More Than 100 Female Directors, Actors, And Writers Speak Out In A NY Times Piece On Hollywood Sexism

11.20.15 2 years ago 21 Comments
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Maureen Dowd published a groundbreaking piece on Hollywood sexism in The New York Times Magazine this morning, speaking to more than 100 female directors, writers, executives, and actresses to expose the profound bias at the heart of the film industry. It’s a damning article, rife with heart-rending anecdotes, shocking stats, and thoughtful analyses that unassailably prove that misogyny is alive, thriving, and sporting a jaunty baseball cap in Hollywood.

Like most in-depth, worldview-altering journalism worth its salt, Dowd’s piece is also long as hell, which means that many a casual reader may not have the time or stamina to make it the whole way through. So, we’ve gone ahead and pulled out the most disturbing, disheartening portions for your perusal — and hopefully, your intensive pondering. Even mere portions of this story will erase any doubt you may have had that women are on the receiving end of some hardcore discrimination in Hollywood (and, of course, everywhere else). Shit’s gotta change, but the first step is getting everyone on the same page — i.e., admitting there’s a serious problem.

The Tale Of Trevorrow: Dowd begins the piece by telling the “fairy tale” of Colin Trevorrow, an indie director who’d pulled off a modest hit with 2012’s Safety Not Guaranteed and then caught the eye of Brad Bird, a more successful director who took Trevorrow under his (pun guaranteed, though!) wing. Taken with Trevorrow because both were men with baseball caps (a recurring theme in Dowd’s piece, apparently a sort of calling card for the male race), Bird called up Frank Marshall, a producer of the forthcoming Jurassic World. “There is this guy,” said Trevorrow, “that reminds me of me.” (Both owned baseball caps.) Soon, Spielberg himself was calling Trevorrow, asking him to write and direct the $150 million film. “That kind of leap — from indie to blockbuster — is almost exclusively reserved for young guys in baseball caps who remind older guys in baseball caps of themselves,” writes Dowd. “Kathryn Bigelow, a unique figure in Hollywood, got a big budget for K-19: The Widowmaker. The director Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman will arrive in 2017. No other woman in Hollywood has directed a $100 million live-action film.”

Trevorrow Does Not Check Own Privilege: One of the most upsetting parts of the above story is that Trevorrow has no idea that he’s probably succeeded, in large part, thanks to his genitalia and penchant for casual headwear. Dude believes he was given the reins to a multi-million dollar franchise based solely on the merits of his work and says he “doesn’t know” if a female filmmaker would’ve received the same opportunity. “In August, Trevorrow drew ire by suggesting that the dearth of female directors making films involving ‘superheroes or spaceships or dinosaurs’ was because not many women had the desire to direct studio blockbusters,” writes Dowd. “He had already drawn a backlash for portraying Bryce Dallas Howard’s character as a cold career woman running away from dinosaurs in high heels. ‘Would I have been chosen to direct Jurassic World if I was a female filmmaker who had made one small film?’ Trevorrow mused in an email to Slashfilm.com. ‘I have no idea.'”

You know who does have an idea? Director Adam McKay, who outright admits that women wouldn’t get the same opportunity: “You can trace that to the old-school guys in the boardrooms.”

The Dark Loop: Girls creator Lena Dunham calls the female experience in Hollywood “a dark loop,” explaining that there’s essentially no way in for women. “If they don’t have experience, they can’t get hired, and if they can’t get hired, they can’t get experience.” The numbers back up her claim: Excluding art-house divisions, the six major studios released only three movies last year with a female director. This is in part because men are considered competent until proven incompetent, while the inverse is true for women. “We don’t get the benefit of the doubt, particularly black women,” explains Pariah director Dee Rees. “We’re presumed incompetent, whereas a white male is assumed competent until proven otherwise. They just think the guy in the ball hat and the T-shirt over the thermal has got it, whether he’s got it or not. For buzzy first films by a white male, the trajectory is a 90-degree angle. For us, it’s a 30-degree angle.’”

The Numbers Are Horrific: And, stunningly, things are only getting worse. “It’s hard to believe the number could drop to zero,” writes Dowd, “but the statistics suggest female directors are slipping backward.” Though a popular argument is that women are underrepresented in every industry, not just Hollywood (how this is an argument and not just a diversionary tactic, I’m not totally sure), the truth is that “Hollywood’s toxic brew of fear and sexism has kept women even more confined than those in legendary male bastions like Silicon Valley,” explains Dowd, “where 10.8 percent of executive officers are women; corporate America, where about 16 percent of executive officers at S.&P. 100 companies are women; and Congress, where 20 percent of the House and Senate are women.” These are still terrible numbers, but also proof that there’s something particularly sinister happening in Hollywood.

