(Photos: Getty Images; Maria Giese: Élishia Sharie. Photo-illustration: Marc Fusco)

The Year in Preview

The Women of Hollywood Find Their Voice

An unprecedented number of high-profile female actors decried industry sexism in 2015. But will change come from Washington?
Dec 14, 2015· 12 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

Maria Giese had been out of work for more than a decade when she marched into the Equal Employment Opportunity Office in downtown Los Angeles looking for answers.

It was Valentine’s Day 2013. “I was broke and I was furious,” she remembered. “And I was incredibly frustrated, and I was really depressed, and I really didn’t think I could sink any further.”

Giese had a master’s degree from UCLA’s film school and a credit directing a feature starring Sean Bean, who would become famous through roles in The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. But the last film she had directed was 2001’s Hunger, a drama based on the 19th-century novel of the same name that she’d scraped together $10,000 to shoot in Denmark. While the film raked in awards at film festivals, it did little to boost Giese’s career.

“The problem with this business is that there’s always hope because there’s always something in development and you think, ‘Oh this is just about to happen!’ ” she said. “And then things get pulled away from you and given to a male Canadian director.” That happened to Giese three times, she said.

She began to think maybe it wasn’t a coincidence. “It wasn’t our professional failures,” Giese said of women directors. “It was that the profession was failing us.”

FULL COVERAGE: How 2015 Changed the Future

Though women comprise almost half the American workforce and rival men’s enrollment in film schools, they accounted for just 7 percent of directors on the 250 top-grossing films of 2014, according to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. The proportion of women working as directors was lower last year than in 1998.

While the EEOC was sympathetic to Giese’s complaints about gender discrimination, there was little it could do for her, she was told. She didn’t just want to file an individual complaint against an employer—a more typical arrangement. She was thinking much bigger: an industry-wide class action lawsuit against the movie studios.

When Giese approached the American Civil Liberties Union several months later, now motivated by the thought of what the future would hold for her nine-year-old daughter, the advocacy organization sprang into action and began collecting research, reports, and stories from more than 50 women filmmakers who told—many of them anonymously, for fear of retaliation—the ways they’d been denied directing jobs despite their qualifications.

Two years later, on May 12, 2015, the ACLU sent a 15-page letter to the EEOC and two other federal and state agencies demanding investigations into whether Hollywood’s hiring of directors violated employment discrimination laws. In October, Giese received a letter from the EEOC to schedule an interview as part of its formal investigation into gender discrimination, as prompted by the ACLU. (The EEOC declined to comment for this story, citing federal law.)

The widely publicized investigation gave an official seal of approval from the government's own employment discrimination body to claims that women in Hollywood had been making—and cataloging—for years: Institutional sexism reigns in Hollywood. It also served as the highest profile expression of a year of industry outrage, from the outcry over Ava DuVernay’s exclusion from the Academy's best director nominees, to Patricia Arquette's impassioned speech on Oscar night calling for wage parity in all professions to Amy Schumer’s viral parody about ageism against women actors, “Last Fuckable Day”.

Subsequent months would see more women, evidently emboldened by the new atmosphere, speaking out: Amanda Seyfried, Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sienna Miller, Carey Mulligan, and Jessica Chastain all publicly questioned the gender wage gap, overshadowed perhaps by Jennifer Lawrence. In an October essay for Lena Dunham’s digital newsletter, Lenny Letter, Lawrence decried the unequal pay for her work on American Hustle, which was revealed by emails leaked in December 2014’s Sony hack.

Though, of course, none of these actions eradicated sexism in 2015, the year marked what many in the industry see as a turning point in which droves of influential women—celebrities, actors, and filmmakers—condemned the inequality that is often shrouded by an elite, cloistered industry.

Most people have no idea that the ratio of male to female characters has been exactly the same since 1946. It becomes assumed that now things will change, but it hasn’t.

Geena Davis, chair, California Commission on the Status of Women and Girls

Maggie Gyllenhaal called out casting agents who said she was too old to play a love interest at 37. Liv Tyler, Helen Mirren, Emma Thompson, and Sandra Bullock joined celebrities including Kristen Stewart, Cate Blanchett, Julianne Moore, Ellen Page, Anna Kendrick, and Rose McGowan, who was dropped from her agent in June after tweeting an audition call for an Adam Sandler movie that encouraged hopefuls to show up wearing push-up bras, calling out Hollywood sexism.

