Will Hollywood Decide to Reinforce Misogyny or Wipe It Out?

Hollywood Needs to Fight Discrimination Against
Courtesy of Warner Bros.

The 2016 presidential campaign lifted the veil on multiple forms of bigotry. After one of the most sexist and misogynistic campaigns in recent memory, the election of Donald Trump as the 45th president seemed to validate all the demeaning things he said to belittle and degrade women — as well as immigrants, people of color, Muslims, and people with disabilities. As the growing number of hate incidents since Trump’s election demonstrates, people are feeling emboldened to act upon the sexism, racism, and xenophobia they have long harbored but learned not to show or say out loud.

Since the election, many of us are wracked as to what we can do to counter the hate and divisiveness. One thing we must all do is speak out loudly and clearly and insist that biased actions we witness — or are taken by our leaders — are not OK and will never be OK.  

Hollywood plays a role in the structural bias that surrounds us and is baked into our systems and our culture — biases there for people like Trump to seize upon and exploit. Most movies and television programs are made by white men, telling white, male stories, often reinforcing gender and racial stereotypes or ignoring the experiences of women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and people with disabilities. Film and television shape how people see themselves and understand the world’s limits and opportunities. Hollywood has failed — and continues to fail — to give women and people of color equal opportunity and voice.

This election, and the misogyny that permeated the campaign, highlights how unequal a playing field women continue to operate on. We believe Hollywood has to step up both to expand employment opportunities and to seriously evaluate the role it wants to play in the culture — to reinforce misogyny or to end it. The entertainment industry should do its part by demonstrably hiring more women — particularly women of color, trans women, lesbian women, women with disabilities, and Muslim women — to direct films and episodic television. Our popular culture and shared norms about the roles of women in our society won’t change without diversifying the stories we tell and the storytellers who tell them.

In May 2015, the ACLU of Southern California and the ACLU Women’s Rights Project asked the federal and California state governments to investigate blatant and rampant discrimination against women directors in film and TV. We made our request following a two-year investigation that revealed a pattern of gender bias and stereotyping that almost entirely excluded women from directorial roles. Gender discrimination is illegal, and Hollywood doesn’t get a free pass to violate civil rights laws.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs subsequently launched an investigation into the industry’s hiring practices. The investigation continues, and we hope it results in charges against employers who discriminate. We are confident the government will find the same systemic discrimination problems we found, and push industry leaders to address the ongoing violations of the civil rights of women directors.

Hollywood should not wait for government action — the EEOC has said as much, publicly urging those with hiring power to step up and rectify the problem. In the year and a half since we sent our letter, there has been a lot of lip service paid to furthering opportunities for women, and laudable new efforts and initiatives, but there has been no serious movement in the number of women directors hired. Every production has a responsibility to examine its paltry numbers and set real targets for bringing in more women, people of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQ people, and other dimmed voices in film and television. Anyone who does not do so is part of the problem.

Those in Hollywood have a choice to make. You must decide whether to tackle this problem head on, or continue to conduct business as usual, reinforcing the biases this election laid bare.

Lenora M. Lapidus is director of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project.