Men In Hollywood Are Pretending This Isn’t Happening And/Or Blaming It On Women: While researching this piece, Dowd sought quotes from top male “moguls” in the industry, nearly all of whom “shrugged the issue off as ‘bogus’ or ‘a tempest in a teapot.'” Others straight-up suggested that women are responsible for their own lack of opportunity. “Not that many women have succeeded in the movie business,” one top entertainment boss (who insisted on remaining anonymous) told Dowd. “A lot of ’em haven’t tried hard enough. We’re tough about it. It’s a hundred-year-old business, founded by a bunch of old Jewish European men who did not hire anybody of color, no women agents or executives. We’re still slow at anything but white guys.” When Dowd phoned another “powerful Hollywood player” to ask about the issue, he replied, “Call some chicks.” How charming.

Things Have Declined Considerably Since The Days Of Old Hollywood: Dowd spends a few paragraphs summarizing the flourishing careers of women of Old Hollywood, including Dorothy Arzner, a screenwriter and director who worked in Hollywood from 1922 to 1943. Arzner, who essentially invented the boom mike, also helped Katharine Hepburn get a foot in the door and still has the “largest body of work by a woman director,” writes Dowd. “No one gave me trouble because I was a woman,” said Arzner in 1974. “Men were more helpful than women.” Even the portrayal of women on screen was once more positive and multi-layered. “I’ve gotten into watching old movies on TCM,” Jennifer Lee, co-director of Frozen, tells Dowd. “And what kills me is the female characters are fantastic, complicated, messy, and they aren’t oversexualized, and I love them.” “Given such remarkable trailblazers,” asks Dowd, “how did women in Hollywood start reeling backward?”

Jaws And Foreign Markets F*cked Everything Up: After speaking to mountains of movie execs, Dowd determines that the “luminous Hollywood” of her childhood was obliterated for good after Jaws made half a billion dollars at the box office in 1975. “America fell in love with the blockbuster, and Hollywood got hooked on the cohort of 15-year-old boys,” she writes. “It has never wavered in this obsession, even though girls and women buy half the movie tickets and watch more TV series, and even though teenage boys are increasingly fixated on gaming.” In the 1980s, as studios began “being swallowed” by conglomerates, the biz became even smaller, and foreign markets started “calling the shots,” because that’s where movies were making much of their money. “Crunching data, foreign sales companies started providing the pre-sale estimates for the value of a movie and its stars outside the United States, and producers would borrow money against those estimates,” explains Dowd. “They often want the male players attached before the female ones because men tend to have more value in foreign sales.”

Spy director Paul Feig confirms this notion: “[Feig] confessed that he had had a terrible time persuading studios to let him make movies with female leads for fear they would flop abroad. ‘Spy was my response to it,’ he said. ‘It made 125 million overseas.’ But there are still barriers. ‘We can’t get Spy released in Japan,’ he said. ‘Russia has tended to be resistant to female leads.'”

Women-Centric Projects That Succeed Are Looked At As One-Offs: Shonda Rhimes, the OG Bad Bitch Of Television Who Takes No Prisoners And All Of The Money, explains to Dowd that every time a movie starring, written, or directed by a woman succeeds, “somehow, it’s a fluke. Instead of just saying The Hunger Games is popular among young women, they say it only made money because Jennifer Lawrence was luminous and amazing. I mean, you go get yours, girl. But seriously, that’s ridiculous.” Rhimes adds that she’s aghast that female audiences, young and old, are being totally ignored. “I find it fascinating that this audience is not being respected. In the absence of water, people drink sand. And that is sad. There’s such an interest in things being equal and such a weary acceptance that it’s not.”

Even If You Write Your Own Stuff, Male Execs Will Make You Change It Into Something Sexist And Reductive: Dowd and her interview subjects concede that it’s easier for women to get things made if they write and direct said things themselves. “But even in the writing phase, women must contend with Hollywood conventions that women on-screen must be likable or cleave to Madonna-whore-catfight stereotypes,” writes Dowd. Director Julie Taymor confirms this: “I’ve had male executives say that my lead character was unlikable because she slept with a lot of guys.” Liz Meriwether, the creator of Fox’s New Girl, says that before this particular show began, she received notes from executives saying, “I don’t understand how this character can be smart and sexy.”

It gets darker: “Female writers in Hollywood told me they are used to hearing things like ‘Can you insert a rape scene here?’ or ‘Can they go to a strip club here?’ or ‘Can you rewrite the fat friend for Eva Mendes? She has high marks for foreign distribution,'” writes Dowd. “They trade stories about how a schlubby male studio head mutters that he doesn’t want to look at ‘ugly actresses,’ and how schlubby male directors, caught up in their fantasy world, choose one beautiful actress over another simply because she has a hair color that fits their customized sexual daydream.” Girlfight and Jennifer’s Body director Karyn Kusama says that “the No. 1 script motif I read is a woman chained to a wall. It’s almost de rigueur now. I look back nostalgically at slasher films. At least then, the girls were main characters in speaking roles.”