Nell Cox, a director who in the 1980s joined with five other female filmmakers to gather data on hiring of women directors that formed the basis for a lawsuit against two major studios, says today’s fight for a fair shot is altogether different from when she and a few friends were battling the titans of Hollywood. “When we were doing it, nobody cared,” she said. The big shift she sees now is that famous women actors are fueling—and fueled by—discussions of sexism and gender bias elsewhere in Hollywood and elsewhere in the culture. “The fact that the actresses [with] so much power are speaking out is helping the directors. It’s just going to be this circle of everybody helping each other.”

Given the outcry, the question on many women’s minds is, now what? What will it take for the century-old industry to open its gates to women?

Maria Giese near her home in Venice, California. (Photo: Élishia Sharie)

On a Monday night in October, a crowd of women filmmakers, producers, and advocates—and one male looking to peddle his screenplay at a women’s networking event—crowded into an auditorium at the West Hollywood Library to review a series of dismal statistics they had come to know all too well. Organized by Women in Film, an industry-funded group that promotes women filmmakers, the panel identified—with the aim of demolishing—some of the obstacles facing them.

The first step, said Women in Film President Cathy Schulman, is data. “The reason to do all of this is obviously to be curative,” said the Oscar-winning producer and head of film production at STX Entertainment. She characterized the moment as a tipping point. “We didn’t do all of this because we were curious,” she said. “We did this because we wanted to make this issue go away, once and for all.”

Three years ago, Women in Film partnered with researchers at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School to analyze why women at the Sundance Institute Film Lab were completing films and inking distribution deals at nearly the same rate as their male counterparts, and yet, when it came to acquiring major studio financing at a commercial level, “the bottom drops out,” said lead researcher Stacy L. Smith. She attributed the “depressing” statistics to two primary obstacles: a lack of access among women to capital and longstanding industry bias against women.

There were about three or four years when people started hiring women because they didn’t want to be sued. It’s gone backwards since then.

Victoria Hochberg, director

When her team conducted interviews with male and female filmmakers, buyers, and sellers earlier this year to find out why they thought women weren’t advancing in the industry, nearly half said there was a scarcity of talent among women directors. The industry decision makers could name, on average, just three women directors who might be considered to helm a blockbuster, despite the fact that 45 women had directed one of the 100 top-grossing films across 13 years and more than 100 had narrative films accepted at Sundance between 2002 and 2014.

Perhaps most surprisingly, a quarter of all interviewees said the main problem was that women were perceived to lack ambition—a notion that elicited hysterical cackles when Smith presented it at the West Hollywood Library. “Last week I said to myself, the needle’s going to move,” said Smith. “2015 is looking up.” She noted that six of the year’s 100 top-grossing films were directed by women: Elizabeth Banks’ Pitch Perfect, Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Fifty Shades of Grey, Nancy Meyers’ The Intern, Niki Caro’s McFarland, USA, Anne Fletcher’s Hot Pursuit, and Jupiter Ascending, which was codirected by Lana Wachowski and her brother Andy.

Six out of 100 may not sound like much to applaud, except when you consider that it tripled the number from the year prior, when Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken and DuVernay’s Selma were the only two. (Both films garnered Oscar buzz, but neither filmmaker was nominated for best director.)

During a panel that followed Women in Film’s research presentation, producer Michael De Luca admitted that men like himself were part of the problem—and eliminating their bias was key to solving it. “Part of the reason I’m here is I know that I’ve done those biases,” he said. “I’m a white male whose tendency is to look for a white male to hire, and I have to push myself out of my comfort zone and be conscious of the bias. Once that message gets out and more people do it, it becomes habit. And when it becomes habit, you don’t think about it, and then you get more diversity.”

Geena Davis, actor and founder of the Bentonville Film Festival, which promotes films made and produced by women and minorities. (Photo: Stephen Cohen/Getty Images)

In the late 1970s, decades before universities launched research programs to study the employment of female directors in film and television, six women filmmakers got together and did the math themselves.

“We felt that there weren’t very many women working, but we had to prove it, because otherwise we were just a bunch of women complaining,” said Victoria Hochberg, an outspoken native New Yorker, over scrambled eggs and coffee at a Hollywood diner one October morning. Hochberg got her big break after showing an experimental short at the Telluride Film Festival, which led to a job editing for producer Roger Corman. But after landing in L.A., she was surprised to find that work was scarce—at least among the women members of the Directors Guild of America.

