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Letter to the editor

To the Editor:

In its June 9-15 issue, Variety ran two articles pondering why women’s employment in key behind-the-scenes positions hasn’t resulted in the more prominent display of “female sensibilities” in film and television.

Peter Bart’s column (“Buzzwords Cast a Blur”) asked, “Were we all wrong in thinking that once the women took over, diverse sensibilities would be in greater evidence?” On the next page, Elizabeth Guider (“Where is the Woman’s Touch?”) was “struck by the disconnect” between women’s achievements and the preponderance of male-oriented media fare.

Having studied women’s representation onscreen and behind the scenes in film and television for about a decade, I first have to address Mr. Bart’s assertion that women have taken over Hollywood. While women now hold a number of powerful and highly visible positions in both film and television, any “takeover” is far from imminent.

In fact, women accounted for only 17% of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers and editors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films of 2002. Similarly, women comprised 23% of those holding similar positions on primetime situation comedies and dramas in the 2001-2002 season.

The prominence of women executives as the heads of major motion picture studios and as presidents of entertainment at the networks is undeniable. However, the prevalence of women in executive suites remains unclear. While conventional wisdom suggests women executives have achieved some measure of parity with their male counterparts, no study that I know of has addressed this specific question. One U. of Pennsylvania study found that women accounted for a paltry 10% of all executives in TV, telecom and Internet firms.

Furthermore, when behind-the-scenes women create what is perceived to be more female fare, it is assumed the product appeals only to other females and/or represents the limits of women’s talents. In other words, women supposedly are capable only of producing “chick flicks” or “soft programming.” No such assumption is made when men create stories about males (or females).

While women executives may not have substantially influenced the zeitgeist of film and TV content, academic research reveals that women close to the creative product — writers, directors, executive producers — do make a difference.

Over the years, our studies of primetime TV have revealed that the employment of just one woman in a position of power produces a statistically significant increase in the number of female characters onscreen.

In his column, Mr. Bart asked, “Shouldn’t the real issue focus more on sensibilities, whether they are female, nonwhite or those of someone over 40?”

Men wrote and created eight out of 10 situation comedies and dramas on primetime television last year; they wrote and directed 90% of films. Significantly changing this behind-the-scenes gender dynamic would most certainly change onscreen sensibilities.

(Martha M. Lauzen is a professor in the School of Communications at San Diego State University.)

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