What Will It Take To Disrupt Hollywood Sexism?

Soraya hollywood

Movies and their marketing offspring are products that we consume, and sexism and racism are cheap and profitable components of those products.

Last week, two Hollywood women talked about Hollywood’s endemic sexism. Melissa McCarthy called out a New York Observer film critic for calling her a “hideous,” “tractor-sized” “female hippo” two years ago while reviewing the film Identity Thief. During an Ellen segment, McCarthy said she asked the writer, “Would you ever say that to a man?” His response? “Well, you really looked bad.”

Then, 37-year-old Maggie Gyllenhaal revealed that she’d been told she was too old to play opposite a 55-year-old male lead, the latest professional casualty of Hollywood’s shutting women down once their baby-making years draw to a close.

In 2013, Vulture analyzed the ages of 10 middle-aged leading men to determine the average ages of their onscreen love interests and documented what we all know: As men age, their female counterparts don’t. There were virtually no instances of same-age romances on screen.

The stories told by women behind the camera are just as bad if not worse. A new tumblr, Shit People Say to Women Directors is overflowing with episodes that range from the plainly idiotic, “We like to try to hire female interns here…because interns have to prepare lunch every day and girls are better at that,” to the illegal, such as not hiring women because they have children or sexually propositioning them in pornographic, sexually explicit, and vulgar ways.

Even the ACLU has gotten involved, recently launching a campaign demanding that the U.S. government investigate the industry’s systemic failure to hire women in film and television as violations of civil rights laws. I think that’s a great idea, and while there is no shortage of instances of overt sexist discrimination, it’s much harder to criminalize implicit bias and cultural misogyny.

One poster on the SPSTWD tumblr shared this Jessica Lange quote, which sums the problem up: “Hollywood is run with this male point of view. Even if a woman runs a studio, she still does it with a male point of view. And as long as that exists, you’re still going to have this wish fulfillment. That men continue to be fascinating and attractive and virile, and women age and are no longer sexual or beautiful—it’s a fantasy that has nothing to do with reality.”

If only “androcentrism” were a word people tossed around casually. “It’s a man’s world,” does, however, roll off the tongue more easily.

Earlier this year, the Oscar award nominees strikingly reflected the epistemological interests of the organization’s members: Academy voters are an average age of 63 years old, 94% white, 76% male. With scant exception, the movies this year, as so often in the past, were fraternal boy-to-men narratives that examined male social anxieties with questions of masculinity, success, violence, and power. The exclusion of women and people of color from this year’s Oscars and, in general, the films most likely to be invested in by Hollywood, is the rule, not the exception.

Selma’s inclusion as a nominee for Best Movie didn’t offset the frank and ugly fact that Ava DuVernay was not among the Best Director nominees and that lead actor David Oyelowo was not among the best actor nominees. DuVernay’s nomination would have been the first for an African-American woman filmmaker. She is now the ninth woman to be passed over for a Best Director nomination for a film nominated for Best Movie. In the entire history of the award, only one woman, Kathryn Bigelow, has ever won Best Director—for a movie that was about men and war. Additionally, seven categories including director, screenwriter, and cinematographer had no women nominees as all. Every person nominated for acting was white—again, not surprising considering that people of color have made up less than 5% of all Oscar nominees. Rachel Larris, of the Women’s Media Center, does a granular analysis every year and this year was particularly awful.

The body of work rewarded in the Oscars, while always excellent, provide unrealistic and skewed representations of culture. Additionally, however, it is a measurable example of workplace discrimination against women and people of color in the entertainment industry. If you are a woman, especially of color, or a man of color, your chances of working are significantly depressed, the roles offered to you are far less interesting, your professional lifespan is much shorter, and your pay is significantly lower, something made too obvious to ignore during the Sony email hack.

For non-white women this is truer in spades. These consequences are true at all levels of the industry and not just on screen. The ratio of men-to-women for non-acting awards is five-to-one. That reflects many jobs and serious money. The pay gap is significant. Statistics are one thing, but seeing blockbuster names like Denzel Washington and Charlize Theron as being on the receiving end of pay discrimination is another. As Selma Hayek pointed out last week in Cannes, the only films where women make more than men is in porn, where, by the way, black men might be even more discriminated against than in Hollywood.

Every year, studies are conducted, charts are published, information is shared and very little changes. Despite ample opportunities to recognize a wide range of people for their work, this year will be the least diverse since at least 1998. The ratio of men to women in film is what it was in 1946 and the quality of the characterizations is degraded, not improved.

