Where are the Agents of Change? A Primer on the ACLU Investigation into Hollywood’s Gender Discrimination

Can These Cycles Be Broken?

One of the more thought-provoking suggestions in the ACLU’s letters was that female-focused organizations, mentorships, fellowships and other programs may actually perpetuate discrimination. Industry-supported programs, like women-only mentorship program Fox Global Directors Initiative, are often unpaid, hard to get into, don’t necessarily lead to real-world job opportunities, and very small in size. To some extent, the relative prominence of some such organizations might make other decision-makers feel that they can rest easy as the work is being done by other hands. Worse, the ACLU’s letters say, these programs can be “patronizing” and “a double-standard,” merely “window-dressing” that boosts appearances for networks and studios—an unfortunate side effect of the sheer imbalance of the gender situation.

Is female-targeted support in the film industry patronizing, or just one necessary first step in a very long road to gender parity? Boys Don’t Cry and Carrie director Kimberly Peirce argues that, at least for now, it doesn’t matter. “Whether you want to call it affirmative action, whether you want to call it bringing women up, whether you want to call it a token hire,” she told The Wrap in May, “call it whatever you want; every time you hire someone who is not given the privilege, you create an opportunity for equality. The women who are working are doing great work. They’re coming in on budget, and they’re making money. Once you get them hired, you’re opening up that door.”

Sometime in the future, perhaps, those questions will be rendered obsolete. As Marge Dean, co-president of the organization Women in Animation, admits, “I hope that someday our organization becomes unnecessary.”

Until then, efforts are being made to change the tide. Moviemaker Destri Martino launched The Director List in May: a searchable online database of more than 850 experienced female directors. “I’ve heard a lot of reasons why there aren’t more women working on studio films, and most of them sound something like ‘There aren’t many qualified women directors,’ or ‘Women aren’t interested in directing,’” says Martino, who set out to prove that those tenets were misinformed and prejudiced. “My hope is that the database will make it crystal-clear that there are a lot of qualified and experienced women, and will put an end to those common excuses.”

Women directing episodic TV nearly doubled their numbers this year, from seven percent to 13. Although there’s still a long way to go toward equality, this is a bright spot in the data, considering—as many do—that television has overtaken film as the premier platform for innovative storytelling. It’s possible that the lack of diversity behind the film camera has shifted audiences’ attention toward television and streaming platforms, which give them a chance to watch the stories they care about most.

Soloway’s Transparent, after all, made history by winning Amazon its first-ever Golden Globe, and the show’s quality seems evident in its universal critical acclaim. Its director ended her AFI keynote with an urgent plea: “It was shockingly, frighteningly easy for me to realize that I could invite actors into their risk spaces by leading with receiving, gathering, feminine-space-creation energy… The only way things will change will be when we’re all wilder louder, riskier, sillier, unexpectedly overflowing with surprise. Invite it by bringing all of that feminine-allowing into your art making. And soon they’re going to say, “‘We gotta find a woman to direct this, because women are just so much better at it.’”

The ACLU is spearheading a movement to bring about tangible changes. The agencies they’ve petitioned have the power to demand records from employers, unions, and talent agencies, from which they can identify the worst actors. From there, the agencies may hold hearings with the companies with the most egregious hiring records to learn the reasons they aren’t booking woman directors, hear from experts about potential solutions, and can facilitate “conciliation”—a mediation process wherein employers can agree to enforceable voluntary solutions and settlement agreements that will ameliorate discrimination in their hiring practices. If that doesn’t work, there are always lawsuits or public shame.

Which agency will be the first to announce that they will commit to signing as many women as men? What studio will be first to commit to hiring a female director for every male one? What showrunners and producers will demand an equal number of female names on every shortlist from every agency?

“Am I worried about getting hired or not, based on my gender?” says Gramigna. “I’d be lying if I said no—but that’s why I’m spearheading my own work. That’s why I’ve surrounded myself with other talented women who won’t take no for an answer. There is power in togetherness and we are a force to be reckoned with.” Let’s not be afraid of being blacklisted—let’s get excited to be greenlit. MM

Gender Parity Resources

Tell Your Story:

ACLU – Tell Us Your Story

Shit People Say to Women Directors

Find a Woman Director:

The Director List

Organizations for Women Moviemakers:

DGA Women’s Steering Committee

Sundance Institute Women’s Initiative

Alliance of Women Directors

Film Fatales

This article appears in MovieMaker’s Summer 2015 issue. Illustration by Jason Raish.

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