity adhered to women restricts them from meeting the demands of this legendary conception of cool. Women are not encouraged to be adventurous or rebellious loners. While a man who chooses to live an independent lifestyle is referred to as a bachelor a woman who does the same is considered a spinster or an old maid.
The very essence of coolness contradicts the essence of womanhood; women are conceived as maternal, family orientated, desirous of love and companionship, and vulnerable when facing the world alone. The closest thing American culture has to a female Indiana Jones is Lara Croft and her sexualized existence can only be attributed to the market for animated stimulation created by gamers. Women, especially women who are wives or mothers cannot divorce themselves from society and exist without roots, the notion that somebody’s wife or mother has the potential to imagine or create the next great horror, adventure, or science fiction blockbuster is inconceivable to most young men. Thus women are banned from the realm of cool and denied access to the role of the maverick director.
The inability to conceive of women as cool may be a contributing factor to the “one hit wonder” theory explored by Lane. It is far more difficult for women to encapsulate an auteur repertoire and a cult following than it is for the ultra cool male director. The conception of women as un-cool also influences the types of films that women directors have access to. “Women comprised 28% of individuals working on documentaries, followed by 25% on romantic comedies, 23% on comedy/dramas, 19% of romantic dramas, 16% on animated features, 14% on dramas, 12% on comedies and action adventure features, 10% on science fiction, and 5% on horror features.” The small percentages of women successfully working in film are further limited to certain genres, primarily documentaries and romantic comedies and dramas.
Women flourish in the romantic comedy and romantic drama genres because it is socially acceptable for a woman to know romance, whereas men who are romantic are often perceived as feminine. The accessibility for women in the realm of documentaries is no less surprising, especially considering the wide variety of women’s issues that are explored in such films. However it is the boys club that possesses the animated features, action adventures, science fiction, and horror genres. Clearly women are not cool enough to delve into those male orientated waters, or are they? Mary Harron’s American Psycho and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis demonstrate that women can be wildly successful working in these genres if given the opportunity.
The lack of potential opportunities that plague the film industry are rampant throughout various facets of American life and perhaps the misconception of women as un-cool is partly to blame. Issues of discrimination and inequality brought to the forefront in the 1970’s by the feminist movement have dissipated little over the years. Because women are conceived as unable to obtain coolness they are given little faith, especially within creative industries. Christina Lane’s concerns for the future of women filmmakers are relevant and warranted. If the conceptions of cool in American society cannot be modified to encompass females, there is little hope for the success of women directors to escape the realms of chick flicks and socially responsible documentaries.