Illiberal Hollywood: What’s the Point of a Union if It Doesn’t Represent Members?

BrokenHollywoodThis year continues to be a big one for women in film. Films featuring women as leads and/or directed by women made beaucoup at the box office. Mad Max: Fury Road, Pitch Perfect 2, Insurgent, and Fifty Shades of Grey are among the top ten films out of more than 284 released so far this year. Two of these films were directed by women; all four featured female leads. And two of these films put to lie once again the bullshit claim that ‘women can’t lead action films.’

The immense popularity of these movies — especially with women — demonstrates how much Hollywood underserves the female audience, in spite of repeated studies revealing how much women contribute to box office results. Women want women’s stories, told by women, and they’ve gotten them too rarely.

You’d think that Hollywood would actively court the single largest demographic by catering to its desires — but no. The film production pipeline remains solidly weighted toward men, still chasing the increasingly distracted 18-25 year-old male demographic.

It’s not as if women aren’t available as actors or directors. The Directors Guild of America (DGA) — the labor organization representing directors — counts among its ranks roughly 1200 female directors, reflecting the parity of female students who’ve been through film school or learned on the job in other production roles.

Which makes one wonder why actor/director/producer George Clooney said in a recent interview, “…there’s something like 15 female directors in a town of directors …

If a household name like Clooney doesn’t know more female directors, what exactly is it the DGA is doing for its female membership? It’s clearly not representing them within their own organization, let alone to studios and the public.

The ACLU‘s May 12th letter to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) spelled out DGA’s complicity with Hollywood’s exclusion of female directors, when it asked the EEOC to investigate discriminatory practices. DGA has denied the use of short lists, but apart from preparing regular reports on diversity in hiring, it’s not clear at all what the DGA does to further the hiring of women directors.

During the course of its history, DGA hasn’t been entirely useless to its female members:

1939 — Screen Directors Guild (SDG) recognized as bargaining agent by major studios
(SDG evolves into Directors Guild of America (DGA) over time and mergers with other entertainment industry labor groups).

MAR 1969 — U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sponsors a one-day hearing in Hollywood to discuss “patterns or practice of discrimination in violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

1978 — California Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights publishes a report of its study on employment opportunities for women and minorities in film industry in southern California.

1979 — DGA’s Women’s Steering Committee (WSC) formed to examine gender discrimination in employment by major studios.

1980 — DGA-WSC entered discussions with executives from film studios, TV networks, and production companies, introducing affirmative action quota recommendations.

JAN 1983 — President Ronald Reagan appoints conservative judge Pamela Rymer to U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.

1983 — Employers ‘unilaterally withdrew’ from the voluntary quota program; Columbia claimed DGA’s contract limited ability to hire women and minorities.

JUL 1983 — DGA files lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California against major studio Warner Bros under 1964 Civil Rights Act, Title VII.

DEC 1983 — DGA files lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California against major studio Columbia Pictures under 1964 Civil Rights Act, Title VII.

1985 — Judge Rymer sides with major studios against DGA, indicating DGA is in part responsible for inequity as directors’ control over subordinate production employees limits ability of studios to effect quotas.

1985-? — After Rymer’s decisions, DGA establishes The Freelance Live and Tape Television Agreement (FLTTA), Article 19, to affirm with TV producers compliance with anti-discrimination laws; a provision includes appointment of DGA officers to monitor diversity in hiring.

1985-2015 — Profit! Just kidding — not for female directors. Major studios’ employment of female directors crawls up from 0.5% to 16% at its highest level over three decades.

AUG 2011 — Former DGA lawyer Jill Killion sues DGA for discrimination due to inequitable pay. Status TBD.

MAR 2015 — DGA presented a proposal to count women directors employed by studios in addition to the existing measure of minority directors employed, tracking increase/decrease in employment numbers.

APR 2015 — DGA-WSC rejects proposal to count women directors employed by studios in addition to the existing measure of minority directors employed.

MAY 2015 — ACLU submits letter to the EEOC asking for federal investigation of gender inequality among directors hired by major studios

Though the DGA exerted itself in the late 1960s and 1970s on behalf of its female constituents, its work was ineffectual. Flaws in film production hiring process outlined by the failed 1983 lawsuits were never remedied. Efforts on behalf of women in television were somewhat more muscular with FLTTA’s establishment, but recent gains do not appear to have anything to do with DGA role in representation.

