Why The A.C.L.U Investigation Into Hollywood’s Discrimination Toward Female Directors Matters

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When change is needed, sometimes you have to forgo peaceful methods and raising awareness in favor of beating a loud drum to show the world you mean business. That’s exactly what the American Civil Liberties Union are doing with their newly launches investigation into the apparent discriminatory hiring practices toward female directors in Hollywood.

Yep, the ACLU have officially called upon state and federal agencies to “investigate the hiring practices of major Hollywood studios, networks and talent agencies for what the organization described as rampant and intentional gender discrimination in recruiting and hiring female directors”, reports the New York Times.

The 15 page letter in full can be read here, complete with studies and findings that have been compiled by the union.

“Women directors aren’t working on an even playing field and aren’t getting a fair opportunity to succeed. Gender discrimination is illegal. And, really, Hollywood doesn’t get this free pass when it comes to civil rights and gender discrimination,” said Melissa Goodman, director of the L.G.B.T., Gender and Reproductive Justice Project at the A.C.L.U. of Southern California

This isn’t the first time an organization has leaned heavily on Hollywood’s unspoken “boys club” mentality that is widespread throughout the industry. In the 1960s the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) together with the Justice Department investigated Hollywood’s discriminatory practices toward minorities. Some measures and agreements were put in place by the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers and some unions, but essentially they failed.

They didn’t specify women in that investigation, which is disturbing yet accurate. Women are NOT a minority group, they make up half the population, however they are heavily discriminated against as if they were a minority group.

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The ACLU wants to ensure this doesn’t happen again, and with a number of damning studies released over the past few years examining the percentage of female directors against men in television and film, the information is more widespread and readily available than ever before.

These are the types of studies that ACLU is arming itself with when calling upon the agencies to look into the practices of major studios, networks and the Directors Guild of America.

Out of the top-grossing 100 films from 2013 and 2014, just 1.9 percent were directed by women. A Directors Guild of America analysis of 220 television shows consisting of 3,500 episodes broadcast in 2013 and 2014 found that 14 percent were directed by women. A third of all shows had no female director at all.

While not every female director faces the same type of discrimination, it is more widespread than amongst male directors.

More and more female directors, writers and producers who are facing gender-based discrimination are speaking out about their experiences in the industry in general, in the hope that they will encourage other women to not give up fighting for equal positions, and also so that female directors know they are not alone out there.

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We recently spoke to Swiss-Brazilian filmmaker Marina Stabile who has worked on some big action and sci-fi productions such as the Mortal Kombat online series. She said the generally-used excuse that female-driven movies or story lines not being viable financial investments are just bogus at this stage, especially with the success of some major female-directed and female-driven movies such as ‘Frozen’, ‘Selma’, ‘Bridesmaids, and ‘The Hunger Games’ for example.

“The more of us there are, the more people get used to seeing us on set, and see how great our work is, the more opportunities will open up for us…Executives and investors are having a harder time arguing that films by and about women aren’t good bets.”

Three major trends that have seemingly sprung up as a response to the continuing discriminatory practices in Hollywood are 1) female celebrities such as Reese Witherspoon and Lena Dunham launching their own production companies in order to create more opportunities for their films and TV shows to get made, 2) independent female filmmakers turning to crowd-funding platforms like Kickstarter and the female-centric Seed and Spark to get productions off the ground, and 3) major networks and film organizations or famous women such as Meryl Streep launching female film initiatives in order to give female directors and writers direct access to industry heavyweights and opportunities through an incubator-type program.

While these are all well and good, are they enough to change the culture within Hollywood when it comes to perceiving women as equally qualified to helm, say, an ‘Avengers’-type franchise as Joss Whedon? One woman who had only positive things to say about her experience as a director was Anne Fletcher who has directed ’27 Dresses’, ‘Step Up’, ‘The Guilt Trip’, and the recent Reese Witherspoon produced flick ‘Hot Pursuit’.

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In an interview with Forbes, she pointed out her “schtick”, if you will, is directing mostly female-driven stories.

