Variety is celebrating its 115th birthday and, amid all the upheaval of 2020, it’s good to remember that the entertainment industry has survived constant change and adaptation. That’s reassuring. However, many past articles are upsetting because they’re a reminder that the fight for equality is also constant.
Variety’s Oct. 26, 1987, headline read, “Wide Actor-Actress Pay Disparity.” A Screen Actors Guild survey had concluded that the average female member of the guild “earned 38% less than her average male counterpart last year. … For SAG members over age 40, however, the disparity is even more profound, with SAG women over 40 earning 46% less than their over-40 male counterparts.”
In addition, two-thirds of the 40,454 film and TV roles went to men. If these were isolated statistics, they would be troublesome enough. But there were many more such findings in the next few years.
For instance, in a Nov. 7, 1989, Variety story headlined, “Report Shows That TV Shortchanges Women,” the National Commission on Working Women said network television had taken two steps back, citing shows including “Baywatch” and “Living Dolls” as examples that “double entendres and smarmy sex remain a network TV mainstay.” Behind the camera, the study said of all the TV shows that debuted in the fall, only 27 (19%) had women producers. Ten of the new shows (38%) had no women working on them at all.
June 15, 1993: A five-year study by the Writers Guild of America West “shows that the industry is not making any great strides in terms of overcoming racism, sexism and ageism.” The story by Kathleen O’Steen continued, “As of 1991, women [writers] accounted for 22%-25% of those employed in television and 16%-17% of those working in film. … It also appears that Hollywood is beginning to push writers over the age of 50 out of the job market.” The report said in 1982, that that age group accounted for only 24% of writers in film/TV; by 1991, the number had dropped to 17%.
Several years before any of these reports, Variety carried an optimistic story about women in Hollywood, which was published shortly after Fox made Sherry Lansing the first woman president of production in January 1981.
Reporter Steven Ginsberg wrote that execs and studio reps agreed that in this enlightened era, the boost in hiring women “has little to do with tokenism and more to do with the ability and availability of qualified personnel.” The women surveyed, Ginsberg wrote, felt that “attention should now be focused on getting the job done rather than on whether a man or a woman is doing it. As Lansing herself has mentioned in the past, the real victory will occur when it is no longer news that a woman has been appointed to a position of importance.”
This was 40 years ago. Less than a decade later, the situation seemed much less rosy. Was Variety being too optimistic? Or is history just an endless cycle of moving forward and then retreating?