All the women of DGA have to show for their membership dues is lip service — a handful of diversity reports affirming what they already know, and the knowledge that DGA’s male leaders have pulled down millions in compensation for some nebulous representation.

Nebulous, meaning any meetings with studios in which gender equity is discussed are not shared with the membership. Do they actually have any such meetings, or is this just happy talk?

Nebulous, meaning any effort to enforce agreements with Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) or compliance with Title VII remain undisclosed, challenging the concept of “acting in good faith.” Are female members supposed to pay their rent with “good faith”?

The DGA does not appear to have used the opportunity presented by leaked information from the Sony Pictures’ hack. Female actors like Jennifer Lawrence and Charlize Theron have benefited from evidence that they have been discriminated against in compensation compared to their male cohort. But there’s no evidence of similar improvements to gender equity in director hiring.

For the amount that women directors pay in dues for DGA’s lack of progress, one has to wonder if they wouldn’t be better served by a different labor organization — perhaps one that actually does effective work on behalf of its female members, like Service Employees International Union (SEIU). The EEOC, having erred in the 1970s by leaving hiring diversity enforcement to the DGA, could rectify this by demanding other, more effective alternatives in representation.

(For that matter, what does the DGA do for ANY of its members? Have you seen any major disputes between an aggregate of male directors and studios on compensation or employment? Is it just a boys’ club with a secret handshake and a knowing wink between DGA leaders and the studios?)

. . . . .

So what does this mean to you, the general public, when women are excluded from filmmaking? It’s not just a loss of women’s stories told by women, potentially making money for shareholders.

The public develops a highly skewed perception of the world. Ask yourself how much our acceptance of violence has been shaped by films normalizing it as it targets a demographic consisting of boys and young men. Or hypersexualization of girls along with society’s marginalization of women — how much can be attributed to films produced by and for the male gaze?

Women as leaders in all industries and academia are not the norm, in part because the images the public, industry, and academia have seen do not depict women in these roles in percentages weighted to their portion of the population. This persists, though women have made up more than 50% of graduates in many fields for at least two decades.

Our children acquire unhealthy perceptions of women based on tropes too often used in male-centric films — women are wallpaper, arm candy, victims stuffed in refrigerators, and not active agents with autonomy.

The challenges we face require different solutions, not more of the same. If the last 40-50 years of film excluding women behind the camera have resulted in the world we live in today, do we dare continue with the status quo?

Can we really afford that risk?

[Graphic: mash-up, Matt Olson and Ryan Gilchrist via Flickr]

Blogger since 2002, political activist since 2003, geek since birth. Opinions informed by mixed-race, multi-ethnic, cis-female condition, further shaped by kind friends of all persuasions. Sci-tech frenemy, wannabe artist, decent cook, determined author, successful troublemaker. Mother of invention and two excessively smart-assed young adult kids. Attended School of Hard Knocks; Rather Unfortunate Smallish Private Business School in Midwest; Affordable Mid-State Community College w/evening classes. Self-employed at Tiny Consulting Business; previously at Large-ish Chemical Company with HQ in Midwest in multiple marginalizing corporate drone roles, and at Rather Big IT Service Provider as a project manager, preceded by a motley assortment of gigs before the gig economy was a thing. Blogging experience includes a personal blog at the original blogs.salon.com, managing editor for a state-based news site, and a stint at Firedoglake before landing here at emptywheel as technology’s less-virginal-but-still-accursed Cassandra.
15 replies
    • Rayne says:

      Ida became a director at an opportune moment, during WWII. So many films produced during the war were weighted toward women, because they were left behind on homefront and they were encouraged by a Rosie-the-Riveter We Can Do It fervor.

      Even comics of that era reflected larger roles for women.

      But after the war, when men came home to resume their roles, women were increasingly shunted aside. Lucky for Lupino she had already developed a body of work, which helped her remain in public eye. Sadly, 1952 she almost disappeared; I suspect it was in part due to her divorce in 1951, which often conferred a blackmark against a divorcee at that time.

  1. Ed Walker says:

    My 5 and a quarter year old granddaughter loves Princess Leia, and can practically recite the movies she’s in. My wife wanted to give her a Princess Leia nightgown or something wearable to bed, so she swallowed her dignity and went to the Disney Store. There is little to no Princess Leia stuff for sale. Even the marketing geniuses at that thuggish company (H1-B visas to replace US workers) ignore half the population. And these are supposed to be our liberals.

