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Anita Hill: The Need for Female Equality and Diversity in Hollywood (Opinion)

In this exclusive op-ed, attorneys and activists Anita F. Hill and Kalpana Kotagal discuss why Hollywood needs to embrace women and minorities now more than ever.

It is a difficult time to be a woman in this country. We just elected as president a man whose actions range from shocking disregard for women to brazen attacks on them. The number of women in Donald Trump’s cabinet is appallingly anemic. His repeated and nasty attacks on everyone from Alicia Machado to Elizabeth Warren, along with his and Congress’ regressive agenda, offer a preview of the coming threats to gender pay equity, reproductive rights, and protections from domestic violence and sexual assault, to name just a few.

Perhaps the messages coming out of Washington are not surprising, but as the recent Women’s March and the subsequent organizing demonstrate, politicians are not the sole purveyors of our nation’s ideals. The film industry, many of whose members have been outspoken critics of Trump and any assault on women’s rights, is uniquely positioned to counter these dark forces, particularly during Oscar season. First though, to be fully credible on this issue, Hollywood must get its own house in order.

To its credit, the industry responded to last year’s #OscarsSoWhite movement with a series of specific steps to expand the racial mix of its ranks. This year, three of the nine films nominated for best picture feature African-American-driven storylines, and three of the five nominees for supporting actress are black.

But true diversity can’t be achieved through a piecemeal response to trending hashtags.

To wit, there is a stunning lack of female representation in the most influential behind-the-scenes categories. None of this year’s nominees for best director are female, and of the 10 nominees for writing, nine are men. Women account for only 20 percent of the non-acting categories in the Academy’s 2017 nominations, and the already-abysmal number of female Oscar nominees across all categories dropped 2% from last year, according to a Women’s Media Center analysis.

Women’s limited opportunities have dramatic economic consequences. According to data compiled by the Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative at USC Annenberg, there were only 29 unique female directors among the 800 top-grossing films from 2007 to 2015. African-American women have had even less opportunity: Over the same period, only three black women directed one of the biggest films. Three.

Hollywood matters. Its monumental impact on shaping and reinforcing societal norms is unparalleled and certainly more appealing than Trump’s or Congress’, given their historically low approval ratings. In fact, a 2014 CBS News poll found that 87% of Americans believe Hollywood influences our social values and politics. That’s why it is so critical that an industry built on superheroes use its power for good.

Gender. Race and ethnicity. Sexuality and gender identity. Disability. Each is a different lens that must be viewed holistically to make Hollywood more accurately reflect the society it mirrors and influences. Passionate public pleas against acts of exclusion, like those made by Meryl Streep and the cast of Broadway’s “Hamilton” are a start. But talk doesn’t put women at the helm of developing the next Hollywood blockbuster. It doesn’t increase opportunities for African-American writers to win the next Oscar for best screenplay. This moment in time calls for the motion picture industry to lead by example, to embrace and award diversity.

With this week’s Oscar ceremony comes an opportunity for the titans of Hollywood to demonstrate the values that some industry members have called on our political leaders to exhibit. Concrete steps that open doors and create opportunities for women, minorities, and other struggling groups to play a more important and influential role in developing the stories we ultimately see on screen are imperative. Last year’s efforts to address the industry’s lack of racial diversity should be both redoubled and routinized. Furthermore, new efforts and strategies need to be developed to include others who are underrepresented on screen and behind the cameras.

That “Hidden Figures” and “Fences,” best-picture nominees that feature and focus on African-Americans, have been box office successes proves that stories developed by and told from a diverse range of perspectives are more likely to have a broad appeal. These films show that increased equity for groups that struggle for opportunity in Hollywood can expand the market, which by all accounts is shrinking, and benefit the all-important bottom line.

Stories that reflect the rich range of today’s cultural and social realities, and the challenges that marginalized groups face, benefit us all and might even help improve policy decisions made in Washington. The film industry’s work routinely inspires audiences to envision a world where opportunity is real. It’s time for Hollywood to make sure that those who bring these stories to life get the same chance.

Anita F. Hill is an advocate for women’s rights and an attorney in the Civil Rights and Employment practice of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, a national plaintiffs’ law firm. Kalpana Kotagal is a partner in the same practice.

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