“This is the question people generally don’t ask each other,” she said, “but we did: ‘Are you working?’ You want to pretend that you are and that everything is great, but we weren’t.”

So she and five others approached the DGA and talked one of its executives into giving them access to its catalog of deal memos, from which they could create a list of every director attached to a film or TV project dating back nearly to the DGA’s founding in 1936. The six met every Saturday at Hochberg’s dining room table for a year, poring over the data.

“We don’t just go on rumors. We were documentary filmmakers. We were serious,” said Hochberg, who went on to direct episodes of Ally McBeal, Melrose Place, and Sex and the City. “And we found that the statistic was one half of one percent of all films directed in television and in features were directed by women. So now we had our fact.”

From there the group—Giese fondly calls them “the Original Six”—sent questionnaires to the other women in the guild, created spreadsheets based on the data, and sent the findings to production companies demanding a response. The grassroots process was similar to the one now being undertaken by the EEOC.

In the summer of 1980, with the support of then–DGA President Michael Franklin, the Original Six organized a symposium to present their findings to studio executives. While some, including Embassy Pictures co-owner Norman Lear, were sympathetic to the cause, many others dismissed it as frivolous, Hochberg recalls. “Some producers privately came up to us and said, ‘Oh, you’re just a bunch of spoiled rich women,’ ” she said. “[Franklin] had one final meeting, and nobody showed up, and he got mad.” They called it the Danish debacle for all the pastries ordered for the meeting that went uneaten.

After attempting to instate an affirmative action program that ultimately stalled, the guild hired a law firm and in 1983 sued Warner Bros. and Columbia Pictures, alleging employment discrimination against women and racial minorities—the latter group expressing equal frustration with the lack of directing work. The case was thrown out two years later, ironically, when a judge ruled the guild didn’t have standing to sue because the small numbers of women and ethnic minority filmmakers in the DGA meant it was not representative of those groups.

While Hochberg lost the battle in court, she said the lawsuit marked a symbolic victory that terrified studio executives enough that, lo and behold, they began hiring women. “There were about three or four years when this was all culminating, people started hiring women because they didn’t want to be next. They didn’t want to be sued,” Hochberg said. By 1995, the proportion of women directors had risen to 16 percent, by her count. But that was the peak. “It’s gone backwards since then. In 20 years, the statistics have gotten worse,” she noted. To date, Kathryn Bigelow is the only woman to win the best director Oscar, for The Hurt Locker in 2010.

Films with female leads that performed well at the box office in 2015. Six of the year's 100 top-grossing films were directed by women, more than in previous years. (Photos: Facebook)

The lack of women behind the camera isn’t just a problem that affects directors: It often feeds into scripts, characters, and casting, right down to the hiring of extras. That was the realization that hit Geena Davis when she started paying attention to the programming her daughter was watching about a decade ago. She noted that male characters seemed to far outnumber female characters not just in speaking roles but also in crowd scenes, even in animated series. It’s a phenomenon she describes as an unconscious bias—a prejudice that film and TV creators, a majority of whom are male, are translating into content often without even realizing it.

“A lot of shows for younger kids, you feel like they’re well researched or educational or something,” Davis told TakePart. “But watching kids’ shows through [my daughter’s] eyes, I’m like, ‘Oh, my God! What message is this in the 21st century?’ ” Angered by the images she observed on the small screen, in 2006 the Oscar-winning star of The Accidental Tourist founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, and she has been funding research, education, and advocacy efforts toward gender equality in the entertainment industry ever since.

“The interesting thing that most people have no idea about is that the ratio of male to female characters has been exactly the same since 1946,” said Davis, who also chairs the California Commission on the Status of Women and Girls, a state agency that advocates for gender equity. “It becomes assumed that now things will change, but it hasn’t [even though] we do keep having fabulous [female-fronted] movies coming out and being successful.” This year alone saw Mad Max: Fury Road, Spy, The Hunger Games, Pitch Perfect 2, Trainwreck, and The Divergent Series: Insurgent—all films with female leads—all climb the box office charts.