    • Rayne says:

      Ditto for Black Widow merchandise, Ed. Hard to believe that Disney (who owns Marvel comics characters) couldn’t be bothered to pop out another female character toy. There’ve been flashmobs protesting the lack of Black Widow movie/content/merch, too — see #WeWantWidow on Twitter.

      It’s surprising that Disney didn’t create Leia merchandise; after their acquisition of Lucasfilm in 2012, Leia’s now a frigging Disney Princess, too!

  2. Phil Perspective says:

    So what does this mean to you, when women are excluded from filmmaking? It’s not just a loss of women’s stories told by women, potentially making money for shareholders.

    Part of it is certainly the dearth of stories told in film these days. Look at all the reboots, and comic book characters(see Batman and Superman among others), being made. I went to see Love and Mercy yesterday. Guess what two of the previews were? A Woody Allen movie and Meryl Streep playing an older Joan Jett type. Has Streep ever been offered a directing role? Does she want to? Has anyone ever asked?

    • Rayne says:

      I think if Streep wanted to direct, they’d let her — but she wouldn’t get a blockbuster-sized project. Streep recently established a screenwriters’ lab for older women. As badly as women are excluded in front and behind the camera before age 40, it’s spectacularly grim after that age. Think about it: when’s the last time you saw an older, greying actress who wasn’t Meryl Streep/Judi Dench/Helen Mirren/Jessica Lange? Yet the over-40 female audience is one of the fastest growing demographics.

      But since Streep has recently been very vocal about Hollywood’s shabby treatment of women, she’s probably on the studio’s shit list. They do have one; it’s why there was never a sequel to First Wives’ Club, in spite of it being a surprise hit.

      As for the lack of fresh stories, not reboots/sequels/prequels: the problem is financing and distribution, which also goes hand-in-hand with discriminatory practices. In spite of repeated cases where moviegoers prove Hollywood’s patriarchal wisdom wrong (women can’t lead action/films overseas/must be likeable, so on), Hollywood believes in the devil-they-know, the stupid summer blockbuster action/adventure film. They assume that big box office means the public wants more of the same.

      Um, no. Sometimes in places like here in my part of flyover country, that stupid action film is the ONLY new movie at the movie-plex. Guess what I’m stuck seeing on date night? ~sigh~

      A bright spot in this entertainment desert is crowdfunding for indie films. Check out Seed & Spark, which both crowdfunds smaller budget films with fresh stories. You’ll find some new movies at their site to stream tonight, a good number of which are created by female filmmakers. Enjoy!

      • jo6pac says:

        Thank you for that info and it will interesting if MS male friends do the right thingy. Figures crossed;)

        • Rayne says:

          I don’t have much faith in independent action as there is too little organization and money behind it so far. I do hope that momentum builds.

          And I hope that the EEOC drops the hammer on DGA, because there is some funny crap going on when its leaders can make so much money and not actually do anything. Even banksters have to rake in some cash for their banks, you know?

  3. sd says:

    “…DGA has denied the use of short lists…”

    It’s not a list. It’s ‘approval’ as in ‘network approval’ or ‘studio approval’ that is used for hiring key personnel/talent, etc. It presents a hurdle that has to be jumped. ‘We’d love to bring you on board, but we can’t get studio approval for this project…’

    • Rayne says:

      What you call a hurdle is a list. A filter. A barrier. An obstruction. An exclusionary device.

      DGA’s Joe Roth and Paris Barclay can give it whatever spiffy name they want while denying it’s a list. Its intent is to reduce the possibility to nil that a woman is hired as director by a major/mini-major studio, and both DGA’s management and the studios are in collusion.

      If they weren’t in collusion, conspiring against the hiring of women, then the studios would simply tell Roth and Barclay to give them the names of all their female members in good standing. And Roth and Barclay would be having transparent meetings with shared transcripts about their meetings with studios to increase gender equity in hiring.

      Instead, female DGA members and the public get carefully worded denials and silence.

      • Maria Giese says:

        This is such a great article and you know worthy when the resulting comments are so unusually intelligent.

        As the person who has been investigating the issue from inside the DGA for the past 4 years, and the person who brought this issue to the ACLU (and the reluctant EEOC), I can tell you that I could write a book (and, in fact, am writing a book) about the risible mistreatment we women have received in the Guild since we have begun speaking out.

