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Can The ACLU Fix Hollywood’s Gender Problem?

The ACLU is investigating Hollywood’s inequality problem, bringing a spotlight on why there are so few female directors.

Can The ACLU Fix Hollywood’s Gender Problem?
Director Ava DuVernay speaks at the Woman at Sundance Brunch during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival on January 26, 2015 in Park City, Utah. [Photo: Mat Hayward/Getty Images for Sundance]

The idea that Hollywood has an ingrained gender problem is nothing new: from Sony’s leaked emails proving that female stars are paid less than their male counterparts, to the lack of parts of substance for women.

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But now the issue is becoming an official problem that may have systemic ramifications for the entertainment industry. Yesterday, the American Civil Liberties Union asked state and federal agencies to investigate the hiring practices of Hollywood’s major studios, networks, and talent agencies in what they call rampant discrimination when it comes to hiring female directors.

The ACLU has compiled much data to support their claim, including a study by the University of Southern California that found that of the top-grossing 100 films released in 2013 and 2014, only 1.9% were directed by women. They also cite a Directors Guild of America analysis of 220 television shows broadcast in 2013 and 2014, consisting of 3,500 episodes, of which only 14% were directed by women. A third of the shows had no female director at all.

Then there are anecdotal claims. The ACLU interviewed 50 female directors who said they’d been told by executives that a show was not “woman friendly”; that producers had told agents to “not send a woman” for various jobs; and that they’d been informed at meetings for a TV job that “we already hired a woman this season.”

The action by the ACLU adds to a slowly building groundswell surrounding inequality for women in Hollywood. Last month, the Female Filmmakers Initiative, founded by the nonprofit group Women in Film and the Sundance Institute, held an event to discuss why there are so few female directors–or, as one invitee, producer Lynda Obst (Interstellar, Hot in Cleveland), framed the debate: “How are we going to deal with this?” Amy Poehler pointed out the double standard women in entertainment face in our recent interview: “I have these meetings with really powerful men and they ask me all the time, ‘Where are your kids? Are your kids here?’ It’s such a weird question. Never in a million years do I ask guys where their kids are.”

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Amy SchumerPhoto: Matt Peyton, courtesy of Comedy Central

Another comedian, Amy Schumer, recently took jabs at Hollywood’s age bias against women in a hilarious skit on her Comedy Central show. Meanwhile, Selma director Ava DuVernay started the filmmaking collective AFFRM in order to bring more diversity to the screen.

How far the ACLU’s investigation goes remains to be seen–a lawsuit is probably unlikely given the roster of Hollywood A-listers who are official supporters of the organization. But the spotlight that its action puts on issues of inequality in pay and hiring in Hollywood will make it hard for the industry to ignore, and will potentially extend the conversation to other industries where inequality persists. In this way the debate will be kept alive in a way that it hasn’t been in the past, when cries surrounding a dearth of female directors have quickly given way to headlines proclaiming the “Year of the Woman,” after, say, Kathryn Bigelow won a Best Picture Oscar for The Hurt Locker in 2010.

Rethinking Hollywood’s Hiring Practices

The ACLU’s complaint also has the potential to force Hollywood to rethink the way it does business, period. For an industry that is highly accountable for results, whether in terms of box office ticket sales or ratings, Hollywood is about as unscientific as it gets when it comes to creating its goods. Melissa Goodman, director of the LGBT, Gender and Reproductive Justice Project at the ACLU of Southern California, says that Hollywood’s hiring practices–specifically the way studios and producers draw up “lists” of potential directors–have “the least transparency.”

The report doesn’t say it, but it might as well: Hollywood is a business built on winks and handshakes, after-dinner drinks, and negotiations made on the golf course and tennis courts. It’s a “relationship town.” Movies get greenlit based on someone’s (usually a man’s) gut instinct most of the time. The same goes for hiring directors, and much like the male-dominated world of venture capital, when there aren’t women in decision-making positions, women’s projects don’t get selected. Were a system put in place that challenged this tradition, and that required more of a blind logic when it came to assessing directors, women would surely get a better shake.

Nora EphronPhoto: Flickr user
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Or would they? According to Obst, the reason there are fewer women directors in Hollywood is because the industry has gotten more corporate and people actually make fewer decisions based on their gut. She said that when Nora Ephron was hired to direct her first film, This is My Life (which Obst produced), it was because Joe Roth, then the chairman of 20th Century Fox, was willing to take a bet on her.

“He said to me, ‘I’m going to take her to lunch. I’ll tell by the way she orders if she’s commanding enough to direct.’ I called Nora and said, ‘We’re in like Flynn.’ Nora was the best restaurant-orderer around,” Obst recalls.

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Obviously, Roth saw more in Ephron than how she asked for her food, but Obst’s point is that back then–as now–in order for a woman to be given a shot, she often needs a man to throw her a line. Even Schumer’s fast-rising career is often attributed to Judd Apatow, who produced her upcoming movie Trainwreck. Apatow is also credited as being the reason Lena Dunham was able to break into HBO–he’s an executive producer of Girls.

Or at least that’s how Hollywood likes to spin its narratives: For every shining starlet, there needs to be a Superman. The narrative, like the system itself, is antiquated, old-school, and in severe need of a disruptive reboot. Whether the ACLU is able to fully pull off that reboot remains to be seen, but the organization is at least moving things in the right direction by opening up a serious-minded, as opposed to hysterical or trendy, line of questioning to a hot-button issue.

As Obst says, “It puts people in a state of awareness. That can’t be a bad thing.”

About the author

Nicole LaPorte is an LA-based writer for Fast Company who writes about where technology and entertainment intersect. She previously was a columnist for The New York Times and a staff writer for Newsweek/The Daily Beast and Variety.

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