Letter to the Editor

In last week’s column (Variety, Aug 4-10) , Peter Bart described the “ferocious competition” among women seeking to gain a place on Variety’s annual list of female power players. The column included a quotation from an unnamed talent agency chief who claimed that if his female client were not included on the list, she’d “cut (his) balls off.”  Hmmm, powerful women as cat fighting, castrating shrews. Not an original stereotype but certainly one with staying power.

Mr. Bart’s characterization belies a worldview that categorizes ambitious women as overly competitive and puts women in a classic double bind. These observations smack of sexism just as those who criticize Barack Obama for his confidence and arrogance reek of racism. …  A woman willing and able to compete in a highly competitive business is a ballbuster, whereas a man exhibiting similar behavior is simply playing the game. It’s a double standard, clear and simple. If women don’t express an interest in being on the list, they don’t gain the recognition they likely deserve.  If they do lobby for a position as one of the most powerful women, they’re ballbusters.  Luckily, the women who occupy powerful positions aren’t naïve enough to be cowed by this type of name-calling.

In addition, Mr. Bart surmised that the reason women have become more competitive is that the glass ceiling that once prevented them from attaining top positions has “vanished — especially in the media and entertainment business.”  Sadly, this reasoning is simply inconsistent with reality.  Do women hold high-profile positions in television and film?  Absolutely. Is there any evidence that women have shattered the glass ceiling by achieving employment parity with their male counterparts?  Not a shred.

Let’s consider the facts.  Only one woman, Amy Pascal, currently serves as chairman of a major film studio.  Two women hold the position of president of entertainment at the broadcast networks, Dawn Ostroff at the CW and Nina Tassler at CBS.  …According to the latest Boxed In study, women comprised only 22% of executive producers working on primetime television programs airing on the broadcast networks during the 2007-08 season. According to the latest Celluloid Ceiling study, women comprised a scant 6% of directors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films of 2007.

Perhaps a more accurate explanation for women’s competitiveness regarding inclusion on the power list is that they know the glass ceiling remains firmly in place — especially in the media and entertainment industries. I suspect that the women Mr. Bart hears from recognize that the Hollywood myth-making machinery continues to lionize the careers of men who direct and produce films or reside in executive suites at the studios and networks. Positive press helps enable men who perform at even average levels to get booted up the corporate ladder or get their next directing deal. In contrast, when women perform well they are considered somewhat unattractive exceptions in a world still dominated by men.

In the business of show, the visibility-creating apparatus of power lists — and even talkshows focusing on the film industry (“Shootout,” for example) –can be integral to one’s success. If women contact Variety regarding inclusion on the power list, they simply recognize the importance of being seen in a business that rewards such recognition.

Dr. Martha M. Lauzen, executive director, Center for the Study of Women in Television, School of Theatre, Television and Film, San Diego State U.

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