Military Metaphors Make Things Worse: Alec Baldwin has an interesting theory: That the “clichéd paramilitary nature” of the industry perpetuates its masculine domination. “They call it shooting,” he says. “Its groupings are called units. They communicate on walkie-talkies. The director is the general. There is still the presumption that men are better designed for the ferocity and meanness that the job often requires.” Even Baldwin is tired of the testosterone. “I’ve worked with so many [expletive] male directors,” he says. “They should open a window and let more women in.”

Feelings Are Scary (Unless They’re Male Feelings): Directors like Transparent‘s Jill Soloway believe much of their power comes from their innate ability to empathize, to feel, to dig deep. As such, Soloway “publicly urges” women to cry on set if they want to, to access their own real emotions. But Dowd says that male execs cringe at this type of raw feeling — unless it comes from a man. “The Orson Welles model still stands,” she writes. “Male directors who act out are seen as moody, eccentric geniuses. Women are dragons.” Kusama adds, “There’s an assumption that directors, showrunners, creators can be, and somehow benefit from being, tyrants. The assumption is that a man is a much better monster.”

In Some Respects, Women Are Still Working Against One Another: Dowd exposes another insidious bias: Women who believe their peers to be incompetent, or worse, think they’re not aggressive enough to get the big jobs. Kathleen Kennedy, the head of Lucasfilm: “Until I waved the flag at the Fortune women’s conference recently, I had not had one single phone call from a woman telling me that she really, really wants to direct a Star Wars movie. They need to be the ones picking up the phone and saying, ‘Hey, let me tell you what Star Wars means to me and how much I could do with it.'”

Film-school teachers similarly put the impetus on their female students, explaining to Dowd that “women self-select out of directing by the end of school and that they are not as interested in the business part of show business as they should be.” But Dunham argues that “we do too much telling women: ‘You aren’t aggressive enough. You haven’t made yourself known enough.’ And it’s like, women shouldn’t be having to hustle twice as fast to get what men achieve just by showing up.”

Mommy Issues: Dowd’s subjects believe that a lot of the problem stems from male executives’ own personal issues with women. “When male Hollywood executives make decisions, they are in touch with their 15-year-old self — that’s who they’re making movies for,” said one “top Hollywood woman.” “They don’t really want to hear women’s voices because that reminds them of their mothers bugging them to clean up their rooms, or their wives whining at them to come home when they want to be with their young girlfriends.” A “top actress” added this disturbing aside: “I think it has to do with dominance, with sex, with getting and maintaining an erection. It’s sort of aligned to the ‘manspreading’ phenomenon on the subway. Men want to walk into the boardroom and take credit for a muscular movie because it reflects on their own muscularity.”

Women Are Afraid To Be Pigeonholed: Amy Pascal’s career is an object lesson in how difficult it is for a woman to forge a path in the Hollywood executive suite: After making wildly successful films like A League of Their Own, Little Women, Girl Interrupted, Sense and Sensibility, and Charlie’s Angels, Pascal was “vilified for it,” writes Dowd. Pascal herself was aware of her own outsider status: “I loved those movies, but all anyone said was that I made chick flicks. And then I got co-opted because everyone made me feel ashamed. I felt like, unfortunately, I was being categorized, that I could only make this one kind of movie, and it wasn’t going to make the kind of money that people wanted. I had to prove I could do anything.” Thus, Spider-Man.

Motherhood Is Seen As A Weakness: Several top executives told Dowd about the “problem” of female directors dropping out to have families. “There is still such an atmosphere of fear that many female directors told me they hide their pregnancies until the last possible minute,” writes Dowd. “One director confessed that she actually hides her child, refusing to put a photo of her son on Facebook, fearing ‘it could end my career.'” Marielle Heller, who directed this summer’s Diary of a Teenage Girl, tells Dowd, “I’ve even had women executives say to me, not realizing I was a mom, ‘We always want to work with women filmmakers, but then they have kids. It’s a real stigma.” You know what happens when women are afraid to have kids? The world ends. Literally.

Hope On The Horizon? “In Hollywood,” writes Dowd, “they now talk about ‘the Lena Dunham effect’ and ‘the Jill Soloway effect’: Studios are starting to search for female-driven shows and recruit women to create them.” Hey! This is a good start.

Or…Maybe Not: Dowd reminds us that recently, Tom Rothman, chairman of Sony Pictures, told The Hollywood Reporter, “There’s a myth in the business that young males drive the box office. Maybe a decade ago or so that was true. I don’t find that true now at all. I actually think women drive the box office.” “For the moment, it seems the bandwagon is rolling,” writes Dowd in her concluding paragraphs. Except that’s how it always goes. “All of a sudden, we’re in this era of, ‘Oh, my God, girls,'” Pascal tells Dowd. “It’ll last about as long as it always does: about five more minutes.”

But why does any of this matter outside of Hollywood? Why should we care? Director Leigh Janiak sums it up best at the end of the piece: “We are influencing culture, which is why it’s so dangerous, I think, not to have more women making movies.”

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