Directors Ava DuVernay, Gillian Robespierre, and Marielle Heller.
Photo: Kelly Chiello and Photos by Getty Images
By this point, it’s been well established that women who work in film have a tougher time of it than men. Even so, when the Tumblr account Shit People Say to Women Directors recently debuted, it quickly went viral. Many of its crowdsourced anecdotes involved terrible tales of extreme sexism and harassment, but just as eye-opening were the smaller stories, the more common microaggressions that female directors (and producers like me) must deal with on a regular basis. These minor offenses are often committed by people who have no idea that they’re doing it, but they can add up, contributing to the cloud of sexism that will continue to choke Hollywood until female filmmakers — and a more enlightened industry — are able to bat it back. I spoke to some of those filmmakers to get a better sense of the forms of discrimination they typically face; these four examples were the ones most commonly cited.
THE BABYSITTING BARRIER
I recently executive-produced The Invitation, directed by Karyn Kusama (who also directed Girlfight and Jennifer’s Body). Karyn told me about a previous movie, where she arranged a meeting with a potential cinematographer and then found that her male producers insisted they be present, too — “itself a form of condescension,” she said. This sort of “babysitting” happens all the time with female filmmakers, who aren’t granted the same level of trust in their executive decisions as their male counterparts. Kusama’s meeting with the cinematographer went from bad to worse, though, when the man told her, “How terrible for your child that you’re leaving him behind to direct this movie.” Never mind the fact that this man had kids of his own!
“I wanted to ask how his poor children felt about being abandoned by Daddy when he was away shooting for months at a time,” recalled Kusama, “but I was comforted by the shocked and bewildered expressions on my male producers’ faces. Though I initially resented feeling ‘babysat’ by them, it was gratifying to see them bear witness to the kind of sabotage, unearned superiority, and misogyny that women have to tolerate all too often.”
That babysitting barrier extends to deal-making, too. One of the most revealing stories to come out of the Sony hack was how women were paid less than their male counterparts — neither Amy Adams nor Jennifer Lawrence got as many backend points on American Hustle as their co-star Jeremy Renner, for example, although they were indisputably more important to the film’s success. According to entertainment attorney Elsa Ramo, the babysitting barrier contributes to this disparity in compensation. “There is an inherent overprotection, almost ‘victimization,’ of female talent by their agents, managers, and lawyers that you just don’t see with male talent,” she observed. “It’s as if the reps are trying to shield women from the intricacies of the business deal.”
How can that babysitting barrier be broken? “I have found that the more successful women seek out reps who include them in negotiations,” said Ramos. “Being ‘babied’ causes women to be taken less seriously.”
THE MINI-ME PROBLEM
A powerful paradigm in the ego-driven, self-obsessed film industry is key players’ desire to seek collaborators who are similar to themselves — not just in terms of taste and perspective but also culture, background, and, yes, gender. That’s how Safety Not Guaranteed director Colin Trevorrow was able to get the directing gig on a massive blockbuster like Jurassic World despite having only one microbudget independent feature under his belt: Another established director, Tomorrowland helmer Brad Bird, recommended Trevorrow to Jurassic World producer Frank Marshall, saying, “There is this guy that reminds me of me.” Few female directors are given the chance to jump straight from Sundance into a $200 million studio movie, and one of the main reasons why is that there aren’t enough female Brad Birds in Hollywood who can look out for their mini-mes.
The “simpatico” and “who you know” factors are very strong in the industry, though the people perpetuating them may not be aware that they often end up excluding new and “different” talent. I once spoke on a panel with a major studio executive who said rather cluelessly that he only likes to hire producers and directors he’s already worked with before … and by the way, most of those people were male and white! What he was essentially declaring was that if you aren’t already “in the club,” tough luck. This panel took place at a conference for female filmmakers, so the comment didn’t sit very well with the audience, but the reality check they gave him is extremely rare in the film industry, where Hollywood executives are usually free to discriminate without consequence.
That discrimination starts early, too. “My class in film school was almost 50 percent female and reasonably diverse,” said Leah Meyerhoff, writer-director of I Believe in Unicorns, “but the faculty was predominantly comprised of older straight white men. One teacher literally directed all of his lectures toward one side of the room, where the male students tended to sit.” Though nearly half of the graduates from top film schools are women, they only comprised 18 percent of the directors of narrative features premiering at top film festivals from 2014 to 2015, and 7 percent of the directors who helmed last year’s 250 highest-grossing movies.
It wasn’t until Martha Stephens co-directed Land Ho! that she realized she had been in denial about that sort of endemic sexism. “In film school I didn’t want to think about myself as a victim, or that I was going into a field that didn’t want me,” she said. “I couldn’t think about that or else I would have felt defeated from the outset, but in retrospect, I see I was often treated like the tagalong little sister.” Even though she’s already directed three acclaimed features before the age of 30 — “I can look back at my directing class and say, ‘How many movies have you directed?’” — Stephens still says it’s hard for others to recognize her accomplishments. “I’ve proven my worth to myself at this point, but I know I’m still going have to prove it to others year after year,” she said. “I’m sure it’s like that for all women directors. It doesn’t matter what we’ve done in the past, we still have to prove ourselves.”
