THE BLOG
12/10/2015 18:56 BST | Updated 12/10/2016 06:12 BST

If She Can See It, She Can Be It: The Value of Sharing Women's Stories

They say history is written by the winners, but that's not always true. Almost 100 years ago, women won their battle for the vote, but it has taken until now for a major commercial movie to be made about their success.

A film such as Suffragette, written, directed, produced and acted out by women is a rare creature indeed, with men directing around 87% of the drama we see on our screens, and only 21 out of the top 100 films featuring a female lead in 2014.

Why does this matter? Because what we see on our screens has a tremendous impact on how we see the world. If the diversity of our existence is not reflected in film, television and the media, we will have only a very partial perspective. 

So powerful is the medium of film for spreading inspirational messages that the telling of this particular tale on our screens for the first time will affect the lives of women and girls throughout the world. Mainstream cinema has an incredible power to influence, particularly in young people's formative years. With a close, emotional connection to the characters on our screens, girls often learn about femininity through these constructed portrayals of womanhood. The media industry, therefore, has a crucial responsibility to provide a range of truthful depictions of women.

And yet, we continue to see a narrow range of female interaction on film. An American cartoonist called Alison Bechdel has come up with the 'Bechdel Test'. To pass, a film has to have a scene - just one scene - in which two women have a conversation that is not about a man. Sounds simple? Only about half of all films pass this test. With the prominence of films like Suffragette coming more into the fore, could this tradition start to change?

Geena Davis, star of Thelma and Louise, founded the Geena Davis Institute, which conducts research into gender issues in film.  She has conducted research across a number of countries, including Britain and the US, and found that more than twice as many men appear in our movies than women.  And the women are much more likely to be scantily clad or sexualized.

Indeed, who are the women who saturate our multi-device screens today? These role models - with their power to infiltrate our attention from all directions - often represent the only benchmark of femininity for some girls. Research from The Female Lead, an organisation dedicated to promoting a more diverse range of female role models, found that 92% of the top 200 most-followed females across social media represent just five professions across 'showbiz', emphasising the narrow focus on celebrity status among women. What kind of message does this send to the diverse, untapped potential lying dormant in our young women?

Abi Morgan, screenwriter of Suffragette, was recently interviewed by The Female Lead, bringing up an argument that tends to resonate with the widest audience: "One of the biggest issues for us for Suffragette will be whether we can sell at the box office, and if we can prove ourselves at the box office...it will quite literally change the algorithms that the studios use to make films". Financial successes are often the only language that can be understood, and could be the impetus we need to start a new canon of female-led films.

In 2011, in Sweden, a woman called Anna Serner became CEO of the Swedish Film Institute. She embarked on an interesting experiment. She decided the Institute would aim to give half of its funding to men and half to women.  Remember, in the film industry generally, only about 13 per cent of films are directed by women. In Sweden, by 2015, 50% of the films were directed by women. More to the point, last year women won 69% of the prizes at the Swedish film awards. It seems that, when we get the chance, we women can do a pretty good job. Promoting examples like these will start to normalise the idea of female directors, open up new horizons for women, and champion the diverse talents of women on and off screen.

It is, after all, the least we owe the Pankhurst legacy. If we cease to communicate matters that range from the trivial to the global, feminism will reach a stalemate. We may have won the right to vote, and the right for equal pay, but the struggle for fairness is ongoing.

We have to push for a change in what we see on screen. As Geena Davis says, 'If she can see it, she can be it.' Many men will help us but, in the end, we have to help ourselves.  And in the process, we'll benefit everyone.

Kate Kinninmont MBE is the CEO of Women in Film & Television (UK), and spoke on the panel discussion being hosted by The Female Lead and Pathe during a preview screening of Suffragette last week.