One of the pleasures of being a parent of teens is the long history you can reflect on. From time’s perch, you can finally start assessing what went right as a parent. (You can also assess what went wrong, but that’s for another post.)
During my younger parenting years, I had always heard that if a parent models a behavior at home, a child is very likely to adopt that behavior, eventually. As a writer and former professor, I’ve always tried to model my love of reading history as a way to counteract our increasingly context-free culture of media soundbites and tweet-size attention spans.
So far my modeling has had mixed results with my two teen daughters. But recently I had a breakthrough with my younger daughter, who is a filmmaker. As she has started researching colleges and film schools, she and I have also talked about the potential challenges she may face upon entering a profession dominated by men, especially at the director level.
That’s why I was excited to discover an article titled “Hollywood’s First Generation of Female Filmmakers” in a recent issue of the National Women’s History Museum newsletter. The article, written by Dr. Shelley Stamp, reads like a “Hidden Figures” account of female film directors who have been obscured by sexist history.
Stamp explains that “many female filmmakers were prominent in the first decades of moviemaking, central to the development of American movie culture.” In fact, when “the film industry began to consolidate around Los Angeles in the mid-1910s, director Lois Weber emerged as one of its key voices. She soon became the top director at Universal.” And Weber was not the only one, Stamp notes: “Before 1919, the studio released close to 200 films [including action films] credited to female directors.”
What?! That is amazing. So how did the gender dynamics in film direction change so much over time? Not surprisingly, rising profits led to falling ethics. Stamp explains that after World War I, “corporate studios began consolidating their control over the market, forcing out independent production companies, including many run by women, and pushing women out of leadership roles.” Gradually, an “imagined ‘male tradition’ of directing” developed.
Learn lesser-known history for a much greater future
As you might imagine, sharing this information with my daughter showed her the power of reading history. It also illustrated that human progress is not always about the present or the future. Sometimes progress entails revisiting the past with wider eyes that take in scenes deleted unjustly.
On a personal level, the article also helped ease our worries about my daughter succeeding in a male-dominated profession. If it has been done before, it can be done again. And certainly the film industry’s gender balance is improving slowly.
We also noted, however, the irony that even a medium like film, which is innately visual, can have such blind spots in its history. But that just underscores the power of who tells the story and who gets silenced. In fact, so far the National Women’s History Museum only exists online. For the past 23 years, the organization has been raising money and lobbying politicians to bring a physical women’s history museum to the national mall in Washington, D.C. Progress has been made, but the struggle to uncover and celebrate important parts of American history continues.
Which brings me back to parenting teens. While many parenting jobs fade as children become teens, one job that grows in importance is to be a good historian. When teens become disillusioned or succumb to self-doubt, a parent can give voice to forgotten stories from the children’s own past that feature obstacles overcome, fears faced, or injustice resisted. In other words, parents can help their teens once again see the “hidden figures” they once were and therefore can be again. Such rediscoveries of the past can help quell anxieties about the future for both teen girls and boys.