Who’s afraid of women directors?

Guest column

The Directors Guild of America recently published its annual survey of diversity among TV directors. The results showed that women and minority directors continue to be poorly represented in the industry. Caucasian males directed 86% of the top 40 primetime shows in the 2003-2004 season. Women directed only 7% of them, a 4% decline from the previous season.

Nobody likes being a statistic. Particularly when the numbers are bad news.

It’s a sad state of affairs. I should know. I live it.

Here are some of the reasons I’ve gotten for not getting hired:

  • We already hired a woman this season.

  • We had a bad experience with a woman director last season.

  • Our cast (crew) doesn’t like women directors.

  • Our show is very difficult. We have (pick one) lots of action, special effects, sensitive actors, tough schedules.

  • It’s the first season and we need to get established. It’s the second season and everybody is worried. It’s the third season and our actors want to direct.

  • We hired a director/showrunner who is directing half the season. We have no room for new directors.

The lunacy of these comments can make one’s head spin. But I can tell you from first-hand experience that when executives and producers say them, they don’t appear to notice.

I’ve been directing episodic television since 1992 and while I’ve never found it easy to book jobs, there were many seasons when I booked four or five slots and had the good fortune to forge strong relationships with producers that reaped fruitful periods of employment.

During these years I also had children and chose to spend some time away from directing, nurturing those babies into childhood while getting back to my goals of creating my own projects.  But when I was ready to come back to series directing, I had an even harder time than when I was starting out.

It was as if the industry somehow thought that I’d lost my talent by spending time away from the set.

I recently struck up a conversation at a party with a television producer who had a long run with a successful network drama. His daughter was currently in film school and he asked if she could call me to talk to a “real woman director.”

I told him I’d be delighted to warn her of the realities of my profession, and then I gently reminded him of when he and I had first met.

Years before, my agent had sent me to meet with him about directing for his series. He told me that he had liked my reel and had gotten very good feedback from other producers he’d called about my work, but that he would not be able to offer me a slot after all. His rationale: A bad experience with a prior woman director.

He now remembered this to be true.  But, in the context of thinking about his daughter’s career, it took on a new significance and he realized how shallow his thinking had been.

I’m sad to admit that some of the shows that have been singled out by the DGA as the very worst examples — shows that have not hired any women or minorities — are run by people I know. These men and woman are not ogres or reactionary conservatives. In fact, they’re caring, enlightened individuals in their personal lives. Clearly there is some disconnect — some larger issue at play — that prevents even these producers from hiring women.

In other industries I see women soar. My college and grad school peers shine in the arts, in industry and in government, and even in Hollywood, women executives hold some of the most powerful positions at the studios and networks.

Producers, agents and writers don’t seem to be held back because of their gender. So why are women directors? What is it about this job and being a woman that seems so incompatible? And how are we ever going to get things to change?

One of my director peers suggests that change will only occur through legal means. Her position is that the DGA needs to sue the networks and studios and that shifts in hiring will only happen through the courts.

Another colleague suggests that the complicated boy’s club social and psychological dynamics of a series has an inherent misogyny that will never be inclusive of women.

Another woman director friend, who has her own series in development, recently shared with me her strategy for change. When her show gets the “green light,” she says she will hire only women and minorities. The idea made me smile. I can just imagine her saying, “Sorry, we had a problem with a white man last season.”

I believe we must make the problem personal.

It’s you Mr./Ms. Producer/Executive/Showrunner/Agent who is reading this article. You must trust your ability to assess who has the goods from meeting with a director and viewing their reel and bio — regardless of gender, or race or a hot resume.

Only you can change the status quo.

(Rachel Feldman is a film/televison director/screenwriter who has directed many hours of series and longform television from “Lizzie Maguire” to “Picket Fences,” and is currently developing dramatic series and feature films. She lives in Hollywood with her husband and two children.)

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