As far as the gender pay gap in Hollywood goes, the cat’s been out of the bag for decades. But thanks to the cyber hacking of Sony Pictures, a number of bold women taking a stand, and a burgeoning media conversation around gender equality, a new narrative on the film industry’s bias against women is developing.
Whose Role Is It Anyway?
On the actress front, Jennifer Lawrence’s post, titled "Why Do I Make Less Than My Male Co‑Stars’”, which appeared in the the feminist newsletter Lenny on October 13, is still running hot on the internets. The through-line of her message? Speak up and don’t be afraid to be disliked when you do it.
On October 22, TIME published a feature on Sandra Bullock, who said the Sony hack was a blessing in disguise and shared how the news brought more women in film together.
“Other women felt exactly the same way,” she said. “And we felt shame because of it. Now something has shifted. All the women started bonding and going, ‘Wow, why don’t you get this? You did an amazing job. Why aren’t you getting part of the merchandising?’ We came together, shared this information and supported each other.”
Bullock famously landed the role of a political consultant in Our Brand Is Crisis, which at one time was going to be played by George Clooney. Some are wondering if this move is going to ignite a trend. While switching more men out for women to play leading roles could be a good thing, a genuine cultural shift will be evident when more roles are written for women period.
The Call For More Women In Front
Women have evolved far faster than Hollywood, and well, pretty much every industry is choosing to keep up with with the exception of fashion and beauty. Notice I used the word “choosing.” That’s why we need more #WomenInFront,” which is not the same thing as pushing men aside, as that’s not wanted nor warranted. Inclusivity is key to social change, and it has to start from the bottom up. Doing it from the top down will only perpetuate oppression.
The lack of leading female roles with dimension and purpose is an issue Geena Davis has been diligently tackling for years through the work of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. According to the organization’s research, the ratio of male to female characters hasn’t changed since 1946!
While we haven’t seen a massive shift in female roles or pay equality yet, something is happening. Women are being louder than ever before and not making apologies for it.
Redressing The Director’s Chair
The small amount of female roles is in direct proportion with the lack of women directors. According to a study of 700 of last year’s films, conducted by Martha Lauzen, director at the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, women made up only 13% of directors who released a movie in theaters in 2014, and were not even one-tenth of the directors on the 250 top-grossing films. The study also revealed that women consisted of more than half of the writing staff on films helmed by female directors, while they made up a scant 8% among male-directed films.
Does this spell discrimination? The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is currently investigating Hollywood’s hiring practices to find out. On October 6, Deadline reported that this could be the first step to a class-action lawsuit against Tinseltown.
Where And When Does Change Begin?
Director, writer, and producer, Miranda Bailey, says part of the problem comes from what studios are choosing to pay attention to at the indie level.
“Indie filmmakers will make a movie, and it will get reviewed really well at festivals, and they’ll go on to do big budget movies, and almost all of the directors making these movies are men — if not all,” says Bailey. “I think that the studios are still in the mindset that a woman, even though she made a beautiful, small film, she can’t go on to do a big film.”
Bailey recently added to her film producing credits, Time Out Of Mind , which chronicles the journey of a NYC homeless man, played by Richard Gere. In former producing experiences she’s had to make it a point to speak up about getting paid fairly.
So how can we get more women to speak up for themselves?
“I think it comes down to believing in ourselves as women,” says Bailey. “I think that men are instinctually taught to believe in themselves from the beginning, and I think we’re taught to possibly not talk too much or interrupt or seem like a bitch, and so we kind of try to find the right moments. At some point you have to get to the place where inside you just say, ‘Wait, I’m valid and everything I think is valid, and it’s ok for me to speak my mind, and it’s actually ok if people don’t like me. But I think that has to do with maturing, and it would be nice if we could get to that point earlier in our careers.”
Seattle-based director Sara Chiro echo Bailey’s thoughts on the need for women to take a stand. She’s recently took on directing a dramatic feature about a young woman growing up on a commune in the 1970s.The movie is called LANE 1974 and will be released early next year.
Chiro says the lack of women’s stories in film is why she became a filmmaker.
“The stories I saw being told about women or even about tangential female characters were so off base and damaging,” she shares. “So I spent a while stewing and saying, ‘This is terrible, this needs to change,’ and then said, ‘Well get up and change it then.’”
Her film’s script is very woman heavy and features two main characters over 50.
“When my producer pitched she was told point blank, ‘This is a coming of age story about a girl and nobody’s going to be interested in that,’” says Chiro. “It’s kind of shocking how really up front people can be about women-focused stories. I’m not deterred by things like that. I just have to keep on going.”
Sabina Vajrača, a New York City-based director and writer, originally from Bosnia, screened her first feature documentary Back to Bosnia at film festivals around the world. The film told the story of her family’s return to their hometown 10 years after the Bosnian War. These days, she’s focusing on thriller and horror films—genres that aren’t typically viewed as traditional projects for female directors and writers.
“I’m interested in making films that are more popular and then using them to promote ideas of social change and injustice in the world,” says Vajrača. “It’s better than going to make indie dramas that go to film festivals and then having people like me watch them. I feel like I’m preaching to the choir. I want to go after the people who wouldn’t normally go see a film about Bosnia. But they’ll go see it because it’s a horror film and they’ll come out of it asking questions.”
She says getting financiers on board has been the biggest challenge.
“I’ve been told a lot by my producers that a lot it has to do with me being a woman because I’m not supposed to be making those kinds of films,” says Vajrača. “Another thing is being an immigrant. I’ve had problems figuring out which is holding me back more.”
Women's Rights Come Down To Women's Action
Fortunately, the obstacles women face in the film industry aren’t stopping any of the women mentioned here from pursuing their goals, and the conversation about the gender gap in Hollywood is getting more colorful and data-driven every day.
Meryl Streep has been intrepidly vocal about gender imbalance in film and beyond and isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. In June, she wrote a letter to every member of Congress pleading with them to add the Equal Rights Amendment to the American Constitution because guess what, we don’t have one yet.
It goes without saying that ender inequality in film is rooted in gender inequality in society, and both feed into each other. In the year 2015, a time when women are holding office, running companies, taking care of their children and giving back to their communities, it’s time for more women to be in front.
How are you choosing to speak up?
---This article is part of TheToolbox.org's #WomenInFront series, powered by Humanise. Learn more about the initiative at WomenInFront.net, or join the conversation on social media: Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.