Sexism in Hollywood
In a month when Absolutely Fabulous (directed by a woman, written by a woman, starring four women) has its red carpet premiere, to be followed shortly after by an all-female Ghostbusters remake (starring four women, written by a woman) and Bridget’s Jones’ Baby (co-written by women, starring a woman, directed by a woman), it could be argued that we’ve reached a point where it’s no longer relevant to talk about sexism in Hollywood. Let’s just all move on and concentrate on making and watching great films, right?
Sadly it seems that any celebration might be premature. The overwhelming evidence from the industry is that when it comes to pay, production, acting roles and recognition, women are still lagging far behind their male counterparts. And while the issue is higher on the agenda than previously, with more people prepared to speak out against the unequal situation, there is still a long way to go before there is equality in Hollywood.
The New York Film Academy recently carried out an extensive survey into gender inequality on film. Its unequivocal conclusion: ‘It is clear that Hollywood remains stuck in its gender bias.’
Among a myriad of facts and statistics, many damning details emerged. Only four female film-makers have ever been nominated for the Best Director Oscar (with just one winner, Kathryn Bigelow for the 2008 film The Hurt Locker) - possibly unsurprising when 77 per cent of Oscar voters are male, and around 90 per cent of directors are male.
Only seven woman producers have even won the Best Picture award, all as co-producers with men - that’s in 85 years. In the same period just eight women have won Best Adapted Screenplay and over 73 years, only eight women have won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.
The depressing news continued. When the NYFA looked at the 500 biggest films between 2007 and 2012, it discovered that just 31 per cent of speaking characters were women, 29 per cent of women wore sexually revealing clothes (compared with 7 per cent of men), 26 per cent of woman got partially naked on screen, compared with just 9 per cent of men, and only 11 per cent of films had a balanced cast when half the roles were female.
While no-one could argue that film stars are underpaid, there is still a huge discrepancy all the way up to the very top of the profession: the Forbes 2013 list of the top ten highest-paid actresses found that they were paid $181 million, against the $465 million made by the top ten male actors.
It isn’t just on screen where there is a huge discrepancy: in the industry itself, there are five times as many men as women working in the business, with fewer female writers, actors, directors, producer, editors and cinematographers - basically across the board. Thankfully, one outcome of such glaring gender inequality is that more high-profile women are speaking out against it, one notable person being Jennifer Lawrence, star of The Hunger Games and Silver Linings Playbook. After emails hacked from Sony last year revealed that the Oscar-winning Lawrence earned considerably less than her male co-stars in American Hustle, (despite having a major part in the film and already being a bona fide A-lister) she came out hard against the gender pay inequality in Hollywood in an essay she wrote for her friend Lena Dunham’s Lenny Letter newsletter. ‘When the Sony hack happened and I found out how much less I was being paid than the lucky people with dicks, I didn’t get mad at Sony,’ she wrote. ‘I got mad at myself. I failed as a negotiator because I gave up early. I didn’t want to keep fighting over millions of dollars that, frankly, due to two franchises, I don’t need.’
She added that a need ‘to be liked’ and the fear of seeming difficult or spoiled kept her from demanding more money but concluded: ‘I’m over trying to find the ‘adorable’ way to state my opinion and still be likable! Fuck that,’ she wrote. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever worked for a man in charge who spent time contemplating what angle he should use to have his voice heard. It’s just heard. Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale, and Bradley Cooper all fought and succeeded in negotiating powerful deals for themselves. If anything, I’m sure they were commended for being fierce and tactical, while I was busy worrying about coming across as a brat and not getting my fair share. Again, this might have NOTHING to do with my vagina, but I wasn’t completely wrong when another leaked Sony email revealed a producer referring to a fellow lead actress in a negotiation as a ‘spoiled brat.’ For some reason, I just can’t picture someone saying that about a man.’
Other Hollywood A-listers have come out strongly in support of Lawrence’s views, including Susan Sarandon, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson, Emma Watson, Patricia Arquette and Cate Blanchett, many of whom have their own tales of misogyny in the entertainment industry. Sarandon later told Vanity Fair that halfway through making a film several years ago she discovered that both of her male co-stars were getting paid a lot more than she was.
‘My agent was told that I wasn’t worth [what they were being paid] because they were big, older stars,’ she recalled. ‘And then when the time came to do press, they wanted me to do more than what they did. So that was a problem.’ She added: ‘That was my fault, that was my agent’s fault for not putting her foot down and saying ‘Wait, wait, wait. Jennifer’s essay were interesting because she said: ‘I didn’t fight hard enough’ and that’s the bottom line. If that’s what you want then you’re going to have to fight for it.’
Like Lawrence, Sarandon insists it’s not about the money. ‘You’re equating that amount of money with how much respect you get. That’s why it’s important. Not because of the money. It’s about respect.’
While women are being more vocal about the issue, there is still a lot to change. Singer and actress Jennifer Lopez recently waded into the sexism row, saying that she is unfairly branded a diva just for being a hard worker. The singer and actress claimed that men get to behave badly without being negatively labelled: ‘I get a monicker “diva”,’ she told NBC, ‘because I’m a hard worker, doing what I’m supposed to do.’
British actress Kate Beckinsale recently continued the theme, arguing that there was ‘an innate sexism’ in the film industry. ‘I think women, whether they are managers, agents, actresses or directors are used to having to filter their opinions in a way that doesn’t seem combative or that’s palatable in a way I don’t think men have to,’ she said. ‘You rarely hear a man described as ‘difficult’, which a woman is if she has an opinion that is not popular.”
It isn’t a problem which is confined to Hollywood either. Last month, Directors UK published its commissioned study entitled ‘Cut Out of the Picture - A study into Gender Inequality Amongst Directors within the UK Film Industry.’ The survey, by Stephen Follows, studied 2,591 UK films released over a ten-year period (2005-2014) and found that just 14 per cent of working film directors in the last decade were women.
