How Women in Hollywood Are Finally Taking a Stand Against Sexism

Women in Hollywood FIlm Sexism
Yasmine Gateau for Variety

When Ashley Judd was making Paramount’s “Kiss the Girls” in the late ’90s, she was being pursued by a mogul from a rival studio, whom she believed wanted to cast her in a film. But suddenly she found herself falling into a dark trap.

“I was sexually harassed by one of the industry’s most famous, admired-slash-reviled bosses,” the actress says, revealing a story she’s never before publicly disclosed. The man, who Judd declined to name, invited her to dinner. When she arrived at his hotel, she was told to meet him upstairs in his room. “It was so disgusting,” she says. “He physically lured me by saying, ‘Help me pick out what I’m going to wear.’” The advances continued to escalate. “The ultimate thing when I was weaseling out of everything else was, ‘Will you watch me shower?’ ” Her voice cracks. “And by the way, I’ve never been offered a movie by that studio. Ever.”

Judd says the gravity of the situation didn’t hit her until later. “I did not recognize at the time what was happening to me,” she recalls. “It took years before I could retrospectively evaluate that incident, and realize that there was something incredibly wrong and illegal about it.” She’s speaking up now because she hopes her story can give strength to other women in similar circumstances. “I think that talking about it is essential to the process of becoming aware, accepting that this is reality, and then ultimately taking action,” Judd says.

In the late ’90s Ashley Judd says she was sexually harassed by male executive a Hollywood studio. “It took years before I could retrospectively evaluate that incident, and realize that there was something incredibly wrong and illegal about it” she says.

For years, women in Hollywood have quietly endured sexist work environments, wage disparity, lack of job opportunity both in front of and behind the camera, and other wrongful behavior. But 2015 has marked a turning point. Hardly a week goes by in which a prominent actress or director doesn’t make headlines by blasting Hollywood for treating women as second-class citizens.

The push for equal work opportunities has gone hand in hand with an increasing outcry over sexual assault, both on college campuses and elsewhere, involving major figures such as Bill Cosby and radio host Jian Ghomeshi. The issue reached new heights when New York magazine ran a July cover story titled “I’m No Longer Afraid: 35 Women Tell Their Stories About Being Assaulted by Bill Cosby, and the Culture That Wouldn’t Listen.”

The conversation about how women are treated in Hollywood is reaching a fever pitch amid a national spotlight on feminist issues, fueled in part by presidential candidates like Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina, as well as author Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” campaign. Indeed, there’s a new wave of feminism bubbling up whereby more women are speaking out publicly against long-endured injustices.

Even Pope Francis, on his just-concluded visit to America, preached about the importance of treating women fairly in religion, insisting it was time the church valued their “immense contribution,” and suggesting that places of worship could not afford to remain mired in old ways.

Patricia Arquette uses her 2014 Oscar win for supporting actress to call for wage equality for women.

The movement among those working in entertainment counts among its members such high-profile individuals as Emma Watson (who launched the U.N.’s He for She campaign for gender equality), Meryl Streep (who created a fund for women screenwriters over the age of 40), Lena Dunham (who interviewed Clinton for her newsletter, and asked her whether she considers herself a feminist), Patricia Arquette (who used her Oscar speech to stump for wage equality) and Jessica Chastain (who spotlights issues of creative equity).

“It’s our responsibility as artists to bring up the lack of diversity in the industry,” says Chastain, offering a viewpoint that is increasingly becoming conventional wisdom among young actors. “I don’t think it applies just to women — it applies to everyone. I know for me, the last few years, seeing how few female protagonists were in the best picture nominations made me realize that our stories are being erased.”

It used to be that from time to time, women in Hollywood would complain about the paucity of opportunities, but now there’s a collective bullhorn effect. At the recent Toronto Film Festival, Sandra Bullock (“Our Brand Is Crisis”) talked out about how her latest role was originally written for a man, and Emily Blunt (“Sicario”) revealed how financiers pressured filmmakers in an attempt to change her character to a guy.

At Cannes in May, Salma Hayek Pinault spoke about Hollywood’s lack of investment in stories targeted to women: “It’s not that we are mad or that we were scared,” the actress tells Variety. “My theory is there’s now an opening for us because we represent such strong economic power,” she says, citing that women are not only their household’s decision-makers, they frequently have become the breadwinners.

