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Women in Film — We're Not There Yet

On the heels of the Women In Film event last weekend, I had the chance to watch a few red-carpet interviews with attendees and honorees. One thing that stood out to me was that while everyone was quick to point out how far we’ve come, they made sure to mention how far we still have […]

On the heels of the Women In Film event last weekend, I had the chance to watch a few red-carpet interviews with attendees and honorees. One thing that stood out to me was that while everyone was quick to point out how far we’ve come, they made sure to mention how far we still have left to go.

The “how far we still have left” is what caught my interest most, because I haven’t been doing this long enough to really understand how much has changed. And the subtle discrimination I have seen in the short time I’ve been working in this business has been enough to harden me into a staunch supporter of women in film.

For one thing, I never thought of myself as a feminist until I came to work in Hollywood. I’m part of a generation and class of women who were reared on the rhetoric that we could grow up to do anything. At no point did gender figure in as a limitation, and the idea that it would for anyone who might judge my capabilities seemed completely ludicrous.

It was confusing when I heard or read about women's complaints of gender discrimination — didn't we figure all this stuff out in the ‘70s?

That's what I believed. Until I came to work in Hollywood.

It started with generally dismissive treatment on the part of men I worked with, and it grew into a clear sense of being on the losing side of favoritism. So I put some effort into mitigating aspects of my personality that might seem too "nice" or passive and played up my opinionated, ambitious side.

Instead of flirting with male colleagues, we busted each other’s balls. I quickly learned to tune out the usual locker-room chatter that men in this business seem to think is perfectly acceptable in mixed company, rather than chastising, when I felt uncomfortable. But with all the effort to prove I could hang (because I can), and even in situations when I made good points, it seemed that the men I worked with were still reluctant to hear me out.

And strangely, I kept seeing that the benefit of the doubt tended to be afforded automatically to my male peers. Why weren’t they being held to the same burden of proof as I was? (Even the ones who consistently demonstrated the most meager levels of competence.)

I used to think it was me. Maybe I was doing something to deserve men’s disrespect. Or maybe it was part of some kind of industry “hazing,” maybe I was being tested. It makes you wonder. And it’s undeniably awkward to try to recover with the guy who just stopped your conversation to watch, mouth-agape, as Bai Ling walked down the hall, pointing out that he'd like to suck on parts of her anatomy.

Luckily, I finally found a niche where I don’t feel like such an outsider. But I’m still frustrated. The work I put in every day to help set up projects that don’t even have a formal feminist agenda, but just happen to portray mildly empowered, mature women in ways that mainstream movie audiences may not be accustomed to has led me to one conclusion: Women need a better rap.

I’ve heard more than once that this revolution has to start with actresses. And I admit, the argument seems to make sense: If the women who can open a movie would just get it together to stand up and refuse to play any character whom they feel is a one-dimensional farce, or fight to be directed, photographed and written by other women, studios will be forced to cower in their shapely shadows and deliver what they demand.

The reality is that, yes, celebrity actresses are in a position to influence creative elements of the movies they attach themselves to. The reality, though, is also much more complicated.
 
In my experience, the opportunities offered women for anything other than eye candy are limited at best, and self-defeating at worst. If an actress wants a superior role, she often has to bring it to the table herself. So they create production companies in order to exercise more control over the material they get to star in. A step in the right direction, but there’s still lots of red tape to contend with.

For one thing, as any one who has every worked her way up in the industry knows, it takes years to earn the kind of clout necessary to be able to call your own shots (I’m still not there), let alone dictate what someone else should do with their money. A top-earning actress who has put in her time and worked her butt off to earn her place in movie hierarchy is understandably reluctant to flush that down the tubes, and her representation stands to gain more from making it seem that taking a pay cut for the sake of changing her image is more career suicide than career opportunity.

I heard a male agent once say that if the heroine of a script didn’t face higher stakes, he couldn’t see how someone would emotionally invest in her. OK, so the character is never chased to the edge of a cliff or anything, but plenty of successful movies exist with mediocre stakes.

Was anyone ever truly emotionally invested in whether Owen Wilson got it together in “Wedding Crashers”? It could be argued that the stakes of our movie were at least as high as learning to act like a grown man when you are one, so what gives?

Where that movie is held up as a standard for fresh, profitable comedic material in the industry, a similar story about women freaks everyone out.

