In recent months, media accounts of sexual harassment scandals and eye-popping pay disparities have given way to stories about “tectonic” shifts in the film industry. The sheer volume and often contradictory nature of the coverage on the issue of women working in film have created the simultaneous feelings that everything has changed and nothing has changed.
An ad campaign for Rolex watches touts Kathryn Bigelow as one of the “masters of cinema,” yet she is the only woman to have ever won a director Oscar. A help line now exists for those who have been sexually harassed, yet the fate of many high-profile offenders remains undecided. Representatives of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission — which has issued charges of gender discrimination against the big studios — continue to negotiate with executives, but there is no (public) word of a resolution.
In the midst of this uncertainty, one reality remains clear. The percentages of women working in film have yet to budge in any meaningful way. In fact, the ratio of individuals working in key behind-the-scenes roles in 2017 was almost exactly the same as it was two decades ago. Women comprised just 18% of individuals working as directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors and cinematographers on the top-grossing 250 domestic films of 2017, an increase of a slender percentage point from 17% in 1998. One percent of films employed 10 or more women in the above roles and 70% employed 10 or more men in those roles, according to the latest “Celluloid Ceiling” study conducted by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film.
Women accounted for 11% of directors on top-grossing films, and while this number represents an increase of 4 percentage points from 7% in 2016, it is not unfamiliar territory: In 2000, women comprised 11% of directors, but the successes of Mimi Leder (“Pay It Forward”), Bonnie Hunt (“Return to Me”), Gina Prince-Bythewood (“Love & Basketball”) and Mary Harron (“American Psycho”), among others during that year, failed to translate into more opportunities for women. This comes as no surprise in a business culture that has considered every success by a woman to be a fluke and every triumph a one-off.
On-screen, the numbers tell a similar story. Females made up 24% of protagonists in 2017, a decrease of 5 percentage points from 29% in 2016. Female characters also remain heavily stereotyped — they are younger than their male counterparts and more likely to have goals related to their personal rather than professional lives.
The lived female experience in the film industry remains clearly at odds with the mounting dialogue touting a new and improved era for women. At this year’s Golden Globes, Oprah proclaimed, “A new day is on the horizon.” Though few speakers can deliver such a line with as much conviction as Ms. Winfrey, this platitude has been offered as a salve for the chronic underemployment of women in film for decades. How often has some industry executive enthused, “Change is just around the corner,” or that the high-profile success of some new film or director will “change everything”? Back in 2010, media reports gushed about the Bigelow Effect, suggesting that the director’s Oscar wins for “The Hurt Locker” would immediately and substantially change gender hiring patterns. Now it seems that industry observers and insiders are hanging their hopes on the efforts of newly minted groups such as Time’s Up and the Commission on Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality in the Workplace.
The problem with promises of some better future is that they rarely transform into actual change. The reality is that those who have the will to act typically do so in the present. Just ask Ryan Murphy and Ava DuVernay, who recognized the need for and opportunity provided by greater inclusion, and instituted more equitable hiring practices within their own spheres of influence at a previously unheard-of pace. Through Murphy’s Half Initiative, his production company achieved parity in hiring women and minorities within a single year. DuVernay hired only women to direct episodes of the television drama “Queen Sugar” in Seasons 1 and 2. These creators refused to wait for that uncertain future and willed the indefinite “new day” into the concrete and immediate now.
While these examples come from the world of television, they prove that change needn’t be incremental or occur at a glacial pace. They are part of a high-profile, but sadly small, minority. The future has proven to be a promise without a payoff for women working in film, an empty bromide providing comfort while ensuring seemingly endless lost generations of women filmmakers. I hope Oprah is right but fear she is not.
Dr. Martha M. Lauzen is the executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film and a professor of Television, Film & New Media at San Diego State University.