MAKING A DIFFERENCE: Emma Watson, top, speaks for U.N. gender equality initiative He for She; at Cannes, Salma Hayek Pinault, left addresses the growing economic power of women; Lena Dunham interviews Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

The Sony hack unintentionally brought attention to the issue of unequal pay, revealing that Jennifer Lawrence’s salary on “America Hustle” was less than that of her male co-stars, although she was arguably the film’s biggest box office draw.

“Look, nobody is worth the money that Robert Downey Jr. is worth,” says Gwyneth Paltrow, referencing the star of the “Iron Man” films, in which she plays Pepper Potts. “But if I told you the disparity, you would probably be surprised.” She started to notice Hollywood’s pay gap for women when her father, Bruce Paltrow, was outraged that a male co-star without a proven track record was getting the same salary as his daughter. “It can be frustrating,” she says. “It can be painful. Your salary is a way to quantify what you’re worth. If men are being paid a lot more for doing the same thing, it feels shitty.”

In May, the American Civil Liberties Union asked for an investigation into gender discrimination in the hiring of directors for movies and television shows. (Women filmmakers were asked to direct a paltry 7% of the top-grossing movies of 2014.) Some are hopeful the threat of litigation along with continuous calls for action from powerful women in Hollywood will help plant the seeds of change. “I think it’s so amazing that we are at this tipping point,” says Cathy Schulman, president of Women in Film and head of production at STX Entertainment. “My biggest fear is we won’t convert. We bring everybody together, all these voices, and we actually have to make a difference now. It’s almost as if the issue is getting hip. It’s everywhere.”

Though female-driven films have done well at the box office, women still lag far behind men in job opportunities in Hollywood.
7% Percentage of the directors of last year’s top-grossing films who were women
12% Lead protagonists that were female in last year’s movies
Speaking characters that were female in last year’s movies
$570mWorldwide gross of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’

Female characters have become the focus of blockbuster franchises like “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent,” and movies headlined by women like Melissa McCarthy (“Spy”), Anna Kendrick (“Pitch Perfect 2”), Amy Schumer (“Trainwreck”) and Dakota Johnson (“Fifty Shades of Grey”) have been massive box office winners in 2015.

Yet it’s still not clear if executives in Hollywood are ready to adapt. Emma Thompson recently said that sexism is only getting worse in the moviemaking business. A-list actresses were often out of options for roles once they hit 40, but now even women in their 30s are starting to feel pressure. Liv Tyler told More magazine that at 38, the only parts she’s getting offered are as “the wife or a girlfriend.” Maggie Gyllenhaal, 37, caused a ruckus earlier this year when she revealed that she was deemed too old to play the love interest to a 55-year-old man. Anne Hathaway, 32, echoed the trend in an interview with Glamour: “I’m like, ‘Why did that 24-year-old get that part?’ ”

Social media is playing a significant role in enabling women to air their grievances. The Tumblr blog “Shit People Say to Women Directors,” which allows female executives and filmmakers to anonymously post about their struggles in movies and television, became a viral sensation last spring. At the Oscars, Arquette received kudos from the blogosphere (as well as from seat-mates Streep and Jennifer Lopez) for using her supporting actress speech as a platform to advocate for wage equality for women around the world. “Women were running up to me in the street, grabbing me, hugging me,” Arquette says of the reaction following the Academy Awards telecast. “Others told me they got a raise.”

But Arquette isn’t sure if the plight of women in entertainment is improving fast enough. “I don’t think it’s getting much better,” she says. “I don’t think Hollywood is going to change until someone twists their arm. I don’t think agents have fought so hard for their female actresses’ paychecks.”

Putting on the hits   Allison Janney and Melissa McCarthy spar in “Spy,” clockwise from top left; Elizabeth Banks directs “Pitch Perfect 2”; Amy Schumer earns laughs in “Trainwreck”; Sam Taylor-Johnson directs the blockbuster “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

Still, despite the setbacks, there are some encouraging signs. Television continues to pave the way for diverse voices both behind and in front of the camera, as Emmy wins for Viola Davis (“How to Get Away With Murder”), Jill Soloway (“Transparent”), Uzo Aduba (“Orange Is the New Black”) and Schumer (“Inside Amy Schumer”) illustrate. There are also more stories coming this fall that focus on empowered female characters: “Miss You Already,” starring Drew Barrymore and Toni Collette; “Sisters,” the comedy from Tina Fey and Amy Poehler; “Jem and the Holograms,” based on the cult cartoon series about a female rock star; and “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2,” which is expected to clean up at the box office on Nov. 20.