‘Despite women making up 50 per cent of all film students in the UK and 49 per cent of new entrants in the film industry, only 27 per cent of short films and 22 per cent of publicly funded films studied were directed by women,’ said the report. ‘As budgets rise fewer women are hired with just 16 per cent of low budget films (under £500,000), 13 per cent of mid-budget films (£1 million - £10 million) and as little as 3 per cent of big budget films (£30 million) were directed by women.’
Follows concluded that rather than being actively discriminated against though, the gender inequality was caused by ‘unconscious bias’, meaning that people in the industry were risk adverse and therefore went for the safe, established option of a male director. A lack of female role models in the industry leads to a low number of women working in film, which led to more men being hired and the vicious circle continuing.
Writer Zoe Margolis, who calls the movies ‘a boys’ club’, says that this is nothing new. When she was working on feature films a decade ago she experienced industry sexism on a daily basis. Says Margolis: ‘My very first day on a big budget film set involved male crew members shouting comments about my breasts. It was a lesson as to who had the power on set: not women.’
She says it comes as no surprise to learn a study of the gender of UK film directors over the last decade has found women are under-represented across the board. ‘It truly is an old boy’s club, and while not explicitly barred, women are rarely made to feel welcome,’ she said. ‘With so few women directing films, women’s voices and stories are excluded, and this limits the scope of our culture as a whole. A male-dominated film industry leads to male-focused films - stories literally being told through a male lens - leaving women not only under-represented among directors but on screens too. Audiences are therefore restricted in what they get to watch. Film as a commercial art form is unique in that it can shape public opinion as well as respond to it: it should represent our society as a whole.’
Margolis added: ‘I regret never formally complaining. When I asked a superior if I could report the sexual harassment, I was told: ‘You’d probably win some money in court, but you’ll never work in the industry again.’ I was ambitious and wanted to work my way up, and hearing this made me so fearful that I didn’t take it further. If I had challenged it, might that have improved things for the young women below me on the ladder? Or would it have just resulted in one fewer female crew member? Either way, it shouldn’t fall to one person to risk their livelihood in order to challenge the sexism in movies: it needs to be attacked industry-wide.’
Having battled to be taken seriously in an industry which is weighted towards men, it seems that things don’t improve for women on-screen once they’ve made it. A line-by-line study of 2,000 films from the 1980s to the present day by statistics site Polygraph suggested that while men’s career prospects improve with age, women’s go into sharp decline from their mid-thirties.
For dialogue spoken by women, 38 per cent of it (21 million words) came from actresses aged 22 to 31. The proportion fell to 32 per cent for those between 32 and 41 and even worse, to just 20 per cent for actresses aged 42 to 65.
However for men, the pattern was reversed. Actors in the 22-31 range got more lines than their female counterparts (28 million words) and could expect to get even more dialogue as they aged. The proportion rose to 32 per cent for the middle age group and to 39 per cent for the 42-65 bracket.
Maggie Gyllenhaal, whose credits include the Batman movie The Dark Knight, who said that when she was 37 she was refused a part because she was ‘too old to play the lover of a man who was 55’. She said: “It was astonishing to me. It made me feel bad, and then it made me feel angry, and then it made me laugh.’
Oscar-winning British actress Helen Mirren, 70, agreed: ‘It’s ridiculous,’ she said. ‘We all watched James Bond as he got more and more geriatric and his girlfriends got younger and younger. It’s so annoying.’
It might be difficult for younger actresses to treat this as a serious issue. Margot Robbie. now 25, has played the love interest of Leonardo di Caprio (16 years her senior) and Will Smith (22 year older than her). She recently dismissed the fuss, saying: ‘Will [Smith] doesn’t look his age and I don’t look mine. He looks way younger than he is. I look way older. I can’t play younger. Nobody’s going to cast me as 16.’
Is it a fuss over nothing? she was asked. ‘Kind of,’ she says with a shrug. ‘But maybe I’ll make a fuss over it when I’m in my forties and some 20-year-old actress is getting all the good roles. Maybe I’ll make a fuss then.’
Meanwhile an equality of a sort can be found in the fact that men are complaining of sexism too. Games of Thrones’s Kit Harington recently said that he was also a victim of Hollywood sexism.
‘I don’t want to seem ungrateful — I’m lucky,’ he said. ‘But I can’t say that I like a lot of attention a lot of the time. You can’t pick and choose when you get it.” He said he was fed up with constant questions about his hair, six-pack or love life and believes it’s time sexism towards men in film is properly acknowledged.
‘I think there is a double standard. If you said to a girl, ‘Do you like being called a babe?’ and she said, ’No, not really,’ she’d be absolutely right. I like to think of myself as more than a head of hair or a set of looks. It’s demeaning. Yes, in some ways you could argue I’ve been employed for a look I have. But there’s a sexism that happens towards men. There’s definitely a sexism in our industry that happens towards women, and there is towards men as well. At some points during photoshoots when I’m asked to strip down, I felt that. If I felt I was being employed just for my looks, I’d stop acting.’
That might be a tough decision to make. Meanwhile industry veteran Sir Michael Caine said that a gender pay gap was nothing new - and he’d been the loser. The Zulu and Jaws 4 star said: ‘I worked with Elizabeth Taylor and she got 10 times more than I did – and that was over 30 years ago. I don’t agree about the pay gap because she got a lot more money than me.
Blog article by Sarah Bridge, leisure correspondent for The Mail on Sunday and founder of reviews website ALadyofLeisure.com
- Duncan Ward, Director
Photograph: Darren Berry
- Photograph: Darren Berry