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FEATURE | Summer 2014

Lights, Camera, Inaction!

Why are there so few women directors hired in Hollywood?


By MARIA GIESE

A FEW YEARS AGO, a woman director who we’ll call Jane met with a well-known television producer. They had a great meeting and he liked her sample reel, but he told her that he couldn’t hire her to direct his show. “I already hired a woman director this season,” he said with a straight face.

Unfortunately, this type of experience is common for women directors in Hollywood, despite the fact that films directed by women often meet with great success. The Catherine Hardwicke-helmed Twilight, for example, grossed $392 million worldwide, Sofia Coppola received a 2003 Academy Award nomination for Lost in Translation and Kathryn Bigelow won the Oscar in 2010 for The Hurt Locker. But the hiring of these women is the exception rather than the rule.

The absence of American women directors is perhaps the most pronounced in any U.S. industry. In 2011, the Bureau of Labor Statistics ranked coal mining among the lowest in female employment at just 5 percent— though the numbers shot up above 9 percent after a sex-discrimination lawsuit in 2013—but women comprised just 4 percent of the directors of the top 172 American feature films in 2011. As a result, America’s most influential global export—our entertainment media—is generated from a perspective almost entirely male.

A report from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media recently revealed that when women direct films and TV shows, more women appear on-screen and stereotyping of women characters is radically reduced. Women directors also cast more realistic ratios of men and women in background scenes and tone down overly sexualized costumes. Perhaps most important, female characters directed by women often seem more authentic to women viewers.

Jane, for example, was once working on a scene in which, in the script, a husband called his wife a “bitch” and slapped her. Knowing that viewers sometimes play out scenes they see in films and on TV, she worked with the producer, writer and actors and retooled the scene to have the same emotional impact without name-calling or violence. Later, the producer remarked that in his 30 years of producing movies, he’d never been asked to consider the ramifications of his characters’ actions.

Many industry professionals claim that the reason there aren’t more women directing is that there aren’t enough trained women directors. This simply isn’t true. While there are just over 1,200 women director members of the Directors’ Guild of America (DGA)—compared to about 7,700 male director members—women today graduate from film schools almost at parity with men, thanks to Title IX. However, their numbers drop precipitously as soon as they step into the professional arena.

Unfortunately, there is no legal structure in place to turn the tide.

Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, created to ensure equal employment opportunity for women, is effective in individual cases, but has not been as useful in class-action cases against industry-wide discrimination. Nevertheless, in 1983, six accomplished women DGA-member directors, fed up with the entrenched sexism in the industry, convinced the Directors’ Guild to lead a class-action lawsuit under Title VII against two major film studios. Two years later the case stalled after the judge disqualified the DGA from leading the class. However, two important diversity agreements were negotiated between the DGA and the studios, specifying that the studios must make “good faith efforts” to hire more women and their failure to do so could lead to arbitration.

These agreements moved the numbers of women directors working in episodic television from 0.5 percent in 1980 to 16 percent by 1995. Today, however, the percentage of women directors in episodic TV has dropped below 1995 levels—to 14 percent, according to the DGA.

A key reason for these low numbers is that race and gender have long been consolidated into one “diversity” category by studios, agencies and guilds. Studios can hire ethnic-minority men to meet “diversity” requirements while failing to hire women directors at all.

Women directors fare far better in Europe, where countries like France and Sweden have created charters to strive for gender equity. Government funds often finance film and television productions, binding them by law to consider male and female ap- plicants equally.

The ACLU is working to achieve something similar in the U.S. Melissa Goodman, a senior attorney at the ACLU of Southern California, recently announced that the organiza- tion would be taking up the cause of women directors. “The statistics [on women in Hollywood] alone strongly suggest that more action is needed in the industry,” she said.

The tide may be changing. This April, the DGA hired Frank Bennett Gonzalez to lead the guild’s diversity strategy and manage its diversity programs. According to the DGA, he will “enforce employers’ increased contractual diversity-related obligations” (although the question remains whether women will be considered a separate diversity category).

Football has something to teach Hollywood about diversity. In 2003, the NFL implemented the Rooney Rule, requiring at least one person of color to be considered for all available head-coaching positions. This simple strategy has resulted in higher numbers of ethnic-minority coaches throughout the game—from 6 percent to 22 percent in just the first three years. If similar programs were created for directors, the number of women running the show might dramatically improve.

Ironically, Jane recently bumped into the TV producer who’d passed her over because she was a woman; he didn’t remember her and asked what she did for a living. When she told him she was a TV director, his eyes brightened.

“My daughter’s in film school,” he said enthusiastically. “Can she give you a call? It would be great for her to talk to a real director.”
Jane told him she’d be delighted.

Maria Giese directed the British feature When Saturday Comes and the award-winning indie feature Hunger. She is an active member of the DGA. Check out her activist/agitator web forum at www.women directorsinhollywood.com.

Reprinted from the Summer issue of Ms. To have this issue delivered straight to your door, Apple, or Android device, join the Ms. Community.

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