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representation and the pay gap: investigation launched to look into gender discrimination in hollywood

Image via Wiki Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Image via Wiki Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

An official investigation into gender discrimination in Hollywood could be the first step in a class action lawsuit against major Hollywood studios.

Fifty female directors have been asked by The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to detail any mistreatment they may have experienced in relation to their work. The investigation is in response to a formal complaint made by the American Civil Liberties Union in May, urging the regulator to look into the ‘systemic failure to hire women directors’ in Hollywood.

Directing, writing and producing are jobs that remain dominated by men. Of the top 100 grossing films in the US between 2007 and 2014, just 2% were directed by women. Last month Cate Blanchett told The New York Times:

‘I do think there’s a sense in the industry… that a woman can’t screw up. Look at the number of second-time male directors … It’s always on the marketing schedule that a woman has directed the film, which on one hand you want to celebrate, but on the other does put a remarkable amount of pressure on, is it going to work? So the numbers people go into it with their arms slightly crossed, and I think that has an impact on the courage of a woman’s creative expression.’

Last year’s Sony hack revealed the extent of the pay gap between male and female actors of comparable status and bankability. The hack returned to the news last week when Jennifer Lawrence wrote an essay discussing how she had been paid less than her American Hustle male co-stars despite being equally – or even more – bankable than them.  She spoke about how she felt her ability to negotiate pay was compromised by a belief that women should be always accommodating and pliable.

‘All I hear and see all day are men speaking their opinions, and I give mine in the same exact manner, and you would have thought I had said something offensive,’ Lawrence wrote. ‘I’m over trying to find the “adorable” way to state my opinion and still be likable! Fuck that. 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.’

A US study released in August found that women made up only 30% of all speaking or named characters in the 100 top-grossing films between 2007 and 2014.

In addition to discrepancies in incomes and recognition, these absences reflect the content of the films and television shows themselves. Character tropes of the manic pixie dream girl, the cool girl, the damsel in distress and the evil seductress flatten and simplify the women they are used to represent. They perpetuate stereotypes of women as the wish-fulfilment of male desire, weak and agency-free or sexually available and therefore dangerous. The damaged sex worker character continues to erase the voices and experiences of many sex workers and plays into the patriarchal distaste for sexually active women, while the straw feminist reduces women with feminist-ish views to nagging, castrating bores.

Fat women are usually cast a kind of freak show. Their weight (and relationship with food) is a recurring punch line. Their characters are inevitably paired with other “abnormalities” – they’re often socially inept or sexually adventurous (because Hollywood continues to struggle with the idea that fat people, might, just maybe, also have sex). If these women are not there for comic effect, their weight is instead their defining quality – they must agonise over weight and struggle with accepting their bodies. In Hollywood women are either very slim and therefore permitted normal relationships with their bodies or they very are very overweight and must hate themselves. There is no space for anything in the middle.

Outside of characterisation, Hollywood continues to produce films where women’s appearance is a defining factor in their worth and where conventionally feminine and “sexy” clothing is a constant. Sex scenes end with male orgasm and rarely feature men performing oral sex on women or women masturbating. Leading roles for women older than 40 are rare and age gaps between male and female co-stars can sometimes creep up to 20 years.

In May, actress Maggie Gyllenhaal told The Wrap: ‘I’m 37 and I was told recently I was too old to play the lover of a man who was 55. It was astonishing to me. It made me feel bad, and then it made me feel angry, and then it made me laugh.’

In 2013, Geena Davis wrote an essay noting that for every female-speaking character in a family-rated film, there are around three male characters. Crowd and group scenes in these same films are filled with characters of which only 17% are female.

‘It was the dearth of female characters in the worlds of the stories,’ she wrote.

‘The fact that the fictitious villages and jungles and kingdoms and interplanetary civilizations were nearly bereft of female population – that hit me over the head. This being the case, we are in effect enculturating kids from the very beginning to see women and girls as not taking up half of the space. Couldn’t it be that the percentage of women in leadership positions in many areas of society – Congress, law partners, Fortune 500 board members, military officers, tenured professors and many more – stall out at around 17 percent because that’s the ratio we’ve come to see as the norm?’

As always, any discussion about women in film must recognise that the term “women” is generally used to refer to white, cis-women. Women of colour, women who do not identify as straight, transwomen and women with disabilities remain underrepresented and underpaid. Actress of colour, Viola Davis, spoke in June about the revelation that was her role in How to Get Away With Murder.

‘There was absolutely no precedent for it. I had never seen a 49-year-old, dark-skinned woman who is not a size 2 be a sexualised role in TV or film. I’m a sexual woman, but nothing in my career has ever identified me as a sexualised woman. I was the prototype of the “mummified” role.’

The same report that studied women in popular film also looked at race and sexuality. 73% of all speaking or named characters in the top 100 movies were white, only 19 were lesbian, gay or bisexual and none were transgender. In May, trans actress Laverne Cox wrote: ‘We need diverse media representations of trans folks to multiply trans narratives in the media and depict our beautiful diversities.’

Suffragette, the recent film about the early women’s movement – praised for its focus on outspoken, angry women – celebrates a movement that explicitly excluded women of colour.  Patricia Arquette’s Oscars acceptance speech and comments backstage chastised the LGBTIQA+ community and people of colour for not championing equal pay, ignoring the ongoing exclusion of those communities from the feminist movement and the far larger pay gap they experience.

In Hollywood proper representation of the complex interplay between gender, race, sexuality and ability will always be reduced to economic considerations. Screenwriter Ron Nyswaner said in June: ‘A woman lead in a film, it’s just very hard to get that film financed. Two women helps, because then you can get an Ellen Page and a Julianne Moore, but people really do have mathematical formulas in which numbers are assigned to these elements…They add up those numbers, and two women often don’t equal one man.’

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