Insiders hope 2015 will be remembered as the year in which women were finally given a chance to shine, to voice their opinions, and to march down the road to progress without turning back. “I think it’s going to change for sure, because of the money,” Hayek Pinault says. “We’re not asking for a favor.”

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  1. aj says:

    When you talk about the quality of the stories for female protagonists, the numbers get much worse. If you exclude crazy women, prostitutes and sluts the available roles in big budget films are slim pickings. I’ve got nothing against Melissa McCarthy but her movies don’t exactly scream one step forward for womankind.

  2. James DeRuvo says:

    An actor worth $140 million complaining about pay? That’s rich.

    BTW I couldn’t help but notice she conveniently forgot that RDJ held out for Avengers 2 and 3 until his costars got a raise …

  3. Brian Wiley says:

    How many women are directing lower budget movies that align themselves with the big budget movies. Also, these women sit shoulder to shoulder with producers anyone trying to break in to the industry would kill to have three minutes time with. Why don’t they hire a writer, seek money and make a film?
    Complainers not doers.

  4. Jack Vand says:

    Fifty shades of Grey only made 167 million. It’s just Twilight.. again… without vampires. Empty sex and getting treated like garbage is the road to enlightenment. Wanna get paid more? Make something I’d watch.

  5. Discrimination — even WITHIN a group –is part of human nature. Will this be overcome by th next generation? Doubt it.

  6. Fred says:

    Every woman boss I have had in Hollywood has been 100 times worse than any male boss. This is typical of woman and minorities to blame men. It’s like we have to apologize for being male and white. God forbid the Uncle Tom’s that break the color barrier in directing and then don’t hire all woman crews. The question begs why haven’t woman directors become more prevalent when the studios were being mostly run by woman. Stacey Snider, Amy Pascale, Kathleen Kennedy, Emma Watts, Donna Langley, Liz Gabler, Vanessa Morrison, Claudia Lewis, and before them Nina Jacobson, Michelle Manning, Lindsay Doran, Liza Chasin, Sherry Lansing, Lauren Lloyd, Polly Johnson, Mary Parent. But these actresses and woman continue to make men responsible for today’s modern woman. A superficial complainer that if divorced with kids win the fraud ridden support lottery and teach their children to hate their fathers whole never working and allowing the criminal judges to take all of his money without any regard for your children’s relationship with him. See this is what happens when woman complain enough. They want equal rights except when they have to pay. Thanks for the article I will never hire another woman on my productions until they apologize for their sexist and racist attitudes towards all men that are successful…

  7. Cyndy Hammond says:

    You should check out Where Are The Women by MaryAnn Johanson on She’s been writing about these issues for years and years. Cheers!

  8. CelluloidFan35mm says:

    What about African-Americans? Asians? Hispanics? Native-Americans? other minorities?
    Don’t they get a chance too?

    Also why don’t you concentrate on putting good movies because many of the movies mentioned in this article were between mediocre and outright garbage, regardless of box office success and the last thing I want to see in theaters is more garbage because if a crap makes money, it only leads to more crap which is why we are getting more 50 Shades, more comic book/superhero movies, more Pitch Perfects, more Transformer sequels etc.
    The indie ranks, streaming TV and satellite TV are churning out better products than Hollywood is right now. (Granted not all of them are winners)

    This whole thing is just one big mess.

  9. Klay says:

    Why isn’t pedophilia EVER a cause in Hollywood when everyone knows it’s rampant?

  10. Seth says:

    Jennifer Lawrence is being paid 20 million dollars a movie, so that’s a start. All we need to do is clone her.

  11. Not exactly the haven of love you people claim it is as you look down on conservative middle America with disgust, is it?

  12. Levadisto says:

    Robert Downey Jr. is worth every penny he’s paid. The disparity is that NO actress is being paid that much, even though Jennifer Lawrence, for example, can open a movie almost as successfully as Downey does. The problem is not so much with large sums being paid to the talent — it’s the vast amounts going to the suits behind the movies. No actor – not even RDJ or JLaw — makes as much as some of the producers, exec producers, studio heads, etc., most of whom are male. While the creatives do all the actual work, the suits rake in SO much more money. Frankly, I’d rather see it go to the actors and other creatives.

  13. Kathy says:

    Let’s just fix Hollywood. 50 percent of all jobs in front and behind the camera will go to whites, 50 percent to homosexuals, 50 percent to lesbians, 50 percent to black women, 50 percent to Latinos, 50 percent to men who think they are women and vice-versa, and we’ll hold 50 percent for the next group to complain they are not represented enough! There, all fixed!

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