Women directors in Hollywood have never gotten a fair shake.
When Ida Lupino started her directing career in 1949, with her film Not Wanted, she was the first woman to direct a feature film in Hollywood since 1943, when Dorothy Arzner fell ill during shooting of First Comes Courage, and was replaced by Charles Vidor. Before that, of course, such women as Lois Weber, Dorothy Davenport Reid, and the cinema’s foremother, Alice Guy Blaché, were a significant force in the American film industry – at one time Weber was the highest paid director in Hollywood – but all were forced out in 1920 as Hollywood became an all male bastion.
And it hasn’t gotten any better since – in fact, it’s gotten worse. As Eliana Dockterman reported in Time Magazine on May 12, 2015, “Gender bias in movie making has reached a tipping point. The American Civil Liberties Union is targeting sexism in Hollywood, and it wants the government to step in and help.
Only 7% of the top 250 grossing films in 2014 were directed by women—two percentage points lower than in 1998, according to the annual Celluloid Ceiling report conducted by San Diego State University. The organization believes systematic gender bias is to blame.
‘Many of these women directors have been told that they “can’t be trusted with money” by studio executives,’ says Ariela Migdal, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU. ‘This isn’t just about stereotypes and implicit bias, it’s about blatant discrimination. We heard over and over again from female directors that they’ve been told, “This show is too hard for women” or “You can’t do this movie, it’s action”—this to women who have directed plenty of action.’
So on Tuesday, the ACLU sent letters to three federal organizations charged with ensuring equal employment opportunity. The letters included research and testimonies from 50 women directors, exemplifying bias and reporting sexist practices such as secret, studio-compiled ’short lists’ of potential directors who are almost exclusively male. These shortlists may explain why in television, for example, only 17% of directors were female last year.
The civil rights group hopes the messages will lead to a federal investigation and government intervention, which might include requiring short lists to be public and a database of women directors to be made available to producers who claim they ‘don’t know any female filmmakers’ . . .
The problem is not isolated to directors; behind the camera, only 17% of all directors, writers, producers, editors and cinematographers working on the top 250-grossing films are women. Women are also far less likely than men to graduate from critically-lauded independent features to bigger budget studio movies, according to a Sundance and Women in Film study that found that award-winning female directors rarely lead to the kind of studio opportunities a man would get.
Women like Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty) and Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation, The Bling Ring) are very much the exception to the rule.
And even female actors struggle for the same opportunities as their male counterparts. Leaked Sony emails revealed that stars like Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams were being paid less than their male counterparts in films, despite having equal or more screen time. The two problems are, of course, related: when fewer women write and direct films, movies are less likely to tell women’s stories and consequently fewer robust female roles are available.
Even though 2013 research found that movies that passed the Bechdel Test—a simple analysis that measures whether two women speak to each other in the film about something other than a man—made more money at the box office, studio executives continue to assume that audiences don’t want to see films made by and about women.
Hollywood insiders generally think of women’s films as ‘niche,’ according to recent study from the University of Southern California’s Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative. And that view persists despite the massive box office success of female-centric films like Frozen, Gravity and The Hunger Games, which are consistently considered flukes.”
Adds Jessica Ogilvie in L.A. Weekly, “in 2013, according to researchers at USC, just 1.9 percent of the top-grossing Hollywood studio movies were directed by a woman, making Hollywood among the most, if not the most, heavily male professional pursuits in America.
The ACLU demand comes after years of pressure on studios by people like director Maria Gieise, and follows on the heels of an L.A. Weekly investigation last week, “How Hollywood Keeps Out Women,” that details deep gender biases among studio chiefs and top agents . . .”
As Ogilvie notes, “Jennifer Siebel Newsom, the filmmaker wife of California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, has issued a damning statement against the entertainment industry, claiming a blacklist is used against women [stating that] ‘I applaud the ACLU for looking into the hiring practices of women in Hollywood.
As a female filmmaker, I’ve witnessed firsthand discrimination in the entertainment industry, particularly against female directors, who are repeatedly told they’re not as qualified to direct as men and who are blacklisted for speaking out.
That was a major impetus for my first film, Miss Representation, which exposes the under-representation of women in positions of power and influence, particularly within the entertainment industry. With only 4.1% of the top-grossing films over the past decade being directed by women, it is high time we seriously advocate for and invest in women in Hollywood.’”
This is just the beginning of the fight- but the issue is real, and must be addressed.