Cinema is the visual medium of mass communication, which is influenced by various elements of society. Cinema, with time, has evolved through various movements and is still in the process of evolving. These changes happened because of technological, social, political, and economic changes. Women, as members of society, have always been marginalized and oppressed by the patriarchs of society, and the stories of their plight did not fail to hit the screens. With time, women have shifted from the screen to the back of the screen and narrated their stories from their own perspectives without the direct intervention of male filmmakers. In the American film industry, the independent film movement paved the way for minorities and marginalized communities to narrate their own narratives artistically with radical and real stories. Indie films provided a platform for women to showcase their own struggles and issues.
Around the world, women are less likely than men to be seen in the media industry, be it in any kind of form. This gendered representation in the industry perpetuates gender stereotypes, which makes it more difficult for women to establish themselves. Feminism is the most hated word among men, and immediately men associate the word with “women’s issues,” by which they feel unwanted and threatened. The purpose of feminism is not to threaten masculinity but to demand equality for all genders. The media industry is also “terrorized” by the idea of feminism, and very few women are accepted in male-dominated industries. In films, female protagonists are historically given less screen time and fewer dialogues in comparison to their male colleagues. Historically female actors had to be attractive and perfect to fit the male gaze in order to make a successful film, but with time this representation slowly changed its course. During the golden age of Hollywood, women were mostly the love interests of the male protagonists, with a few unimportant dialogues. After a few decades, with the rise of the independent film movement, women filmmakers were getting attention, and they were making films with honest, authentic narratives. The independent film movement has had a vast impact on the American film industry, where big studios dominated, and has given a proper platform to marginalized communities that were misinterpreted by the white supremacists of the industry.
Traditional Hollywood filmmakers always took a pedantic approach when it came to women directors, disregarding their stories on very minute details. The films made under the studio system, in order to uphold moral integrity, disregarded everything that went outside the ordinary and even portrayed the conventional roles of women in their domestic life. All these problematic, unjust images of women were creating a sort of stereotypical idea among the male audiences, who demanded the same kinds of characters in their real lives. With the advent of indie, women filmmakers finally got a chance as well as a platform to narrate honest stories about real women which had not talked about and people didn’t have much awareness of.. Women are one of the discriminated groups in a highly competitive economic system, and this social condition of women is also reflected in films. Meaning films that had strong female protagonists were considered to be unprofitable and unsuitable for the audiences. Similarly, the studios and big production houses steered clear of female directors as they might bring something complex to the screen that might not be well accepted. Hollywood was mostly driven by business, and the scope of art wasn’t much there until independent films.
But like every other film movement, indie cinemas might have provided a platform for women to narrate their stories, but they faced the same discrimination that had already existed. Even though there were opportunities, women filmmakers were given smaller budgets, and the producers showed skepticism and so they had to struggle even after their breakthrough project. In the case male-led indie films, the producers had faith in the artist, and one successful project was enough to gather funding and distribution; the same didn’t happen for female filmmakers. The films made by women weren’t flooded with overtly feminist narratives but had a vast range of stories portrayed in a culturally nuanced style. One of the identifying factors that had been seen in indie films made by women was the female relationship and bonding, as well as the overall understanding of sisterhood. The rise of women filmmakers did not necessarily eradicate the inequalities that existed in the industry but were an individual event where certain females got access to the gigantic industry. The characters in films were much more analyzed and had depth, focused more on their choices rather than the momentum of the plot. They took the melodramatic approach and showed how male characters were vulnerable and that violence with big guns doesn’t provide a solution. They challenged the portrayal of male protagonists in film and brought out how men are shaped by patriarchal society aesthetically.
The idea of indie is a continuous evolution process with new challenges emerging at every stage with societal changes. One of the biggest challenges for indie films is their exposure among the audiences. Since indie films are comparatively easy to make with low budgets, lots of films are made within a short span of time, and good films might get lost in the crowd. Both the rising talents and established filmmakers have to face this at some point or the other, so the quality of the film produced couldn’t be compromised. With the rise of digital space, indie films have suffered in the industry. With cheaper digital production, the elements of films have become more accessible, and the production of content is huge in comparison to the viewership. With online platforms like YouTube and Netflix, the experience of watching a film has been redefined. Viewers want creative expressions with both commercialization and social narratives; the content created has to be personal and relatable for the audiences. The online platform not only provides content according to the viewers’ choices but also shapes their perceptions about films, such as what kind of films have to be watched in order to have a wholesome cinematic experience. With advances in digital technology, films are dramatized with special effects, a high-definition camera, and booming sound, which are easily available and can turn an average story into an extraordinary film. The narratives have also taken a leap from their old path and now deal with relevant social changes. With the increasing representation of women in the media and film industry, the narratives now are women-centric and more about minority struggles rather than focusing on the luxuries and extravagant lives of people. Hollywood’s intelligence lies in the fact that it changes its course according to the taste of the audience and their constant urge to prove themselves to be liberal institutions. The rise of feminist critics and their constant crusade against white male supremacy was hugely supported by social activists, which somehow forced Hollywood to change its approach to film narratives. Films with women-centric stories and the presence of a strong female protagonist have been accepted as social reform by some critics, but this doesn’t dilute the inequalities that are very much present even with all these changes. Another argument made by feminist critics is that good films made from a feminist perspective don’t necessarily have to have positive role models; flawed real-life characters’ presence is needed. Ladybird, directed by Greta Gerwig, perfectly sums up the combination of the portrayal of the flawed female protagonist in a nuanced, artistic style. Gerwig, in this 21st century, is one of the successful feminist women filmmakers who has produced real characters on screen and has been applauded by audiences. The purpose of feminist critics is to get rid of the term “female” before filmmakers; the distinction has to be nullified for artistic integrity. Female filmmakers are not saints, and their job is to highlight real stories in their own way without glorifying every aspect of being a woman. At times, some common elements might be present in films made by women, but that should be their own signature style, not from a gendered perspective. The representation and active participation of women is necessary for the industry, but that shouldn’t be the only focus. The eradication of gender equality should be of the same concern.
In the 21st century, with the boom of digital platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime, films have become more personalized. Hollywood has shaped itself accordingly to this personalization. Big studios are making films in collaboration with online platforms to make more money with “woke” narratives. In that way, Netflix, being a huge production house, can be considered indie because of its vast range of films. It produces lots of content and supports non-established filmmakers, like indie filmmakers. With technology, Netflix has substituted video cassettes and television, so the market is open for the film business to reign, and Netflix has become a cultural phenomenon. It includes content that is personalized, socially relevant, and properly gendered and includes other marginalized communities’ representation with potent commercial success. The distinction between the gendered pattern of filmmaking has become oblivious as Netflix focuses more on distribution while keeping its liberal status quo intact. One such recent example is “Haseen Dilruba” (2021), a Hindi-language indie film written by Kanika Dhillon, but whose narrative goes against feminist ideology and is very problematic; thus, it blurs the gendered notion as well as becoming commercially successful because of its distribution.
The representation of women in films has changed a lot in the last 30 years, especially with the indie movement. In recent times, to fit the demand and liberal structure, women’s struggles have been commercialized into films, which has had both kinds of impact on the audiences: creating awareness about the history and struggles and also demeaning the fights into a commodity to be sold in the market. With more acceptance of women-centric indie films among audiences and the support of social activists, Hollywood is funding films irrespective of gender because of their profitable aspects. The success of indie has created the space for commercial cinemas made by female filmmakers, which were previously rejected.