By Barbara Stepansky
I have little story I’d like to tell about the Hollywood Glass Ceiling.
I frequently talk with my director girlfriends about how hard it is for women to get directing gigs on major TV Shows and studio feature films. But I rarely question the system. Until now.
Recently, medicine something wonderful happened to a film school acquaintance of mine – he had won the Student Emmy for his truly great thesis film. This very prestigious award was presented by a producer/director of a prime-time television drama on Fox. This producer was impressed by my acquaintance’s thesis film and invited him on set to shadow the director (shadowing is when someone observes a working director during film or TV production). After shadowing, my friend was hired to direct an episode.
This guy is a terrific person, very deserving and very humble. He knows how fortunate he was to have received this producer’s support. So the notion that he was granted this opportunity is not what’s pressing me to speak out…
A few years ago, I won the same exact award for my own thesis film, the Student Emmy for Best Drama and Best Director. At the awards ceremony, I was approached by an equally heavy-hitting producer of an equally popular prime-time TV drama on Fox (alas, a different one). He was impressed with my thesis film, which had garnered the two top awards of the night. He also graciously invited me to come and visit the set of the show he was producing.
I was allowed to shadow an episode he himself was directing for a day. During that visit, I asked about the opportunity to direct. “Here’s the thing,” he said. “The lead actor hates female directors. We only had one in the first season, and she was never invited back. He just doesn’t like them.”
I’d like to live in a world where people are ashamed to say things like that, but for some reason it’s still OK. Take out the word “female” in that quote and substitute it with “black,” “Jewish,” or “gay. You may tolerate your grandpa spouting misogynist rhetoric at Thanksgiving with a roll of your eyes, but it’s simply not acceptable coming from people who hold the keys to prestigious and lucrative jobs.
This experience transcends personal feelings, and it is endemic in Hollywood culture. I mentioned to somebody with a connection to a current popular TV show that I would travel across the globe at my own expense for the opportunity to shadow. They told me that unfortunately it would be pointless because I would have to be a white, ideally British guy. How can I hope to direct episodic TV if one of the main criteria is that I’m male?
The first feature film I directed airs on Showtime at least twice a week right now, but I’m not qualified to helm an episode of TV?
When I compare our paths, my friend’s and my own, gender is the crux where they diverge. It makes me terribly sad and conjures up a lot of confusing feelings of anger, discrimination, and envy that I don’t know what to do with.
Did my head hit the proverbial celluloid ceiling before I even got off the first floor? Or was I simply unlucky and the fates put me at the wrong place at the wrong time on the wrong show? I could look but couldn’t touch. My colleague could rub it all over himself.
I’ve directed two independent feature films, music videos, commercials, dozens of shorts and two web series’. I’d like to believe that ones work should speak for itself. If you’re just good enough and you work hard at it, you will get your chance.
And now I’m just not so sure of that anymore.
Barbara Stepansky is a 2013 Nicholl Fellow and an award-winning independent feature film director. Her work was short listed for the Academy Awards, garnered the DGA Diversity Award and the Student Emmy. She is the recipient of the Mary Pickford Foundation Scholarship and the Franklin J. Schaffner AFI Fellow Award.