Friday, October 23, 2015

The EEOC Comes to Hollywood

You've probably heard about Jennifer Lawrence taking Hollywood to task about the gender pay gap that favors her male co-stars.  However, there's another gender gap debate going on in the industry right now that's just as important, but getting far less press.  The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in charge of enforcing Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination based on sex, is officially investigating claims of gender discrimination regarding the hiring of female directors.  Complaints were initially filed by the ACLU back in May.  If they do find evidence of discrimination, we could be looking at a class action lawsuit against the major studios.

The statistics have long been cringe-inducing.  As reported by Deadline, in 2014 only 7% of the top grossing 250 films were directed by women.  16% of television episodes in the 2014-2015 season were directed by women.  The numbers for minority directors is similarly low across the board.  Because artistic professions have always had so much leeway in hiring practices, Hollywood has largely remained a boys' club. Over time there have been significant improvements related to the financial side of the business - there have been several women running studios since Sherry Lansing won the top job at Paramount in the '80s - but diversity on the creative side has lagged badly.  There have been some gains in the past decade, particularly in television where the amount of content being produced has recently increased, but the opportunities for women directors are still noticeably lacking.

There's been noticeable shift, however, in the attitudes toward this problem recently.  There have been several surveys and reports tracking the demographics of directors and other professions in the entertainment industry that have fueled more discussion.  Katheryn Bigelow's Oscar win for directing "The Hurt Locker" was a major turning point, as the win was expected to help improve the numbers of women directors, but didn't appear to have much impact in subsequent years.  The internet has provided avenues for traditionally tight-lipped industry professionals to share experiences.  I'm particularly fond of, where women directors and others women working behind the scenes have been sharing stories about the discrimination and harassment they've been through.  The stories are heinous and often difficult to read, but I'm thrilled that they're finally being told.  Everything points to the lack of opportunities for female creatives being a systemic problem, starting in films schools and training programs, and going all the way to the top.

I expect that any legal action that the EEOC takes is going to be fairly limited in scope, but it's still going to make quite an impact.  Hollywood is all about optics, and its denizens love a good cause to get behind.  The major studios are already feeling the pressure to hire more inclusively on their biggest upcoming films.  Marvel and Disney have very publicly courted female and black directors to helm upcoming superhero movies.  Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy has responded favorably to the idea of seeking a female director for one of the upcoming "Star Wars" films.  Prominent female directors are getting bolder about promoting themselves and speaking out.  And then there's the Twitter scrum that "Jurassic World" director Colin Trevorrow got himself into a few months ago, when he suggested that female directors aren't interested in directing superhero or sci-fi films.  The vehemence and the volume of the negative response was something I don't think we would have seen ten years ago, or even five.    

The hope is that the entertainment industry won't just see improvements in acting and directing, but across the board in every department.  The last few years have seen some huge gains in the diversification of onscreen talent, with new television shows like "Empire," "Transparent," and "Fresh Off the Boat" paving the way.  However, that's just made the areas of Hollywood where inequalities persist all the more obvious.  The entertainment industry is in the middle of monumental changes, as the business increasingly globalizes and the internet has upended the old business models.  There's no better time to take action and ensure that women have a fairer shot at making it big in Hollywood.

I've seen some push back here and there, claiming this shouldn't be a big issue.  I'm really looking forward to the day when it's not.


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