This weekend, I was heartened and surprised to see that almost half of the movies at a local multiplex featured female leads or female-focused narratives. Pitch Perfect and Mad Max, in particular, are dominating the box office. The upside is that it’s fantastic to see a shift like this, even for one week out of 52. The downside is that, for the most part, these films remain lily white. However, it would be nice to think that these films, and others, such as Frozen and Insurgent, prove the universal appeal that stories with women’s perspectives can and do have. Still, though, last year, only 17 of the 250 top-grossing films had women directors.

There are many talented, ambitious, and actively working women directors, yet awards ceremonies such as the Oscars and the Cannes Film Festival, fail to acknowledge their work. The awards, in which a highly visible and commercialized red carpet give the visual impression of equality where none exists, confer a very skewed distribution of legitimacy, status, opportunity, and future profits. In the end, these ceremonies amount to glamorous, masturbatory parades of powerful men reproducing status quo inequities and being well paid to do so.

While I realize that sexism isn’t everybody’s thing, the funny thing is how very passionate about other issues the Hollywood elite can be. Many champion the cause of animals, are anti-fracking activists and outspoken environmentalists, but putting a stake in the ground for women? In a public way, like boycotting these highly visible ceremonies or turning down work? Nah.

“Hollywood has a really long way to go in achieving diversity,” says Melissa Silverstein in what may be the most polite and understated description of the situation. Silverstein is a co-founder, along with Barnard’s Kathryn Kolbert, of the annual Athena Film Festival, now in its sixth year. The Festival, which hosts hundreds of films featuring women in diverse roles, is organized by Silverstein’s Women and Hollywood and Barnard’s Athena Center for Leadership Studies.

Geena Davis, through her Institute on Gender in Media, has been trying to move the needle for years. There are industry initiatives, such as Fox’s Mentoring Program for women directors. Watchdog and advocacy groups, such as Women and Hollywood, apply pressure on the industry to improve diversity. The Representation Project’s #AskHerMore campaign does a good job of raising awareness of the problems women encounter. There are also initiatives such as Meryl Streep’s newly created lab for women screenwriters over 40. These are all great, but basically are holding us steady at an already suppressed level. There are, for example, fewer women directors today than in 1998.

As individuals, more and more people like McCarthy and Gyllenhaal are publicly calling a spade a spade. In the past year, Jessica Chastian, Cate Blanchett, Kate Winslet, Zoe Saldana, Kerry Washington, Keira Knightly, Eva Mendes, Olivia Wilde, and others have been vocal in unprecedented ways. Last week, Hayek and Parker Posey took the movie industry to task, saying “They don’t see us as a powerful economic force, which is an incredible ignorance.”

There are also many celebrity men working in sustained and public ways. John Legend, Mark Ruffalo, Jay Baruchel, Daniel Craig, Sir Patrick Stewart, Daniel Radcliffe, Ryan Gosling, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt use very specific feminist language to challenge misogyny, the latter launching a small cottage industry. Almost all credit their mothers with raising their awareness.

Sundance founder Robert Redford created one of the best and most diverse venues for films today. In 2013, half the films in the category of American drama were directed by women. When Redford and George Lucas (of Star Wars fame) discussed these problems at the Festival this year he said, “Well, diversity is the name of game, as far as I’m concerned,” Redford said. “Independence and diversity go hand-in-hand, in my mind.” It would have been nice if the panel of three pale males had itself reflected his belief.

I’m not suggesting, by the way, that women in Hollywood need to be rescued from sexism by chivalrous men. However, men as allies aren’t just important, but necessary and might have greater efficacy. A study conducted last year found that women and minorities who try to foster diversity are professionally penalized. On the other hand, if people who benefit tangibly from that discrimination speak openly to confront it, people pay attention.

In the end, however, what will make the difference is what we as consumer buy. Movies and their marketing offspring are products that we consume and sexism and racism are cheap and profitable components of those products. We need to make them expensive and not worth investing in. One way to speed that change along, however, is for high-profile men who have far less to lose, longer careers, make more money and have greater cultural capital in general to step up to the plate and take concerted steps, explicitly calling their industry out on its racial and gendered imbalances. People need to go from feeling uncomfortable about extending support to public protest and institutional disruption.

Soraya L. Chemaly writes about gender, feminism and culture for several online media including Role Reboot, The Huffington Post, Fem2.0, RHReality Check, BitchFlicks, and Alternet among others. She is particularly interested in how systems of bias and oppression are transmitted to children through entertainment, media and religious cultures. She holds a History degree from Georgetown University, where she founded that schools first feminist undergraduate journal, studied post-grad at Radcliffe College.

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