Profile of women in film vlogger Marya E Gates
A tireless commentator and campaigner for women in film, Marya E Gates is best known for her video blog #AYearWithWomen. The project not only brought joy back into her film-watching, it allowed her to highlight the work of hundreds of female directors whose work is often overlooked. She talks candidly to K magazine about the future for women behind the camera, and her hopes for greater diversity.
Touring the collection of DVDs, books and posters takes over 35 minutes. It’s not that Marya E Gates’s personal library is physically dispersed—she lives, with it and a playful cat named Miss Fanny Brawne (after John Keats’ betrothed)—in a North Hollywood one-bedroom flat.
But it’s dense: the apartment is thick with shelves, stacks and baskets. As Gates guides you through penny-sale paperbacks from a hometown bookstore; “more expensive” recent hardcover non-fiction; a stack of all Joan Didion’s work; two ceiling-high shelves packed with DVDs; and a Bruce Springsteen set list, framed on her wall, a sense emerges: personal history, given physical form—a distillation of all that she’s seen, heard and read.
Gates is a cultural super-consumer. By late June 2015, she’d read 40 books and watched 155 movies that year, “not counting rewatches.” She recently watched her (lifetime) five-thousandth film: Seven Beauties, directed by Lina Wertmuller. And while her memory’s “not as good as that one guy on Criminal Minds”, she claims recall of the plots of all of these films, plus “probably director and stars.”
If you look critically at canonised film lists, you wonder: where are the women on here?
She posts constantly on YouTube, Tumblr and Twitter: waves of quotes, commentaries and reviews that have earned her over 80,000 personal followers. Her avid immersion and “early adoption of pretty much everything” got her a job as social media specialist for Rotten Tomatoes and Flixster, and will soon see her to a new position with Turner Classic Movies. And for all of 2015, Gates watched only films either written or directed by women.
Were the platinum-mohawked, brightly cheerful Gates inclined to bristling, she might do so at the suggestion that A Year with Women is a social or political project. Her inspiration to focus on women’s output came from a deeply felt, personal place.
As 2014 drew to a close, “There was so much masculine thought behind everything, I was starting to hate movies.” As someone who derives so much enjoyment from film, and whose identity is wrapped up in sharing that enjoyment, this was a problem Gates needed to fix.
It is also, of course, a widely acknowledged issue in cinema. “If you look critically at canonised film lists,” Gates says, sitting in her sunny living room, “you wonder: where are the women on here? White and male is generally what’s canonised.” This creates circularity: women’s stories are sub-categorised as ‘women’s stories’, and the core narratives of mainstream commercial culture continue to focus largely on men, uninterrupted.
These patterns are then reinforced by market trends, such that even people vocally supportive of equal gender representation often fail—in Gates’s view—to put their pocketbooks behind their principles. “People really like to tweet about supporting women but then,” once it’s time to choose what to watch or rent, their options are “a female-led video-on-demand film that they’re not sure about or the big movie that had all the advertising.”
Sharing and aware-ing
Gates’s contention is that, both behind and in front of the camera, women and their narratives are marginalised in a self-reinforcing cycle. She quotes Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women: “‘Over the mysteries of female life there is drawn a veil best left undisturbed.’ The idea that women lead a separate life: I think that is so much more prevalent than even we think it is.”
Gates thought better lists would be a good start. People respond to lists, she notes brightly: “They say: ‘I will follow this list!’” And Gates, who watches one or two films every day, and who already had tens of thousands of social media followers to her name, was well positioned to dig deep and make some good lists of female writers and directors throughout cinema history. In her view, spending ‘A Year with Women’ had two goals.
The first was simple: encourage people to attend, rent or buy films made by women. This impulse to “share things that I think are great” is at the heart of Gates’s persona as an inhaler and sharer of content. “It makes me happy because then maybe other people will think it’s great and this piece of art that should be enjoyed will be enjoyed by more people.”
The project’s second aim is subtler. It’s not as if the idea behind Gates’s year with women is novel: there is, as she puts it, “an awareness of a lack of awareness of female directors.” But efforts to remedy this often return to the same few names: high-profile female directors, who are cast as avatars of their gender.
Embarrassment of riches
Gates wants to show that, as she puts it: “There were women here this whole time! There’s a database with almost 7,000 female directors on it!” And these filmmakers have been writing and directing diverse narratives, far beyond what some pigeonhole as ‘women’s stories’
Most of the 155 movies Gates watched last year “are not romances. Most of them are women going through their lives,” and many don’t even focus particularly on female characters or experience, beyond avoiding the objectifying tropes that Gates sees in much mainstream cinema (Gates’s sputtering, frustrated response to Hollywood’s adaptation of 50 Shades of Grey is best consumed directly, on YouTube).
The good news is that spending a year with women has brought the joy back to Gates’s own film viewing. Limiting herself to underexposed female artists, particularly those outside her own comfort zone of white America, has injected novelty and pleasure into her lifelong practice of voracious consumption.
There were women here this whole time! There’s a database with almost 7,000 female directors on it.
She also feels that her project is, in a small way, making things better. “The teenage boys that I’ve talked to on Tumblr are way more open to learning about people outside their sphere than even my generation was,” Gates says, as her kitten skitters alongside a bookshelf full of Mary Higgins Clark paperbacks. “I think that we’re really affected by what we consume. And if people are more willing to step outside their comfort zone in terms of what they’re consuming, she asserts, her voice ticking up hopefully, “I think it raises empathy.”
And what is she watching in 2016, now that she’s free to watch anything? For starters: Paddington. Yes, Paddington: a film about a computer-generated bear that moves in with some humans. “It was supposed to be the last thing I watched in 2014!” Gates explains. She holds on to that kind of thing.
She’ll get to the other big films of last year—the controversies, the game-changers—eventually. After all, Marya E Gates watches everything.