Because of mentality like this, women suffer a severe drought of entertainment that speaks to us, in terms we have prescribed. The majority of the representations of women in film come from the minds of male directors. What we have reflected back to us are images of women filtered through the psyches of people who admit they are unable to comprehend them.

We have executives whose entrenched expertise leads them to give audiences as little credit as possible; And so they pass on, or change to fit their needs, many of the projects that could really serve to shift the status of the women in cinema for the better. Those are relegated to the small, independent sphere, where very few people will access them, so their success can count as an example against making more movies like them.

I have heard veteran women in film advised that they could get their project financed if they were willing to swap the lead and supporting roles — Because no studio can (or isn’t willing to try to) convince any actor who is big enough to open a film to do it supporting a woman. And this is to speak nothing of the countless times I have heard requests to change female protagonists so they’ll seem less threatening.

We have male critics telling us that shows like “Sex and the City” are garbage because they question whether these are relatable characters (but fail to recognize that many of its episodes are written and directed by men).

And perhaps worst of all, we have female writers who, in order to write something they can sell, invent ludicrous, hyper-emotional versions of women whose sole obsession is settling down with the right man, having the picture-perfect, White-Dress day they have been dreaming of since they were five, and are reduced to acting like insipid psychopaths in pursuit of this goal.

This is what we’re projecting as the most recognizable image of a woman.

Luckily, there is evidence of a changing landscape. We are starting to see a rise in popularity of material with strong female protagonists, played by kick-ass actresses who do their roles justice (Jodie Foster in pretty much everything recent, Kyra Sedgwick in “The Closer” and Glen Close and Rose Byrne in “Damages” jump to mind). And although the success of these shows demonstrates the potential for audiences to accept out-of-the-box female characters on a pretty large scale, we’re not talking about a revolution of actresses.

Women are so deficiently represented behind the camera (only 7 percent of the directors belonging to the DGA are women), and even with what gains we can ITALS identify, there’s still plenty of sexist stereotyping going on.

Tina Fey earned plenty of esteem for holding her position as head writer of “SNL,” and her work on “30 Rock” deserves all the hype it gets, but in 2009, is it really so amazing to the world that a woman can run a show and be funny on par with men? The revolution is in relaxing the emphasis on what’s familiar to create an atmosphere where women in the business feel emboldened by more objective, strong, complex and truthful images of themselves for which they can fight — and from which audiences can draw inspiration.

Singling Hollywood out for its dogged conformity to gender stereotypes is particularly important because it's not just about what women like me encounter in the workplace. My roadblocks are my own to blast through, but it’s a scary fact that all of the subtle cues that we ingest from the media are unintentionally digested, and they affect our mindsets.

Any pop psychologist will tell you that, on some level, we are incapable of entirely understanding (let alone controlling) many of the human motivations and social impulses that drive us. And the upsetting view from behind the scenes shows that stereotypes in media are not perpetuated innocently. People cling to demographics, which figure prominently into the market research that are used to evaluate the potential risk and reward of a given script.

Stereotypes are bandied about during meetings as solid reasons why something could never work, and material is faithfully compared to them to make sure that its characters match up.

For women, everything is made even more complicated by the obsession with celebrity and the cult of beauty that is arguably the backbone of the industry. It’s harder than in other industries to combat the ideology that fuels our unconscious perceptions for the worse when actresses are forced to uphold impractical standards of beauty just to stay working — because marketing a movie often relies heavily on exploiting the attractiveness and sexuality of the female lead.

And when mainstream movies are reaching massive audiences, the stereotypes they choose to embrace, for convenience or familiarity or to sell tickets, are permeating culture on the same scale. The revolution thickens.

The status quo is clearly a convenient arrangement for men, but I won't go as far as to say that the gender disparity in Hollywood is somehow purposely designed (even if willingly exploited). I don’t even believe that most of the sexist judgments I've felt from superiors and peers have been consciously delivered — I’m willing to give the people who underestimate me based on my private parts the benefit of that doubt.

But you know what? It doesn't matter. We’ve become so complacent that a touch of extremism is warranted. You could never lose weight if you refused entertain the idea that cheeseburgers are fattening. Instead of waiting for someone to blaze a new trail, it’s time that we make a more conscious change in our appetite.

The Western world has hidden behind overt advances in equality and continued to treat women as subtly inferior for long enough. It may mean re-examining some of our deep-fried guilty pleasures, or at least balancing them out with a healthy dose of vitamin Ms.

“I want to make this world good … Why not? It’s possible.” – Isabel Allende