Hollywood’s Women Problem?

After the Isla Vista shootings were over and the killers motivations became clear, social media erupted in support for women’s rights. The hash-tag on Twitter “Yes All Women” filled the timelines of many with heartbreaking stories of what women go through every day in a still male dominant, often misogynist society. In an attempt to better understand our society, many also attempted to connect the issue of male point-of-view dominance to our entertainment culture.

Some of the more candid and vocal supporters of the “Yes All Women” hash-tag were white men working in Hollywood. One writer noted how he was reading and performing notes on a studio script that clearly expressed the white male writer’s sexual fantasies in a way that suppressed the female characters. The writer was appalled at how often he gets scripts from white male agents on behalf of white male clients that have blatant misogynist overtones. Another executive noted that we needed to better represent females on screen (they only accounted for 15% of all top movie roles last year). Many more writers and men in Hollywood embraced the hash-tag, agreeing that Hollywood could do better to both employ more women and treat women better on-screen.

Then why is Hollywood still the way it is?

Why do women only make up 18% of key behind the scene roles in Hollywood, such as writers, directors and producers? This is a figure that has risen only 1% since 1998! Hollywood has long complained on the surface about sexism in its ranks, and that women could be better represented. This is a conversation that has been had for many years. So why should women in this industry feel any more comfortable that something will be done now?

How can we actually improve it? Here is a two-pronged solution I came up with.

1. Yes, you are a part of the problem.

Many writers and executives vocal on the “Yes All Women” hash-tag are actually silent participants in the industries under-representation of women. While they make a great case online and occasionally in the press, their rants come across as armchair activism.

The writer aforementioned likely won’t say anything to the agent or male writer about his misogynist overtones. That writer still wants a pay check, and most in a similar position would not turn away the opportunity to provide notes on a studio script even if they find the message to be abhorrent. The executive could go out of his way to have conversations with other executives and people with decision-making power about why they need to read/make more female stories and acknowledge the data behind the fact that female-starring movies actually do sell.

They do not do this. These folks may feel that under-representation of females in the industry is a bad thing, but they don’t personally risk anything to combat that. They become passive participants in a sexist industry for the sake of a pay check. They likely feel that so long as they know they support women’s rights, they’re not part of the problem — the other guy is.

These folks are a part of the problem. It’s a big problem when no one will risk anything to speak up for those in a disadvantaged position. These men are the equivalent of the white folks who praised the actions of other white people who joined the Freedom Rides against segregation in the south, all while enjoying their segregated life. Sure they supported ending segregation, but they didn’t act on changing anything. The folks who joined on those Freedom Rides and fought with black people for equality pushed forth civil rights laws. You can’t make change without acting on it. Period. Not doing anything or acting to make a change makes you a part of the problem as a passive participant.

2. Subconscious Bias. You look just like me!

Quickly think of three things that come to mind when someone says “female writer” or “female director.” I asked several of my male friends in the arts this question, and their responses ranged from shitty-movies, no action to romantic comedy. These men weren’t trying to be sexist, they support the goal of better female representation in the arts. However they also hold subconscious bias about what it means to be a female writer or director.

Now imagine an executive when they get a query letter from a female writer. Before he even opens her script, he’s already conjuring up an image in his head about what to expect. The same can likely be said of women executives or reps because when I posed this question to my female friends, they answered with the same assumptions. The less you stand out (think your standard white-bread generic name for a young male writer) the less chances there are for someone to read your script or query letter with a subconscious bias. The more generic your name, the less it will stand out. A simple scan of popular working screenwriters shows a common trend among male Anglo-saxon given names and surnames.

We assume as a culture that women are the mothers, the daughters and the wives. No matter how in tune to sexism any executive may be, there will be this subconscious cultural bias. It is why I write with a pen name. No one wants to be judged as a female writer versus just another writer. However it is impossible to detach that subconscious bias as a reader. We need to begin making this subsconcious bias apparent bias, because that is the end result.

Women are capable of writing the same stories men do. Women can write action, horror and even SciFi and fantasy just as men can. Yet so often decision makers are overlooking this possibility in favor of the familiar: the white male perspective.

Executives promote people and hire people that look just like them because it is safe to do so. Hollywood doesn’t really like risk. It tends to go with proven assumptions. However those assumptions lend itself to bias. Executives aren’t thinking twice about promoting a young white male with a similar surname and cultural upbringing over a woman with the same qualifications. He should be! The same can be said when choosing who can direct or be hired to write a major property.

Why can’t a woman write or direct Star Wars, or a comic book film? Likely because the white men who are fans of the property don’t even consider the possibility of hiring anyone but someone who fits the same mold and assumed view points as they do.

In order to break these biases, we need to make them apparent.

Conclusion

We should be looking to equalize the playing field. If white men’s views are the predominant one, we get the same stories over and over again. The problem with that is such stories are also incredibly misogynist, with woman as prize versus woman as character.Beyond the lack of female representation, when we do show females, we show them in a male-dominant light. This is embracing societal stereotypes.

The only way to change this is to allow for more points of view in the creative process. If white men are the predominant cultural force at the top making the decisions, we need to look at diversity at the top. If there’s too many white male writers, we need to hold diversity contests open to women and minorities only. There’s plenty talented women and minorities looking to get into this business, and they are blatantly overlooked in favor of white men. We can lie to ourselves that we are not a part of the problem, but the employment numbers do not lie!

I truly believe many in Hollywood find this trend disgusting, but unless they actively fight it, they are part of the problem as passive participants.

Us women are tired of the armchair activism. We are tired of people constantly spinning wheels on tackling this issue of diversity. We want solutions! So unless you are willing to actively be a part of the solution, step aside. If you’re not willing to actively start fighting this problem, you are part of the problem, plain and simple.

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