Lynne Ramsay, and Why We Need to Talk About How We Talk About Female Directors

Anyone passingly interested in this sort of industry gossip will have no doubt heard by now that, on Monday morning in Santa Fe, director Lynne Ramsay (“We Need to Talk About Kevin”) declined to appear for the first day of production on her new film “Jane Got A Gun”, allegedly abandoning the 25 million dollar project and its 150 eager crew members in the process. This decidedly minor news item, though conspicuously light on both detail and corroboration, has already proven compelling to those most predisposed to casual indignation, circulating widely after Deadline broke the exclusive and commented upon extensively and ceaselessly by the web’s vocal peanut gallery since.

A common sentiment has recurred on both Twitter and the comments sections of the articles reporting the story, seemingly gaining in animosity with each passing day: Lynne Ramsay, by virtue of being a woman, has somehow made things harder for other female directors by her sudden—and as of yet unexplained—absenteeism, ruining not only her own chances of working in this town again but those who incidentally share her gender as well. The rhetoric is weirdly uniform in most cases: Ramsay is “hysterical”, “emotional”, “ungrateful”, and has “set female directors back 20 years”. One particularly noxious comment even describes Ramsay as “clearly”, written by somebody who is clearly an assh**e.

Also check out: Director a No-Show on Day 1 of Natalie Portman Western

That wide swaths of the (overwhelmingly male) film-nerd public would flock to social media to express grossly misogynistic thoughts after the slightest opportunity presents itself is perhaps not so surprising. But what is surprising—and what’s much more disconcerting, given the circumstances—is how deeply and needlessly gendered the response to this story has been from professional journalists and news organizations. Leaving aside the somewhat unexpected shift in default editorial sympathies from the artist to her producer, the articles reporting this story have continued to lean on language tailored, at least implicitly, for gender-based condescension.

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Pay close attention to the choice of words even in the original Deadline report: “Clearly there was drama the weekend before”. The word “drama”, much like the word “hysterical”, tends to surface only when men are in a position to describe the behaviour of women, and it’s highly unlikely in this case that Deadline would be inferring that “drama” unfolded if, say, Kenneth Lonergan had walked off-set in similar circumstances. This might sound like a minor sticking point, but it’s important: language like this informs the discussion to a remarkable degree, imposing a gendered reading of a situation that simply doesn’t require one. There is literally nothing about this story which implies “drama”—given the situation, it might be reasonable to assume that there exists a conflict between Ramsay and her producer, but “conflict” and “drama” are far from the same word. And the word is significant.

The fact is, we still know next to nothing about this situation beyond the grievances publicly aired by producer Scott Steindorff, whose statement—in which he describes himself as “shocked” and implicitly describes Ramsay as “insane”—has yet to be responded to, much less validated, by the other party. The fact that Steindorff’s word has practically been taken as iron-clad on this matter, by journalists as well as by those snidely weighing in, speaks volumes about the presumptions and suspicious many are all too anxious to see confirmed, but it’s a shame just to see such allegations accepted without a major asterisk and a healthy dose of the skepticism any brazen claim requires. So far all of these facts, such as they are, remain merely “alleged”, and it’s probably worth waiting to see what Ramsay or her representatives have to say about the matter before making a definitive judgement on the ethical basis of her actions. (One reason for the delay may be that Scott Steindorff daughter and Ramsay’s now-former manager, Jessica Steindorff, has dropped Ramsay as a client.)

Whatever the reason proves to be, though, is irrelevant to the overall tenor of the reportage, not to mention the content of much of the online backlash. Even the assumption, made by nearly every outlet covering this story, that this is the first case ever of a director simply not showing up for the first day of production is incorrect: Tony Kaye not only missed the first day when filming the project Marlon Brando hired him to direct, he missed several days before being unceremoniously fired. Though nobody, as far as I can recall, described his behaviour as hysterical or his actions as caused by “drama”. The point is not to what degree Lynne Ramsay is culpable in this case—not that it’s really the purview of bloggers to decide what is or is not ethical on a movie set anyway—but the degree to which our discussion of Lynne Ramsay’s actions, and in particular actions perceived to be damaging to her career, is steeped in the language of sexism and oppression, even if quite unintentionally. This story’s lede is not “female director causes drama”; it shouldn’t even be “female director leaves job”. We don’t tend to say “male director leaves job” in cases where this happens with men, so why bother with the gendered dimension here?