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Why Stuntwomen Face Unequal Pay for Equal Stunts (Guest Column)

Disheartening Statistics On Women in the Film Industry Affect More Than Actors

The author of the upcoming book “Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story” finds there’s still a persistent employment and pay gap between stuntmen and stuntwomen.

You’ve probably seen the well-regarded — and deplorable — statistics about women’s employment in the entertainment industry from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, and Dr. Martha Lauzen’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film. The statistics are discouraging, but I’m glad they exist. Without them we wouldn’t know the true shape of our working reality.

In Lauzen’s 2014 annual report, Celluloid Ceiling, women comprised a mere 17% of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers and editors of the top 250 grossing films. That’s a 2% decrease since 2012, and it matches the percentage in 1998. More depressing, “It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World: On-Screen Representations of Female Characters in the Top 100 Films of 2013,” a study also conducted by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, reveals that of actors in roles as protagonists, 75% were men, 13% ensembles, and only 12% were women.

Just as pronounced, but no less important, is the hiring gap between stuntmen and stuntwomen. In the early days of film, from about 1910 to 1920, women directed, produced, edited, and performed stunts for many films. The nascent film industry regularly hired people other businesses excluded — women, immigrants, and Jews. All the major serial stars of silent films were female and many performed their own stunts. But as the movie business became more profitable, women were eased out; men took over all aspects of production, as well as the stunt work. They doubled all the male roles and, in drag, doubled many female roles. For decades, women faced institutional discrimination, unequal pay, and sexual harassment until the 1970s when they began the battle to “get the wigs off men.” It took stuntwomen about 30 years to achieve that goal.

One bright spot from Lauzen’s study, “Behind-the-Scenes Employment of Women On Domestically and Independently Produced Feature Films Screening At More Than 20 High Profile Festivals in the U.S., 2014–15,” showed that the number of female directors of narrative features rose to a new high of 18%, and female directors of documentaries to 29%. But after directing independent features and documentaries, women are rarely tapped to direct big-budget feature films for studios. When it comes to jobs in Hollywood, status and power always follow the money.

In Geena Davis’s March 2015 speech at the U.N., she noted that even in “movie crowd scenes” women comprise only 17% of the characters. In the past, men gladly doubled women because they earned money for every stunt they performed, and that included crowd scenes. Those stunts are called “non-descript” or ND (aka “No Dames”). ND work includes jobs like being in a crowd of drivers performing car stunts, for example, which are not as lucrative, but are a reliable pay stream, and the players can network with veteran stuntmen — fewer jobs for women yields more money for men.

Moreover, stuntmen can count on their career path. After doing physical stunts for 10-15 years, men don’t have to keep hitting the ground, and can move up to stunt coordinator or to second unit director. Those same career opportunities largely don’t exist for stuntwomen. In the early 1980s, there were only four or five women employed as stunt coordinators in Los Angeles, and one informal study estimated that roughly 22 women did “some” stunt coordinating from 1995 to 2005. “Some” is not a career.

There’s a lot of talk about equality in America. Many say, “Things are better now.” But today, the concept of equality is being scrutinized as both racial and gender bias roll on. Stunt work is no exception. Stuntwoman Melissa Stubbs has many coordinating credits, but she continues to face an uphill battle when looking for jobs. “I walk into an interview with two guys and as soon as we’re in the room, I can feel it. The producers and the director wonder, ‘How can she possibly know what she’s doing? Is she better than this six-one, 40-year-old guy that looks like a stunt coordinator?’ Guys with less experience get the job because it’s perceived that stunt coordinators are strong male figures.” Female producers could do something about that.

In Forbes magazine, March 2014, Martha Lauzen and Jennifer Siebel Newsom quoted Sony Pictures co-chair Amy Pascal: “The whole system is geared for [women] to fail.” By making that statement, Lauzen and Newson wrote, “Pascal publicly recognized the systemic failure of the studios and unions to institute practices that would enable women directors, writers and those in other behind-the-scenes roles to work more.”

This old legacy of exclusion is shameful. Federal and state laws prohibit discrimination in employment, housing, rates of pay, and job promotion. The laws provide the right to protect or to enforce one’s rights to equal treatment, as well as private law suits that give the right to collect damages. But if you sue you might not be hired again. If individual performers can’t enforce the law for fear of damaging their careers, and the studios won’t or don’t think of making changes, what can be done?

Every three years, the guilds negotiate contracts with the Alliance of Motion Picture and TV Producers (AMPTP).  These are lengthy, difficult negotiations, but over the years the guilds have failed to make stronger demands to increase access to work for women and minorities.  Only with the leverage of the guilds can the entertainment industry be required to make positive changes, expand contract provisions, and beef-up affirmative action clauses. Such a campaign would be extremely difficult, and the pressure, the ammo, the energy would have to start with minorities and women in the guilds themselves. If no effort is made, we’ll keep reading the well-documented, infuriating statistics, and women, who are experts at taking risks in high falls or car crashes, will be excluded from the action.

(Pictured above: Donna Evans, doubling Sharon Stone, battles it out with Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Total Recall” in an image from “Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story.”

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