Hildur Guðnadóttir has made history as the first woman ever to win Best Original Score at the 2020 Academy Awards (it’s only taken 46 years since the first woman was nominated for one of us to win). This was following her earlier Emmy win in 2019 with her deeply chilling original score for TV mini-series, Chernobyl. Guðnadóttir is one of only 7 female composers ever to be nominated for an Oscar in her category. Do her recent successes signify a shift in the industry?

In the wake of #MeToo, there has been a call to hire more women into directing and writing roles, but female composers have not been afforded the same consideration. Women and Hollywood found that, of the 112 original scores eligible for an Oscar this past award season, only 3 were composed or co-composed by women. More shocking still, The Centre For the Study of Women in Television & Film reported that, of the top 250 films of 2018, 94% were scored by men. In light of this somewhat depressing revelation, I talked to Emmy-nominated composer, Hannah Peel, about discrimination and gender imbalance in the industry.

Hannah Peel is a Northern Irish composer, who earned her Emmy nomination after writing music for Jeanie Finlay’s epic feature-length documentary Game of Thrones: The Last Watch. In her category, she was also up against the impressive Miriam Cutler, who was shortlisted twice for Love, Gilda and RBG, the story of Supreme Court judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg. While Peel says that a lot more doors have opened for her since being nominated, she still feels “like a fish out of water”.

Before being commissioned to score her first full-length feature, Peel released five electronic, contemporary classical albums. She has also arranged and written orchestration for Paul Weller and composed music for Channel 4’s Kiss Me First and BBC’s The A-List. Peel is an innovative musician, known for her distinctive music box compositions, and she enjoys experimenting with field recordings and other electronic techniques. Despite her accomplishments so far, she tells me that composing for film and TV “feels like a world [she is] not fully accepted in”.

Peel’s most recent work on Channel 5’s The Deceived gave her the opportunity to explore scoring for thrillers, which she enjoyed enough to ask her agent for more work in the thriller, horror and sci-fi genres. Citing Mica Levi and her incredible score for sci-fi horror Under the Skin, she emphasised the importance of busting stereotypes of female composers only being able to write for romcoms and period pieces. 

(Photo credit: HBO)

Why is it so hard for female composers to break into film and television?

One obstacle that Peel identified for women is the close-knit nature of the film and television industry. She explained, “this is a who-knows-who industry, where it’s all about making connections. Directors want to hire composers they’ve worked with before. Often, they’ll be friends. You’re asking them to break that friendship connection by hiring someone else.” Another significant barrier for women is that big studios will ultimately always prioritise their bottom line. Large blockbusters tend to choose a ‘safe hire’ who has already done a similar job, rather than taking a huge financial risk by recruiting new talent. This, as Hannah points out, is why you see increasingly diverse composers for films with smaller budgets, but not in mainstream cinema.

Peel’s most high-profile work to date has been on the Game of Thrones documentary, directed by Jeanie Finlay – one of few women in a largely male profession. This is no coincidence. Hannah described how in general she had only been approached by female writers and directors. This trend suggests that it is up to women to support each other in the industry, in lieu of its huge male majority affording them equal opportunities.

Peel also discusses how staying supportive can be difficult, as female artists are often made to feel like they are in competition with one another. So few women are hired as composers, that it feels as though they are fighting over limited spaces. A 2018 study by the University of Southern California vindicates this notion, revealing that for the top 100 box office fictional films between 2007-2017, only 16 female composers were hired, compared with more than 1,200 men.  

Most frustratingly of all, New York Times research recently revealed that female-directed films like Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman, or female-lead movies like Ocean’s 8 are still given to male composers, rather than affording female musicians a chance to shine. Peel thinks that double standards in the industry are partly to blame: “You’ve got to cut your teeth more; constantly prove yourself.” She described how she had previously been told, “We already have a female composer like you”, which is why she chose to self-release her albums.

“It’s hard to get noticed,” Peel says, revealing a lack of visibility as another major problem. “You have to shout about it all the time for things to change.” If young, aspiring female composers don’t have role models in the industry to look up to, they won’t feel confident enough to pursue such a career.

