November 28, 2016

Watch: How Lighting Reflects Social Attitudes Towards Women

How we light reveals a whole lot about our unconscious biases.

Social attitudes, if they are pervasive enough, surface in every aspect of culture. Because film is inextricably linked with the zeitgeist, whatever attitudes are circulating within it tend to transfer to the silver screen in ways one might not immediately recognize.

Since the early days of film, directors and cinematographers have treated women differently from men in front of the camera. This video essay by Allison Kelly takes a hard look at the ways in which filming of women has changed—or not—over time.

In the early days of popular film—the 1910s and 1920s—cinematographers' approaches to filming women were heavily based on the methodology of portrait photography. At the center of the picture would be the "subject" lit by three lights: the key light, a side light offering most of the light we see; the fill light, which, placed at a 45-degree distance from the key light, dispels any shadows the more dominant key light might have cast on the subject's face; and the backlight, which comes from behind the subject and makes it stand out against the background.

Men received the same three-pronged lighting treatment, but the result was considerably less soft or gentle than the images of women. Contrasts were heightened, and very little about an actor's features might be blurred or made less distinct.  Men, to be blunt, never received the same "hair halo" women received via clever lighting techniques. This continued for decades.

As time passed, the approach to filming female subjects became somewhat more subtle, dispensing with exaggerated, complex accents. Yet some of the old attitudes still applied. Kelly points out the example of Wuthering Heights (1939), in which Merle Oberon's Cathy received just a little bit of backlighting behind her bonnet as she lay in bed, or her tiara as she circulated in society, to set her apart from male characters. 

'Blue Jasmine'Credit: Sony Pictures Classics

In the present day, filmmakers do not necessarily stick to gendered guidelines as much as they might have in the past. Yet we can see traces, here and there, of the old approach. Kelly uses provocative examples to make her point. Look, for example, at the way Cate Blanchett's Jasmine is lit in Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine: in scenes in which she is ostensibly more stable, the lighting is softer and more flattering, but in scenes which depict her less stable side, the lighting suddenly becomes much more severe, inviting an adverse response from the audience.

As you watch your favorite films, can you identify ways in which the technical side of the movie reflects prevailing social attitudes? Let us know in the comments.     

Your Comment

7 Comments

Is there supposed to be something wrong with men and women being different?

November 28, 2016 at 1:03PM

10
Reply
avatar
Ethan Swords
Cinematographer/Editor & Owner of Cinematic Technologies
109

Only when one genders expectations, and the way they are treated, are always different from the other. Which often lead to unfair advantages which should have nothing to do with gender in the first place.

November 29, 2016 at 3:20AM

0
Reply
bp
434

I think the problem stems from the tendancy to put woman on a pedastal and see them as delicate or polished. The male characters are being lit based on their circumstances, emotional state, and the story's needs. The female characters are being lit with the one constant goal of making them appear attractive. However, in the case of older films it could also be that most roles for woman weren't written with a great deal of complexity or nuance so the lighting was reflective of the narrow character traits given to them at the time.

November 29, 2016 at 9:22AM, Edited November 29, 9:22AM

0
Reply
Sean Morse-Barry
screenwriter, producer
86

Most of 20th century was lit like this and not always women only.. And lighting was much more complex than 'lit by three lights'. If you read John Alton's Painting with Light, he argues how important things like hair light (different from back light) and clothes light are for instance, not to forget the all-important eye light... No wonder actor's weren't allowed to move an inch from their mark.

The funniest / scariest section of his book goes on to describe how women should learn cinematography so they can 'position' themselves in real life to maximise their attractiveness and be noticed. He even gives a real life example of a woman who was being ignored by the men in a company, until she positioned herself in front of a window where light pours in and lit up her hair. She of course was noticed and given praise and opportunities she hadn't enjoyed before - the exact point Alton was trying to make..

November 30, 2016 at 5:08AM

0
Reply
avatar
PJ Palomaki
Cinematographer | Motion Graphics
428

The response to this video on Facebook was absolutely shocking. The author/narrator offers up very little editorializing. Mostly what she does is chronicle how the way women have been photographed has evolved over time. It's the kind of thing a community of filmmakers and fans of cinema might (should) find to be interesting. Her conclusions are for the most part inarguable. Here's what I got out of it:

Over time, Hollywood's approach to lighting has changed...true, the roles that women play in films has changed...true, these two ideas are linked, again...true.

Ms. Kelly's video essay is only five and a half minutes long, so it's not an exhaustive list, it simply points out a few turning points, offers up a few examples, and finally concludes that all of this points to progress. I don't understand the reactions I saw posted from viewers calling bullshit. What exactly is bullshit? The essay barely comments on contemporary differences in our approach to lighting men and women, mentioning only that modern cinematographers are less shackled by convention, but may decide to play on familiar tropes as a device. There are lots of interesting conversations that surround this topic and these ideas, but most of the comments seemed to equate to either "shut up" or "good grief, not again." Clearly this video hit a nerve for a lot of people, why? Some people said that they took no notice of gender. Others argued that of course women had to be lit differently than men, there are biological differences in our skin, many pointed to the fact that women simply didn't look good under harder light. In short there were many strongly held beliefs, all different, but all insisting that there was nothing to talk about. Either we've all been through this before, or this was simply stirring the pot for it's own sake.

The overreaction to some very fairly mundane conclusions points to some real hostility. Thankfully the commentary here is less reactionary.

November 30, 2016 at 3:12PM

0
Reply
scott pommier
Director
109

I haven't seen the FB comments, but I'm not surprised how it's gone down with 'some' people. As an essay I agree with Allison and I think it's just a study how lighting has changed, I don't think she really made any comments about it being sexist etc. I think we've added that spin to her essay.

The only thing I would like to point out as I said in the earlier post is that it was far more complex a case to light back in the 20-50s rather than just three lights, especially for closeups. And yes, often the studio bosses, producers, directors and cinematographers agenda was sexist (i.e. based on the sex / role of the actor/acress) in these decisions, sometimes for a legitimate reason, sometimes not.

December 1, 2016 at 5:00AM, Edited December 1, 5:01AM

0
Reply
avatar
PJ Palomaki
Cinematographer | Motion Graphics
428

Very interesting video about a rarely noticed or discussed issue. Unfortunately I believe that gendered lighting is still very much with us, albeit less obvious than it used to be. I questioned the ethics of this, as a cinematographer, in a blog post last year: http://neiloseman.com/?p=6536

December 2, 2016 at 12:28PM

2
Reply
avatar
Neil Oseman
Director of Photography
74