In 2008, the Geena Davis Institute partnered with Smith and her team at USC to conduct research into gender representation across hundreds of G-rated films and children’s TV shows, one of the first such inquiries of its kind. The results were alarming: Across the top-grossing G-rated movies spanning the previous 15 years, less than one out of three speaking characters was female, and those characters tended to be valued for their appearance, had short-sighted aspirations, and longed for one-dimensional romance.

sign up for the takepart features email

Add context and dimension to the issues you care about with personal stories and gripping long form narratives reported from the inside of where news is happening.
By submitting the form above, you agree to TakePart's Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe at any time. Contact us here.

“There’s a saying that if you haven’t measured it, it hasn’t happened yet,” said Davis. “I think that’s particularly apt here, where, you know, [TV and movie creators] just couldn’t see what was going on [because] nobody had done any research on kids’ media.”

Alongside the data, Davis brings another powerful weapon: her own standing as an actor and celebrity. She has spent more than three decades deeply embedded in both television and film, and her extensive résumé includes 1980s and ’90s classics such as Beetlejuice, A League of Their Own, and Thelma & Louise. Having close ties to entertainment executives allows Davis to advocate and castigate behind the scenes, often without any mention in the media—because, as she acknowledges, she still wants to get hired for work in this town.

Davis and her majority-female executive board (which includes chair Barbi Appelquist, an attorney; Jacki Zehner, a former Goldman Sachs executive; and the heads of CBS Entertainment and Oxygen Media) bring their agenda to major networks and production companies multiple times a year. “We’ve seen a tremendous positive reaction—they think it’s important,” Davis said. She clarified that most producers and content creators already thought equal gender representation was important and assumed they were doing a decent job of it until they saw the data. “Their jaws are on the ground when they have the numbers.”

Davis recalls a meeting with an animation director who had an epiphany when he realized he was part of the problem: He’d drawn a scene at a restaurant that very day, and there were no women or girls to be found anywhere in it. Her influence is so broad that she estimated that if a movie has an equal number of female characters, she probably had something to do with it—though if she had her way, she joked, every screenwriter in Hollywood would run his or her scripts past her for approval before getting the green light: “It would be so easy for that to happen!”

Actor Rose McGowan. (Photo: Venturelli/Getty Images)

Having fought (and lost) her own battle for gender equality in Hollywood more than 30 years ago—before Jennifer Lawrence was born—it would be easy for Hochberg to dismiss the current wave of feminist activism as a passing trend. While the statistics haven’t improved since the days she was pressuring the studios, she says that what’s most noticeably changed is that some of Hollywood’s most visible women are no longer afraid to speak up about harassment or exclusion—and their visibility is forcing the industry to take them seriously.

One of those women is Rose McGowan, who set off a media firestorm in June with this tweet, which was retweeted thousands of times.

McGowan, who last year directed her first short feature, Dawn, a dark drama set in the 1950s that addresses sexual assault, said calling attention to the issue isn’t enough—film executives need to work to fix the male-dominated system. “We’re aware there’s a problem. OK, congratulations on being slightly less stupid than you were the day before. That I can’t take to the bank, and neither can anybody else,” McGowan told TakePart. “I don’t care about your awareness—you actually have to do contrary action. It’s really not that complicated.”

The star of the long-running WB series Charmed says she was mentored by father figures in the industry after getting her break as an 18-year-old with a bit part in the 1992 movie Encino Man. Now 42, she has seen enough to understand that the problem runs deeper than equal pay, fair hiring, or on-screen representation. “It’s how we treat women behind the scenes; it’s how we treat them on-screen; it’s how we get treated in the world,” she said. “If men behind the scenes in Hollywood think they own women and are owed women just because their awesomeness exists, how do you think it will be put on-screen?”

McGowan sees one thing that could tilt the scales when speaking out isn’t enough: the law. “I think Hollywood is very scared” of the EEOC investigation, she said. “They’re pretty much scared of anybody examining them because what they do is illegal.”

Giese, too, is pinning her hopes on the EEOC investigation. After years of her and others pushing from within to little effect, will change come from Washington? Giese thinks so. “It’s going to end with a lawsuit, against the studios, the agencies, and the guild,” she said.

She sees Hollywood’s gender problem as one that affects global culture. It’s about who gets to have a say in creating “the voice of our civilization,” she said. Because at a certain point, “We have to think about the next generation of women filmmakers. We have to think about our daughters.”