(Photo credit: Warner Bros)

Female composers who have made history

In recognition of the need for more visibility, here are 9 criminally underrated female composers that have successfully broken through into film and television:

Hildur Guðnadóttir

(Photo credit: Adrianna Perez)

Record-breaking Icelandic composer, Hildur Guðnadóttir, first wrote music for the score of Sicario: Day of the Soldado, before going on to win major awards for her music in critically acclaimed mini-series Chernobyl and Todd Phillips’ Joker. 


(Photo credit: Scott Ellison Smith)

With a combination of afro-punk and classical music, Kali has recently broken into the industry and is building up a strong reputation for herself with 3 major film scores: Shirley, The Assistant and Netflix’s critically acclaimed Mudbound

Mica Levi

(Photo credit: Steve Granitz/WireImage)

This English composer made waves in 2014 with her dark, radical film score for sci-fi horror Under the Skin and went on to receive further acclaim for her music in the 2016 biopic, Jackie.

Lesley Barber

(Photo credit: Katherine Holland)

This Canadian composer has been writing film music since 1995, but her first real mainstream success came with her stunning score for Manchester By the Sea in 2016. 

Rachel Portman

(Photo credit: Valya Korabelnikova

This English composer won an Academy Award for her work for Emma in 1996 in the category of ‘Best Original Musical or Comedy Score’. She has also written scores for a number of high-profile films including Chocolat, Never Let Me Go and One Day.

Shirley Walker

Shirley Walker (1945-2006), a fantastic musician credited as a teacher for both Hans Zimmer and Danny Elfman, has helped shape modern film composition. She wrote the score for the Final Destination movies and helped Coppola on his score for Apocalypse Now, but her most notable work is the score for 1989’s Batman: The Animated Series. When Batman: Mask of the Phantasm made it onto the big screen in 1993, the studio chose to stay true to Walker’s original score. Ironically, Walker was never allowed access to the top-tier movies that her male protégées were privy to. 

Wendy Carlos

Carlos famously scored Stanley Kubrick’s films, including A Clockwork Orange (1971) and The Shining (1980). One of her most impressive scores is Disney’s Tron (1982), where she experimented blending electronic and orchestral music. She even wrote several new computer programs to help her cope with the demands of the score.

Delia Derbyshire

Delia Derbyshire (1937-2001) experienced sexism throughout her professional life before she joined the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. There, she experimented with electronic music to help create one of the UK’s most iconic anthems: the Doctor Who theme. Sadly, she was not publicly credited for her work until 50 years after its creation. She also forged a path for women in horror, scoring John Hough‘s The Legend of Hell House (1973). 

Angela Morley

Angela Morley (1924-2009) became the first openly transgender person to be nominated for an Oscar with 1974’s The Little Prince, but her greatest achievement was a score for the animated classic Watership Down (1978). She also composed for iconic TV series, Dynasty and Dallas.

What does the future hold for female film composers?

Peel tells me, “We won’t see change for a while” until studios are willing to take big chances, but that “things are slowly changing for the better.” The Alliance of Women Film Composers is one such positive addition to the landscape, providing an online directory of women composers working in film, television, video games and media. Hannah praises this support network and says that women in her line of work should strive to “make friends, play each other’s music and share it”.

As the New York Times points out, some promising shifts have happened in the world of superheroes, with Turkish composer Pinar Toprak being hired for ‘Captain Marvel’ alongside Guðnadóttir for ‘Joker’. In terms of representation, Hannah says “Once a chance is taken, more will follow suit.” This is certainly true of her Emmy Award category where, after she was nominated with Miriam Cutler in 2019, 3 out of 5 of the nominees in the following year were women.

I asked Hannah what advice she would give to young, aspiring female composers who want to work in the film and television industry. Here’s what she said:

“You need to have a kind of inner-confidence (you don’t want anyone to accuse you of being cocky). You need to have the strength to handle rejection – don’t be afraid of the word ‘no’. You need to believe you can do the job just as well as anyone else. Confidence is a big part of it all and when you do finally get the job, that confidence will be validated.” 

By: Hannah McGreevy

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