“Anne Fletcher is somewhat of a rarity in that she is a female director who has been bouncing from one major Hollywood feature to another with relative regularity,” writes Scott Mendelson.

Yes, Anne absolutely is an anomaly, as are people like Oscar-winner Kathryn Bigelow, and Oscar-nominated Sophia Coppola and Ava Duvernay.

“Any time you have a success, it’s an enormous impact in your career. You get more opportunities, you get more awareness and people are paying more attention to you. I’ve been greeted with open arms and respect and loyalty and treated, I’m hoping, because I don’t have anything to compare it to, like I’m just a director like any other director, male or female, and I just feel grateful and lucky with the opportunities that have been afforded to me and the people I get to work with on a daily basis,” said Anne, before adding a key bit of information that once again shows why the ACLU investigation is needed.

“They’re not coming to me and asking to do ‘Terminator’ or anything. I don’t take insult to that. I feel like there are certain people who do things very, very well and let them do them. If I had an interest to do ‘Terminator’, I would put my stake in the ground and fight really hard, but I don’t.”

Imagine she did want to direct ‘Terminator’, perhaps her comments would be very different. And that’s what this issue is about. There is this notion that females directing female stories is fine and that’s where they belong. But it’s not the case. Of course Anne would have a much easier time convincing studios she is the right person to direct a film starring Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara!

The problem is two-fold in our opinion: female directors don’t just want to be forced into only working on female-driven films, but at the same time the more female directors and writers we have in the industry the more female stories will become common place, and no executive can ever use the excuse that “female stories don’t sell”.

Actress and writer Lauren Schacher, who is one third of a writer-director trio of women that record a weekly industry podcast called ‘Chicks Who Script‘ focused on women’s voices in the industry, laid out some effects of why the ACLU investigation is important in a blog post titled ‘Why the ACLU’s Inquiry Into Hollywood’s Gender Bias Affects All Of Us‘.

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“This doesn’t only affect female directors who are trying to get work, or female writers or even female actors all vying for the same female role in a sea of male roles. It affects our content. And what do we consume more than content?,” she writes.

“The number of female directors DIRECTLY CORRELATES with the number of female protagonists on screen…Right now, kids grow up seeing predominately men and boys in films and on TV. The Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media (GDIGM) proved that even in family films, ‘males outnumber females 3 to 1’. What do you think that does to the minds of boys and girls when women are inherently treated as a side piece in the #1 thing that affects our culture: media?

“THANK YOU ACLU for taking up the cause. Lifting the illegal bias on female directors in this town could have an incredible affect on not only our workplace but on our culture at large.”

That’s right, this investigation will have a very far-reaching effect depending on the outcome. It will either try to implement mandates and measures that seek to eliminate bias that will quietly go away as had happened in the 1960s, or it will be a wake-up call to the culture of Hollywood that thinks it can operate outside the boundaries of human rights and equal opportunities all in the name of “entertainment”, and while we’re at it capitalism.

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If you really want to see more evidence of how female directors are treated within the industry on a daily basis and want to gauge why you even need to care that this is happening, we implore you to check out the Tumblr site ‘Shit people say to Women Directors & other Women in Film‘.

And on the same token, Hollywood executives need to check out producer/director Destri Martino’s The Director List website dedicated to creating a huge bank of female directors with their film credits and reels so that the industry has a ready-made roster of females whenever they slip into that “but there just aren’t any female directors out there!” mindset.

We are holding out with the highest hopes that this investigation will at the very least be the catalyst for change amongst Hollywood executives who (somehow) claim they are unaware of the grave bias that exists (serious side-eye happening right now). Geena Davis has mentioned quite a few times that when she gives keynote addresses at industry events outlining the grave disparity between the ratio of men and women onscreen and how the statistics have not changed since 1946. And she should know, as her organization, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media have sponsored the largest amount of research on gender depictions in media covering over a 20 year span.

The lack of female directors affects the culture of Hollywood, and it needs a shake up. What Hollywood produces doesn’t just affect American audiences, but generations of men and women, boys and girls, the world over, who deserve to see themselves equally and autonomously reflected in arguably the most powerful vehicle of communication that exists today.

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