These Influential Women Filmmakers are Here to Disrupt a Male-Dominated Industry
From aerospace engineering to architecture to finance, it's still a man's world. Despite the giant steps toward gender equality the Western world has made over the last several decades, many attractive, lucrative industries are dominated by men to this very day. The world of filmmaking is one of them. According to Women and Hollywood, of the 51 top-grossing films of 2021 — which saw 55 directors attached to them — just 12.7 percent of the directors were women. And only three of them were women of color.
Clearly, we have a long way to go when it comes to representation behind the camera (Lord knows representation in front of the camera requires much work as well), and these female filmmakers are some of the inspiring faces of change. From the very beginning of the movie industry to present day, these directors have cemented their places in Hollywood herstory.
The French auteur and César Award nominee is known for her fearless slow-burn art-house films that tackle heavy topics like race, immigration, violence, and existentialism. She often accomplishes this via surreal, carnal imagery and lots of silence — which tend to weigh on the audience in a penetrative way.
With meaningful films like 1988's Chocolat, 1999's Beau Travail, 2001's Trouble Every Day, and, more recently, 2018's High Life — which stars the increasingly impressive Robert Pattinson (Good Time) — Claire Denis's work is equally shocking and beautiful.
“The cinema should be human and be part of people’s lives; it should focus on ordinary existences in sometimes extraordinary situations and places. That is what really motivates me," she once told The Guardian.
Contemporary American filmmaker Ava DuVernay has something to say. Her stunning portfolio boasts endeavors like 2014's Selma, 2016's 13th, and Netflix's 2019 limited series When They See Us — all of which focus on U.S. history and politics as well as the Black experience in America.
As detailed by the National Women's History Museum, the history-making director became "the first African American woman to win Best Director at the Sundance Film Festival, be nominated for a Best Director Golden Globe, direct a film nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, and direct a film with a budget over $100 million." Ava's powerful, trailblazing efforts have made her the highest-grossing Black woman director in the history of the American box office.
If you think getting your stiletto (or Dr. Martens boot) in the door of Hollywood as a filmmaking woman today is difficult, writer, director, and actress Ida Lupino beat the odds back in the '50s and '60s. Initially a prominent Emmy-nominated actress known for her work in noir films like 1941's High Sierra and 1956's While the City Sleeps, London-born Ida had an itch to bring her own stories and visions to the silver screen. Her films were daring, often confronting the darkness hidden in the depths of American society.
As detailed in Therese Grisham and Julie Grossman's book Ida Lupino, Director: Her Art and Resilience in Times of Transition, Ida's work effortlessly handled heavy topics like "rape, polio, unwed motherhood, bigamy, exploitative sports, and serial murder." Some of the best movies she directed include 1950's Outrage, 1953's The Hitch-Hiker, and 1953's The Bigamist.
Whether it's her love for quirky indie filmmaking or her ability to bring relatable hardships to life, Oscar nominee Greta Gerwig has already solidified her place in Hollywood as a directing legend with just three films under her belt. Before writing and directing 2017's Oscar-nominated, Saoirse Ronan–led dramedy Lady Bird, the Sacramento-born filmmaker was known for acting in 2012's beloved New York–set indie film Frances Ha — which she co-wrote alongside director Noah Baumbach.
She also appeared in 2009's artful slasher flick The House of the Devil — which acts as a love letter to 1980s horror — and in 2016's 20th Century Women. Nothing about Greta Gerwig's taste screams "blockbuster hit," and that's why we knew she'd handle her 2019 remake of Little Women with proper care. She's currently working on directing and co-writing Barbie, a live-action film starring Ryan Gosling (La La Land) as Ken and Margot Robbie (I, Tonya) as the eponymous Mattel doll.
Ladies, it's time we show our respect for the OG female director. Born in France circa 1873, directing pioneer Alice Guy-Blaché is credited as "the world's first female filmmaker," as she began making movies in the U.S. well before women had the right to vote. Alice's love for the film industry — which she started working in as a secretary to a motion-picture camera inventor — was stronger than the glass ceiling above her. She even deemed cinema her "Prince Charming."
In 1896, Alice made her first film, titled La Fée aux Choux — aka The Cabbage Fairy. With a runtime of one minute, the pantomimed short was just the beginning. According to The New York Times, Alice Guy-Blaché founded her own film company, called the Solax Company, and made a whopping 1,000 films in her lifetime, many of them being charming shorts. Two-hour features just weren't typical back then.
Born in China, Chloé Zhao is an innovative powerhouse in modern directing, writing, and editing. In 2021, Chloé became the first Asian woman to win the Oscar for Best Director — which she earned for her 2020 Frances McDormand–led drama Nomadland. Based on Jessica Bruder's 2017 nonfiction book of the same name, Nomadland — a tale about a woman who traverses the American West in a van after losing everything — also won the Oscar for Best Picture.
Chloé Zhao is also known for directing 2015's Songs My Brothers Taught Me and 2017's The Rider.
“For Asian filmmakers, for all filmmakers, we have to stay true to who we are, and we have to tell the stories that we feel connected to,” Chloé stated in her post-award interview. “We shouldn’t feel like there is only a certain type of story we have to tell. It’s a way for us to connect with other people."