Women working in Hollywood are fed up with the sexism of their industry and are taking action. Could we have finally reached the decisive social moment that might bring gender equity to the dream factory?
The latest news is from the American Civil Liberties Union: This week, its branch in Southern California announced that it has asked one state and two federal agencies to investigate discrimination against female directors. It cites figures showing that only 13 per cent of the directors on prime-time, cable and Netflix shows in 2013-14 were women, while nearly one third of network shows had an exclusively male stable of directors. Meanwhile, only 7 per cent of the directors of 2014's 250 top-grossing movies were women, a level that has not improved in the past 20 years. The ACLU argued that numbers this low are evidence of intentional discrimination.
The organization also provided anecdotal evidence from female directors who have been told openly that a certain show runner never hired women or that an agent need not send over a female candidate for an interview, and who said women were considered "risky" hires even when compared with less experienced men. Under American law, the three employment-rights agencies can investigate practices that might violate discrimination laws and, if they find violations, negotiate settlements or even file court charges.
Still, such investigations seem unlikely to produce change by themselves. The ACLU also reported that investigations into discrimination against minorities and women in Hollywood in the 1960s and 1970s led to some findings the studios discriminated and some agreements with professional associations and unions. Yet, in the end, those developments did not produce tangible results.
What will produce change, however, is a sense that these practices are no longer socially tolerated. That message is being sent loud and clear as the women of Hollywood seem increasingly confident about speaking out. The best recent example is a notorious skit from comic Amy Schumer, who seems to be mounting an all-out assault on sexism in the acting profession these days. In The Last Fuckable Day, Schumer finds Tina Fey and Patricia Arquette sitting in a park at a table covered in calorific treats, celebrating with Julia Louis-Dreyfus the bittersweet day the media decides she is no longer believable as an object of sexual interest. Louis-Dreyfus toasts the generosity of the business in allowing her to keep going through her 40s but, now in her 50s, she acknowledges it's time to leave. When Schumer innocently asks when men celebrate their last day, the gang dissolves into laughter. Of course, for male stars, there is no best-before date.
The skit's immediate target is Hollywood's ageism in casting women, but that is simply a manifestation of its sexism: Actresses are first and foremost judged by their looks and the sexual attractiveness of youth is the most important criterion for landing a lead role. American TV dramas routinely ask us to believe that every female police detective, courtroom lawyer or business executive is a gorgeous 30-year-old who performs her job in a short skirt and high heels, while the movies continually pair male leads with better-looking romantic partners who are often decades younger.
We should all be offended by this because it implies that the only audience for film and television is one made up of lusty, heterosexual men: Women are objects to be viewed, not viewers themselves. Movie and television executives may only care about getting men ages 18 to 34 to watch their product, but the truth is that Hollywood is still the most powerful image-maker and storyteller in the world, and those images and stories remain deeply sexist. That won't change until there are more women behind the camera, and a wider variety of different-looking women of all ages in front of the camera. The day the Oscar for Best Picture is regularly accepted by female directors whose stars are women as talented and ugly as Tommy Lee Jones is the day we'll know things have changed.
Until then, I am cheering on the ACLU and Schumer, and wondering when female consumers will join their movement, telling Hollywood that we've all had enough.