The first time my crew meets me on set, they rarely assume I’m the producer and treat me with little regard. I’ve been called “doll” and “sweetheart” by crew who should’ve been calling me “boss,” I’m frequently told I should be “warmer” and “softer,” and I often have to exclaim “Let me speak!” over the cacophony of male voices jockeying for attention.
This happens off-set, too, at cocktail parties and networking events where I’m either ignored or gritting my teeth through a whole lot of windbaggery and mansplaining before I even get to introduce myself. “At film festivals or industry events,” said Meyerhoff, “I would often find myself as the only female director in the room, constantly mistaken for an actress or girlfriend and passed over in conversation.”
Because such a small proportion of directors, producers, and executives are women, people in the industry have low expectations when they meet us. They don’t expect women to have the power to hire or fire them, so the default attitude toward us is often one of disrespect. Even when they know a woman is in charge, that disrespect is hard to dismantle. In a New York Times interview a few years ago, Boys Don’t Cry director Kimberly Peirce talked about how some of her crew members reacted to a woman being in charge. “With some men, I can’t help but think that it’s like their mother telling them to pick up their socks,” she said. “No matter what, you’re their mother, you’re their wife.”
The lack of support for female directors from other women in the industry is rarely discussed, and even to speak of it suggests a lack of solidarity. But for women to truly progress in Hollywood, all of us — both women and men — must face our subconscious biases. Some of us are so brainwashed by the male-dominated status quo that we don’t realize that our beliefs and opinions about what will succeed at the box office have been manipulated, and even our opinions on what makes a good movie are shaped by a fleet of film critics whose ranks are 80 percent male. The Hollywood psyche is so thoroughly dominated by men, in fact, that even the few women in power are often of no help.
“I have found that most female film executives are either snarky and mean,” one female studio exec admitted to me, “or they try to act too much like they’re part of the boys’ club, and sadly, that tends to help them advance their careers regardless of merit. It’s about figuring out what your boss most relates to and becoming that — and most bosses, of course, tend to be men.”
On the flip side, there are women who are so blinded by their anger toward the status quo that they end up wanting to dictate the kinds of films female directors should make. When my company, Gamechanger Films, announced the production of its first film, Land Ho! by Stephens and Aaron Katz, there was a fair amount of vitriol hurled at us because the film had two male protagonists and a male co-director. Never mind that Stephens had already been the sole director of two acclaimed features and that she originally conceived Land Ho! and asked her film-school classmate to co-direct it.
“The expectations placed on women are so restrictive and specific that we don’t have anywhere near the options that men have to write a story. People are still criticizing women for exercising too much creative freedom,” Stephens said. “Personally, I stay with my own vision rather than trying to please everyone, which is impossible.”
Writer Gillian Flynn recently found that out the hard way, when revenge fantasy Gone Girl was deemed misogynistic by those who found her Amy Dunne character to be a negative and hateful representation of women. A broad definition of feminism, Flynn responded, should include the ability to have female antiheroes — and restricting the kinds of characters and stories a female artist can create is very antifeminist, indeed.
Jen McGowan, director of Kelly & Cal, noted, “Those in the dominant paradigm get the privilege of full and complete individuality, whereas the rest of us, in varying degrees, of course, are required to be judged on a smaller set of permitted behaviors and expectations. The point is, not until there are many women directors will we be able to truly understand that women are not a monolith.”
THE OUTLOOK IS IMPROVING
Fortunately, there’s been a recent surge in women-run production companies that are dedicated to investing in female filmmakers. In addition to my own Gamechanger Films, other companies dedicated to producing women-driven films include Amy Hobby and Anne Hubbell’s Tangerine Entertainment, Jessica Elbaum’s Gloria Sanchez Productions, Reese Witherspoon and Bruna Papandrea’s Pacific Standard, Rose Byrne’s The Dollhouse Collective, and Lena Dunham’s A Casual Romance. Even companies that usually pass over female filmmakers are starting to pay attention: The recent announcement of a writers’ room to craft new Transformers spinoffs raised so much ire online when Paramount filled it with white men that the studio is now doing damage control, vowing to add more diverse talent to the group.
That sort of change has Marielle Heller, whose debut feature Diary of a Teenage Girl was one of the buzziest films at Sundance this year, hopeful about the future. “I believe it’s actually a great time to be a female filmmaker because everyone seems to be finally recognizing that women are grossly underrepresented,” said Heller, who recently signed on to direct a Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic set to star Natalie Portman. “It’s embarrassing that Hollywood is so behind other industries, and companies are wanting to prove that they are progressive and equal-opportunity, if only for public perception. So even if Hollywood’s hand has been a little forced, change is happening. You can feel it.”
Gillian Robespierre’s microbudget debut Obvious Child grossed over $3 million at the box office, and she just wrapped shooting a pilot she co-created with Elisabeth Holm. Like most female filmmakers, she is determined to succeed in spite of all the microaggressions she’s destined to face. “The industry and our culture in general is not devoid of sexism, but I’m fortunate to say that I don’t feel like I’m getting lost in the battle of the sexes,” she said. “I’m aware of all the parts that need to be changed. My job is to continue to work the way I want to work with the people I like to collaborate with, and make it harder for the industry to be sexist. Either way, I’m going to edit this pilot right now and then write a feature.”
Mynette Louie has been working as a TV and film producer for more than a decade.