Hollywood’s Female Problem

by Randy Shaw, 2013-01-15

While President Obama is justifiably criticized for not appointing women to key positions, Hollywood’s even more extreme gender discrimination is given a pass. A recent New York Times story was headlined, “Female Directors Gain Ground, Slowly,” despite the number of women directing one of the top 250 films falling from 11% in 2000 to 9% in 2012. 90% of films directed by men is “gaining ground”? Well, it was only 5% in 2011, so somehow a reduction from the 2000 figure is still considered “progress.” Movies directed by men include less than 30% female characters, and these roles are still disproportionately girlfriends or mothers of the central male actor. Oscar season reminds us that the Hollywood “liberals” who donated to Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign and back other women political candidates are complete hypocrites toward their own industry practices.

The United States movie industry has provided fewer gains for women over the last fifty years than any other field. Think what that means.

It means that women are largely excluded from a field---directing major U.S. films---despite having all the skills men have for such positions. The sole reason for their exclusion is that the money men who fund films want to keep men in charge and women on the sidelines.

If this were occurring in Saudi Arabia or another country known for discrimination against women, the U.S. media would be all over it. But the movie industry provides billions in media advertising dollars, so challenging its labor practices, particularly during Oscar season, does not occur.

The perpetrators of this systemic discrimination are not the Christian Right, the Koch brothers, or the fervent opponents of marriage equality; rather, it’s many Hollywood checkbook Democrats, whose opposition to sex and gender discrimination in the larger society does not apply to their own business practices.

A Child for Best Actress

The lack of female directors is connected to nearly 70% of movie roles, and I would guess 90% of the leading roles, going to men. The dearth of parts for adult female actors explains why 9-year old Quvenzhane Wallis, who everyone loved in Beast of the Southern Wild, received a Best Actress Oscar nomination.

Since 1932, not a single male has been nominated to the Best Actor category who was younger than 19. Yet Wallis is the second young girl to get a Best Actress nomination in the past decade (Keisha Castle-Hughes was 13 when nominated for Whale Rider in 2013).

Traditionally, outstanding young female performances like 10-year old Tatum O’ Neal’s in Paper Moon (1973) or 11-year old Anna Paquin’s in The Piano (1993) were put in the Supporting Actress category. But there were so few leading parts for women in 2012 that 9 year old Wallis made the grade.

Many strong female actors have wisely shifted to television. Claire Danes in Homeland reminds us of women’s exclusion from such leading action roles in big screen films, and women’s larger role in television helps explain why more people talk about what is showing in that medium than the latest film they saw.

Male Dominated Casts and Crew

How do big-budget, male-dominated films like the current Gangster Squad still get made? Well, its six producers are all men, as is the director, and the person in charge of casting, cinematography, music, film editing, art and set direction, and production design.
A woman was allowed to be in charge of the movie’s costume design, a female dominated field since the days of Edith Head.

If you think Gangster Squad is atypical, let’s examine Lincoln. Conceived by the liberal Steven Spielberg and the very progressive Tony Kushner, of the fifteen leading cast members identified on IMDB, only one (Sally Field) is a woman. Two of its seven producers are men, and men were in charge of music, cinematography, film editing, production design, set direction and were at least two of three art directors (could not determine gender of “Leslie McDonald”). Lincoln’s casting director was female, as was the costume director, where women seem to have a lock.

Defenders of the male dominated casts in such films argue that the subject matter required such casting. After all, there were no woman police officers or gangsters in Los Angeles in the 1940’s, and no female politicians during Lincoln’s era (neither explains the male domination of off-camera jobs).

But male producers and directors primarily make movies whose topics and casts exclude women, a sad reality that still predominates today. It’s no coincidence that female directors use far more women in their casts (48% v. 29%) and that, more importantly, women in such films are more likely to get leading roles.

The Sheldon Adelson Effect

Many were disgusted by the effort of a single billionaire----casino mogul Sheldon Adelson---to use his wealth to defeat President Obama, dictate the Republican presidential nominee, and control the Party’s platform. But women voters helped overcome Adelson’s $150 million in 2012 campaign donations, leaving many to conclude that money cannot buy elections.

But money can and does determine what movies are made, the topics and issues addressed, who directs and stars in them, and who gets the off-camera crew jobs. This has resulted in a male dominated industry which more closely resembles a fraternity or elite golf club than the demographics of the United States in 2013.

That’s why I call the Oscar ceremony the “March of the White Men.” Most of the night involves white male award winners’ marching to the podium to accept awards in categories where women and men of color are seldom employed.

It’s been over forty years since the rise of the women’s movement, and the United States film industry remains as male dominated as ever.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. He is the author of The Activist’s Handbook and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.