On Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union officially requested that state and federal agencies launch an investigation into Hollywood’s sexist hiring practices.
Is the entertainment industry so sexist as to qualify as a civil rights violation? According to the ACLU, absolutely. Armed with piles of damning data and testimony from dozens of women directors, the organization contacted the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, asking that the agencies “initiate an investigation into systemic failure to hire women directors at all levels of the film and television industry.” The ACLU argues that current hiring practices are in violation of Title VII.
Only 1.9 percent of directors of the top-grossing 100 films of 2013 and of 2014 were women. On television, the numbers are also dismal: 70 television shows — 31 percent of all the shows on air in the 2013–2014 season — had zero female directors. And 20 percent of shows had women directing, at most, 10 percent of the episodes.
As Ariela Migdal, senior staff attorney at the ACLU, and Melissa Goodman, director of the LGBTQ Gender and Reproductive Justice Project of the ACLU of Southern California, write in the ACLU’s letter to the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, “These statistics reveal what the Supreme Court has called ‘the inexorable zero’ — a figure, representing ‘the glaring absence’ of women that is highly indicative of systemic employment discrimination.”
You read the statistics and you think, how can it be that so many shows have zero women directing even a single episode? How can so few women direct summer blockbusters?
“The biggest goal is that women directors be on equal footing in TV and film,” Migdal said by phone. Women and men go into film school in approximately equal numbers, she said, and go on to do well at Sundance and other stops on the festival circuit. And then… nothing. “They’re really getting derailed at a certain point in their career. Our goal is for that to stop. And for that to happen, hiring practices have to change.”
The ACLU has been collecting research on discriminatory hiring practices in Hollywood for over a year, filing away anecdotes of overt bias, like a show telling someone “We don’t hire women” or “We worked with a woman last season, and it didn’t work out,”; implicit bias, like a studio using language to the effect of “We want someone who is into action” to telegraph that they’re only seeking male candidates; and, slipperiest of all, neutral mechanisms that “have the effect of shutting women out,” said Migdal, like an over-reliance on short lists (a list of potential hires; these lists, the ACLU found, often have no women on them) and word-of-mouth recruiting.
Studios, networks and producers have demonstrated an “intentional and discriminatory failure to recruit, consider and hire qualified women directors,” Migdal and Goodman write, evaluating female candidates based on sexist stereotypes (“she could do a romantic comedy”) and not even enforcing existing agreements to increase the hiring of women and people of color.
ACLU representatives spoke with 50 female directors, all of whom contacted the organization on the condition of anonymity (though some said they’d be willing to speak, by name to investigators should these agencies take legal action). “The stories they were telling us, independently of each other, really confirmed and explained a lot of what we see in these statistics,” Migdal said. “You read the statistics and you think, how can it be that so many shows have zero women directing even a single episode? How can so few women direct summer blockbusters? And they told us how this happened.”
It’s not like this is news to anyone in the industry. “Hiring producers, showrunnners, all these people, go around talking openly about how they won’t hire women,” Migdal said. “That is a product of a culture where they don’t think they’re going to have to be accountable to anybody.”
Why does any of this matter? There is the obvious: in a country that maintains equality as its founding, paramount principle, such blatant inequality is a national embarrassment. When women make up only two percent of anything, let alone leadership positions in one of our most influential and lucrative fields, we are failing, monumentally, at being even within shouting distance of the kind of nation we claim to be.
Hollywood is distinct in many ways, but these are still employers. They are still subject to our civil rights laws.
The entertainment industry, despite efforts to look like a perpetual party, is just that: an industry. Migdal has represented women in a multitude of fields, from the military to UPS to police forces to Walmart. “Hollywood is not immune to the same laws as these other workplaces. It’s just a matter of basic fairness.”
It doesn’t matter if you don’t own a TV or you don’t like comic book movies, if you think you exist in some magic, insular silo where these decisions don’t affect your life. This pop culture gets absorbed not just by all citizens at home but by millions of people abroad, whether or not an individual seeks it out. What we currently have is a small, homogeneous group of people dictating what American culture should be to a sprawling, diverse population.
Films and television shows have enormous influence over who we are: how we work, how we talk, how we dress, how we date and fall in love and make families, how we see ourselves, how we see other people. In an era in which a record number of Americans self-identify as religiously unaffiliated, our shared value system comes from the church of commerce: entertainment is what we buy and sell, what we produce and what we consume. When the vision that these entities project, over and over and over again, is how a handful of white men want to see the world, everyone else is just an other in somebody else’s story, the best friend or the love interest to some guy’s protagonist. Everyone else is invisible or silent or pointless, or all of the above.
“These are products that go everywhere around the world,” said Migdal. “This is what you see. This is what your kids see. This is what they’re watching in other countries in the world: American movies, TV shows, commercials, they are everywhere. It cannot be right that we’re just limiting it to one group in the population.”
When it comes to the arts there can be a specific type of pushback, a sense that creative fields must be free to obey their own laws — and exist outside the jurisdiction of the actual laws that govern literally everyone else in this country — so as to not disrupt the artistic process.
“There’s always some ‘special case’ why women can’t do the thing,” said Migdal. “In the military, they say it’s a special case. I’ve represented those women, and we’ve seen some industries adopt change and improve over time. Hollywood is distinct in many ways, but these are still employers. They are still subject to our civil rights laws.”
This is what you see. This is what your kids see. American movies and TV shows are everywhere. It cannot be right that we’re just limiting it to one group in the population.
The arena where you can see the flaw in the “special case” argument most clearly is on TV. “It just cannot be the case that your TV show is so special that, in nine years, you’ve only hired one woman to direct an episode. In nine years! Something is off there,” said Migdal. “That’s why we asked the agencies to look at this as systemic bias. There’s not just one employer where it’s a problem.”
Federal agencies were called in (not by the ACLU) in the 1960s and 1970s to address gender and race discrimination in Hollywood: the EEOC and the OFCCP as well as the California Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights, the Department of Justice, and the General Services Administration. They checked all the progress boxes — holding hearings, issuing reports, entering into settlement agreements with some studios and unions — but by the mid ’70s, the monitoring and enforcement of the agreements “really petered out,” said Migdal. The efforts didn’t specifically address female directors and the discrimination they experience. No lasting impact, no major improvement. “The problems now are as bad as ever.”
But stars have aligned for this to be a more productive venture than the last. “There have been a couple of big moments,” said Migdal, citing the outrage around Selma director Ava DuVernay’s Oscar snub and a few A-list actresses speaking out about rampant sexism within the industry.
Maybe the most important factor of all? What Migdal calls “the gift that keeps on giving”: the Sony hack. The 30,000-plus documents, published by Wikileaks as a searchable archive, made public the typically private dealings of some of the most powerful players in film. Among the revelations: Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams were paid less than their male costars in American Hustle; the female co-president of production at Columbia Pictures makes nearly $1 million less than her male counterpart; almost all of Sony’s highest-earning executives are white men; the CEO of Marvel’s apparent belief that female-centric superhero movies can’t make money.
Migdal is optimistic that these federal agencies will take meaningful action. “We’re really hopeful that they will be responsive. [The ACLU] has called on agencies in the past, but we don’t do it every day. We don’t do it unless we really see a problem. We try to be mindful of their resources and their time. We call them in when it’s egregious and we think they’ll find something.”