2015 the year... hollywood got real about sexism

We explore how film’s brightest stars worked to change their industry’s deeply entrenched misogyny, from Patricia Arquette’s Oscars acceptance speech to the triumph of ‘Carol’s complex characters.

by Emily Manning
24 December 2015, 3:00pm

Last week, the Director's Guild of America published its inaugural Feature Film Diversity Report. The very fact that this is the organization's first such report is indicative of the depressing findings contained therein: of 376 major feature films released in 2013 and 2014, a measly 6.4% were helmed by a female director (not one of these women were employed by Disney, Warner Brothers, or the Weinstein Company by the way, as none of these studios produced a single female-directed film during those years). Yes, 93.6% of features released in 2013 and 2014 were directed by men.

The lack of female directors is only one aspect of industry-wide sexism. The scariest monster in Hollywood isn't one dreamed up by Stephen King or Wes Craven, it's discrimination -- in front of the camera and behind it. But this was the year established and emerging power players started speaking out about the ways in which their struggles are connected -- to each other, and to culture at large.

Hollywood sexism became impossible to ignore in 2015, but it's not a recent problem. Back in September, Geena Davis reminded us of the buzz two of her fiercely feminist roles in 90s hits Thelma and Louise and A League of their Own created. Despite being heralded as "game changers," both projects failed to actually usher in the development of more female-lead films. That realization fueled her to establish the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media in 2006, and conduct seven years of research about female characters in top grossing films: do they exist? How old are they? And (if they speak) does their dialogue pass the Bechdel test?

The grim findings have been largely supported by the dozens of actresses who've shared their personal experiences this year. Maggie Gyllenhaal got real about agism when she revealed she was, at 37, considered "too old" to play the love interest of a 55-year-old man. Off screen, it's worse. Meryl Streep helped fund an initiative specifically targeting women screenwriters over 40 before personally counting all of the female film critics contributing to Rotten Tomatoes, where only 18% of nearly 1000 top critical opinions belong to women. ''It's kind of like the church,''Anjelica Huston told The New York Times. "They don't want us to be priests. They want us to be obedient nuns.''

Sexism is entrenched because it's cyclical. If there are disproportionately few female directors, screenwriters, and executives, there aren't complex, diverse characters and stories. If there aren't complex characters and stories available for female actresses of all ages, they're perceived differently than male counterparts (as the NYT wrote, "second class citizens"). If there aren't female critics lending opinions about films, we're informed to view them from a more narrow perspective. When all of this happens, we start to understand the mechanics behind Hollywood's gender pay gap, and why it became one of the year's most hotly contested issues far beyond Tinsel Town.

In December 2014, Sony email hacks revealed that Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams earned multiple millions less for their roles in American Hustle than their male co-stars. But it wasn't until October of this year that Lawrence let her true feelings be known, when she penned a fired up personal essay for Lena Dunham's Lenny about gender's impacts on wage negotiations. In it, Lawrence explained that concerns over the studio's perceptions lead her to "close the deal without a real fight," as she didn't want to seem "difficult" or "spoiled." What she didn't realize until the payroll went public is that these concerns aren't shared by her male co-stars -- and that's the problem. "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," she wrote.

Lawrence's essay isn't the only impassioned first person take. Last week, Patricia Arquette wrote her own account for the Hollywood Reporter titled "What Happened After My Oscar Speech on Pay Inequality," a meditation on her trip to the Academy Awards podium that galvanized actresses from Amanda Seyfried to Helen Mirren to share their experiences of inequality. The speech also helped push the California Fair Pay Act -- one of the country's strongest equal pay initiatives -- into law. In the piece, Arquette shared a much broader message about the impacts of wage inequality: "You have a girl taking out the same college loan as her male counterpart in her class. But she will take years longer to pay off her student loan," Arquette wrote. "It will take her longer to buy a house. She will have less money in her retirement account and be more likely to be poor when she's elderly. Her kids will be affected."

But as more leading actresses weighed in on Hollywood's sexism problem, its diversity problem became all the more apparent. That 6.4% of female directors is comprised of Caucasian and "minority" women, who helmed just 1.3% -- less than five films -- in two years. Last month, The Hollywood Reporter gathered eight top actresses ranging in age from 25 to 77-years-old in a frank and open discussion about their industry. All of them were white and straight. "The awful truth is that there are no minority actresses in genuine contention for an Oscar this year," the magazine's executive editor, Stephen Galloway, wrote in response. As Viola Davis said in her historic Emmy acceptance speech a month before The Hollywood Reporter piece ran: "The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there."

Recently, I saw Carol at the Angelika Film Center, where it is presently screening 15 times each day. Adapted from Patricia Highsmith's pulp fiction novel The Price of Salt, Carol is a semi-autobiographical story, making it a rarely authentic depiction of what life was really like as a closeted lesbian in early 50s America. Celebrated screenwriter Phyllis Nagy -- a personal friend of the late Highsmith's -- worked collaboratively with director Todd Haynes in adapting the story, one in which three of the four main characters are queer women. Though the film arrived in a landmark year for LGBT rights, Nagy spent over 15 years attempting to get it made, a struggle she feels is more due to industry misogyny than homophobia: "My feeling, having talked to and tried to put it together with so many people over the years, is not so much it being gay women; it's about it being women. In film-financing terms, that's very tricky," Nagy said. "The 1930s and 40s were nothing but celebrations of fantastically complex female leads. We've lost that."

Days before I watched the film, it was nominated for five Golden Globe awards (notably the most of any film released this year). Carol's leads -- Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara -- each received a nomination for Best Actress, a decision the Washington Post called "a surprise." This double nod wasn't repeated in the Screen Actors Guild nominations which, announced that very same day, slotted Mara in the Best Supporting Actress category. It's a distinction the New York Times asked her about long before either of these announcements, and a full month before Carol's theatrical premiere. "Both actresses in the same category — would that even be possible?" interviewer Kathryn Shattuck pondered. "'It would be possible if we were man and woman,'" Mara replied. 


Text Emily Manning
Photography Paul Buck for EPA

bechdel test
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the year of
hollywood sexism