There is a growing momentum of women in Hollywood, A-list actresses, speaking out and candidly sharing their experiences of blatant sexism. One of the most common problems is unequal pay, with actress like Jennifer Lawrence, Robin Wright and Charlize Theron talking about how the exposed problem enabled them to negotiate deals where they were paid the same as their male co-stars going forward.
There is also an rising tide of voices, coupled now with an ACLU/EEOC investigation, of the lack of female directors due to the discriminatory and sexist hiring practices of the major studios. This matters greatly, because it means the representation of women on screen can be written and directed through a distinctly female gaze, allowing female characters to be more nuanced, flawed, and wide-ranging.
The collection of voices speaking out about the industry’s failure toward women means an important turning point for Hollywood. Going forward, there is a growing sense that actresses, writers, directors and women throughout the film world will no longer tolerate the status quo. One of those women is actress and producer Mila Kunis, who recently penned a very powerful and bold essay about bad experiences have fueled her motivation to make a change.
Writing for Aplus.com, the positive journalism and op-ed site started by her husband Ashton Kutcher, she begins by recalling how she was threatened with the “you’ll never work in this town again” line by a producer when she refused to pose nude for the cover of a men’s magazine to promote a movie she was starring in. While she has done various photo shoots throughout her career, it’s the difference between choosing to do that and having agency over her own sexuality, and being forced to de-couple her humanity from her body and use it as an objectified tool to sell a product.
“I felt objectified, and for the first time in my career I said ‘no.’ And guess what? The world didn’t end. The film made a lot of money and I did work in this town again, and again, and again. What this producer may never realize is that he spoke aloud the exact fear every woman feels when confronted with gender bias in the workplace,” she writes.
She goes to explain how women have been socially conditioned to stay quiet, stay small, not cause any trouble, etc, in fear of being labeled a “bitch”. This is also something Jennifer Lawrence brought up in her essay for Lenny Letter about equal pay, saying the pressure of not wanting to be labeled a “brat” or “difficult” often outweighs the desire to speak out against injustice for fear of losing work.
“We compromise our integrity for the sake of maintaining the status quo and hope that change is coming,” writes Mila, before rolling out a few statistics to show that change is not close to arriving. A study by The American Association of University Women found it will take roughly 136 years to close the pay gap at the rate we are going today. Not only does this mean many of us may never live to see pay equality in our lifetime, but as Mila expresses, it reiterates the continuing undervaluing of women’s achievements and contributions in the workforce.
She has had enough of being sidelined, paid less and ignored because of her gender, and is no longer choosing to err on the side of giving certain people the benefit of the doubt simply because she knows the end result of that.
“I taught myself that to succeed as a woman in this industry I had to play by the rules of the boy’s club. But the older I got and the longer I worked in this industry, the more I realized that it’s bullshit! And, worse, that I was complicit in allowing it to happen. So, I started my own club. I formed a production company with three amazing women. We have been hustling to develop quality television shows with unique voices and perspectives,” she said.
Mila follows in the footsteps of people like Reese Witherspoon, Rose Byrne, Jessica Chastain and many others who have finally realized the cavalry is not coming, and in order to change the status quo in Hollywood they need to BE the change.
But in order to create change, it means looking at the everyday discrimination and calling them out, as many of them are carried out subconsciously as opposed to being deliberately misogynistic. Mila and her company partnered with a male producer they liked to pitch a show, ironically about inclusion and diversity, to a major network. However, the producer decided promoting the project base on Mila’s relationship with Ashton Kutcher was the best selling point.
“‘And Mila is a mega star. One of biggest actors in Hollywood and soon to be Ashton’s wife and baby momma!!!’ This is the entirety of his email. Factual inaccuracies aside, he reduced my value to nothing more than my relationship to a successful man and my ability to bear children. It ignored my (and my team’s) significant creative and logistical contributions,’ she writes.
She is also deliberate in pointing out that in sharing this story, she wasn’t aiming to vilify this particular producer, it was about identifying how these kinds of small daily comments, often seen as no big deal to some, can become a continual undermining of women’s abilities independent of which male they happen to be connected to.
“Subtle gender bias is oftentimes nearly imperceptible, and even wholly undetectable to those who share the bias. It became clear in later emails from this producer that he was totally unaware of why his words were so appalling. What he characterized as a ‘lighthearted’ comment was actually deeply undermining to my contributions and ability to be taken seriously as a creative partner,” she said.
It’s as if the non-deliberate every sexism is worse, because it just becomes a habit. And this is certainly not a phenomenon unique to the film industry.
“Blind gender biases are embedded in every facet of our life. They are reinforced by our educational institutions: men dominate the figures we study in history, the luminaries of math and science and technology about whom we learn, and the authors of political discourse we are taught to revere. We are inundated with tales of male superiority that blind us to the architecture of our own relationships. The very word “blind” informs us of everything. No one gets upset when a blind person bumps into a wall, but the wall does not cease to yield force,” she said.
At the end of her essay Mila states she is done compromising and done being compromised. Now that she has identified the problems, she is choosing to use her platform to help change the status quo, knowing full well that there are other women who are not as well-known as her but who are experiencing equally aggressive discrimination.
“I am fortunate that I have reached a place that I can stop compromising and stand my ground, without fearing how I will put food on my table. I am also fortunate that I have the platform to talk about this experience in the hope of bringing one more voice to the conversation so that women in the workplace feel a little less alone and more able to push back for themselves,” she concludes.
There has never been a more important time to speak out against discrimination, and work toward more equality. We do this not because it is a great idea or for any political agenda, but because when everyone is equal, we all benefit.