        The Machiavellian Paris Barclay and Jay Roth both began their ascents to power in 1995– the very year the number of women directors hit its peak, and began to flounder in stasis and decline for two decades. Both of their careers took off from the base created by the destruction of the radical liberal rights activist and director/creator of the LA Rebellion film genre, Jamaa Fanaka. Fanaka founded the DGA African American Committee in 1994 (based on the Women’s Committee founded in 1979) and was fighting for women and minority directors when Roth was brought in by Gil Cates to shut him up and throw him out.

        Once expelled in 1995 (officially 1998), Barclay was free to take over DGA Diversity through Fanaka’s Committee– which he did. Then in 2004, Barclay initiated the DGA Diversity Task Force through then DGA president, Michael Apted. This Force was supposed to interface with studio execs to oversee compliance of DGA studio collective bargaining agreements (Article 15, BA & Article 19, FLTTA) to enforce Title 7, but as it was run by directors (Barclay) actively seeking open directing assignments, it was fraught with conflicts of interest. Not surprisingly Paris got rich and powerful largely on the backs of DGA diversity members, especially women, who’s numbers went down.

        In 2012, Fanaka died poor and alone in his apartment of unknown causes, while the fabulously rich Barclay awaited his turn on the DGA throne as President– he sits there now.

        It’s almost as if the spirit of Fanaka came to haunt the DGA Women’s Committee, because in 2012 we women began an active fight for political action. This fight has resulted in Roth and Barclay pulling out all the stops to high jack the WSC (Womens Steering Committee) and silence us. They had the National Board mandate new bylaws that give them total control over the committee (April 2013) and tapped their own deputized women (mostly TV directors tapped by Barclay) to cochair the now dead committee.

        The DGA leadership refused to speak with the ACLU (not the other way around) even after dozens of requests by me. The DGA is complicit with studios in ignoring Title 7. The DGA diversity does keep and disseminate illegal lists of women directors as they openly state on DGA.org.

        The difficult thing about it is that the pool Barclay controls is so small and personal, it’s hard to catch him out on it. He taps the women in the TV directing pool by handshake. That’s why there are only a handful of women TV directors who get hired again and again, and who are hostile to bring new women into their pool– and most of them are in active governance in the Guild.

        I have to stop here, but this conversation goes on — that’s why it needs a book– and a massive law suit. One thing is certain, to clear out corruption, the top leadership in the DGA should be replaced at once by the membership. This whole period of struggle for women directors since 2011 will go down as a dark era in DGA history. Shame on them, and every moment it is allowed to fester, people everywhere around the world who are subject to Hollywood media fall victim to the skewed gender perspective that abounds without restraint.

        Why us US Title VII being rampantly violated in our media industry? Without enforcement by the DGA (or more appropriately) the “objective, impartial” organization that is supposed to be doing the job of enforcing Title 7– America’s EEOC– nothing will ever change. Civilization exists because we have laws, of course. When our institutions fail to enforce them, we get civil unrest.

        Time to demand change– immediately– with not a single further delay. That must start with the EEOC yanking the DGA away from its flawed position enforcing US civil rights laws, like gender employment equity.

  4. Saltinwound says:

    Why would business people do this? TV is a bigger business than movies and daytime television is dominated by programming for women. No one is more powerful than Oprah. Even in prime time, number one is Shonda Rhimes. So these business people are capable of gearing their efforts towards women if that’s where the money is. I wonder what is different about movies that it does not happen.

    • Rayne says:

      White men direct roughly 70% of TV shows, a figure that’s been static for a handful of years. Television is nearly as bad for women as film.

      Can you name an actively-producing female showrunner apart from Shonda Rhimes? (There are more, but they’re still substantively outnumbered by men. Women do better as showrunners in TV comedy programming specifically.)

      US TV revenues are ~$170B from ads and subscriptions. US film industry revenues are ~$31B, with some revenues from from sales to television. In this respect, TV is bigger than film by far, but by proportion to revenue, TV is worse for women than film.

      As for Oprah: she has her own network. Her power is focused on her own business, which competes against +85 other cable television networks producing entertainment content, not to mention broadcast networks. She’s a drop in the bucket even with all her money and personal power.

      But to answer your question, Why would business people do this? Well, why would white men who own and run any industry do this? Because they own it, they want all the benefits from doing so, and they don’t want to share even if they are using publicly-owned airwaves licensed from the public to make their profits. They still see themselves as owners of the entire world, not just their industries—and their view is wrong.

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