AFI Embarks on a Landmark Study of Gender in Film

The AFI Catalog of Feature Films has been honored with a prestigious $350,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to embark upon an unprecedented, landmark study of gender parity in the history of American film. The initiative, titled “Women They Talk About” after a lost 1928 film about a woman who campaigns for mayor against her childhood sweetheart, will evaluate AFI’s uniquely comprehensive and academic data to establish gender parity as a near norm in the early decades of the motion picture industry.  New and exhaustive scholarly research of the silent film era, paired with cutting-edge technology, will evaluate the impact of women’s contributions to the creation of America’s most revered and enduring cultural legacies, the movies. 

Film history has brilliantly chronicled the nation’s spirit of innovation, entrepreneurship and intellectual freedom in such classic films as THE KID, CITIZEN KANE and THE GODFATHER, all portraying society from the leading man’s perspective, and through the lens of male filmmakers. While most people can easily recount the achievements of eminent men in the industry, they struggle to recall the names of influential women who worked behind the camera. Today, as the film community strives for diversity, a common assumption remains unchallenged: women have never been widely included.

However, the true history of early American film tells a different story. Women were, in fact, forerunners. Filmmakers including Alice Guy Blaché, Lois Weber and Mary Pickford are more familiar names, but the AFI Catalog also accounts for hundreds of women of whom little is known, either by the general public or film historians. Scholars speculate there may be hundreds of female innovators whose contributions have remained as yet undiscovered. As the unequivocal document of record on American film, the AFI Catalog is the world’s only authoritative dataset in which to mine accurate information about the forgotten female pioneers of the artform and bring their stories into the vernacular. 

Partnering with USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and the Geena Davis Institute, AFI will also use data analytics tools to evaluate credits from the entire first century of the industry, providing the first-ever empirical insights into the role of gender in the first century of any industry. AFI now leads the way in establishing a new narrative of inclusion in film’s past, present and future. This initiative will ensure that the female film pioneers are, indeed, “Women They Talk About.”

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