By Maria Giese
In America, it’s not enough to get into top schools, win awards, establish one’s ability, spend one’s adult years making award-winning shorts and indie features, often for little or no pay. It’s not enough if you’re a women director.
No. In fact, in Hollywood, when a woman has worked for the right to earn a living, all too often she is then denied that right as if it is not a right at all, but a privilege she does not deserve. There are thousands of TV episodes directed each year in America (3,300 in 2013)– that’s thousands of job opportunities. Why are women directors so conspicuously denied access to those jobs?
This year only about 4.5% of American studio feature films and just 14% of American TV episodes will be directed by women. In an industry full of well-trained, creative and talented women—those percentages are literally “criminally” small; they represent irrefutable numerical proof of industry-wide Hollywood violations of U.S. civil rights laws. In a national population comprised of 51% women—those ratios are not just unlawful, they are perversely skewed.
Television directing, and the residuals that follow, is the bread and butter of the majority of DGA directors, and forms the bedrock of the Directors Guild’s health and pension plans. Yet when a female DGA director member attempts to gain entry to this regularly working group, entry is blocked— by habit, by design, by custom, and by the passivity of the DGA itself. Could this be simply a microcosm of a larger primate gender war for resources?
In feature films, an art form that is the voice of our entire culture, America appears unwilling to accommodate any more women than can fit in a single-digit percentage. There are more women in the US Congress than there are women who direct US movies. Unless you are a movie star like Jodie Foster, Drew Barrymore, or Angelina Jolie, or a pop star like Madonna or Barbra Streisand, or the daughter of a famous director, like Sophia Coppola or Alison Eastwood, or an actress who is a regular on a TV series, you are out in the cold.
Other women who are not movie stars or wives or daughters of celebrities, and who have still made successful careers as directors, are almost all non-Americans. After NYU film school professor and director, Spike Lee, recently failed to include any women’s films on his list of “100 Essential Films,” he quickly made amends by adding eight films directed by women— six by non-Americans. Four films are by the great Italian director, Lina Wertmuller alone, one is by New Zealand’s Jane Campion, and one by Euzhan Palcy from the French West Indies. Only two films by American-born directors, Kathryn Bigelow and Julie Dash, made the cut.
He then drew up another list of “25 Movies by Female Directors Every Aspiring Filmmaker Should See.” Nineteen of these 25 films are directed by non-American women: Sally Potter, Naomi Kawase, Claire Denis, Isabel Coixet, Agnes Jaoui, Chantal Akerman, Claudia Llosa, Liv Ullmann, Maya Deren, Deepa Mehta, Margarethe von Trotta, Susanne Bier, Catherine Breillat, Cheryn Dunye, Mary Harron, Agnes Varda, Samira, Makhmalbaf, Agnieszka Holland.
Only six films on the list were directed by American women (none of whom had been movie stars): Nora Ephron, Ava DuVernay, Lisa Cholondenko, Zoe Cassavetes, Allison Anders, and Kasi Lemmons. It often seems that Americans think that only foreign women could possibly be truly talented. They sometimes seem to share the prejudice of the rest of the world that American women are, for the most part, some sort of ersatz stereotype of Stepford wives– conformist Connecticut blonds, happier polishing their Sub-Zero appliances than digging in the dirt, mining the human collective unconscious for great stories to tell— certainly not the image of gifted, competent, creative leadership required of an auteur feature film director.
But that is unmitigated bullshit, so what about actively seeking redress? After a decade of being a DGA member, two years ago I began attending monthly DGA Women’s Steering Committee (WSC) meetings as a last resort effort to finding work. What I found instead was a group of confused, frightened, and subservient women acceding to the unspoken demands of the DGA to be quiet and not make waves– not so different from Stepford wives, ironically.
Worse, it was every woman for herself. The DGA women TV directors I met through the committee seemed hell-bent on keeping other women shut out and off their turf. A few may allow another woman director to shadow on their shows, but they almost never make sure the observer can advance to actually directing an episode of her own.
The beleaguered Women’s Steering Committee is overseen by a DGA staff member who earns an annual salary in excess of $100,000, according to the 2013 LM2. As amiable as she is, she is mostly a court eunuch who says “no” far more often than “yes.” During her nearly 20 years heading up diversity at the Guild, the percentage of employed women directors has gone down. Simple as that.
Director Betty Thomas, First Vice President of the DGA under Paris Barclay, recently made her first-ever appearance at a WSC meeting– she admitted that she had been asked to come, to try to calm the waters, so to speak. She stated upfront: “I’m not here as one of you. I’m here as one of the boys. I’m part of the boys’ club. It’s Paris and me and it’s good.” She referred apologetically to the WSC at that time as an “orphaned committee.”
She was right: it had been a dead committee for over a decade. The leaders of the Women’s Steering Committee had no interest in political action or changing the status quo whatsoever. They did not see the need for solidarity because they did not want change. When I reminded the members that the origins of the committee were rooted in political action, one co-chair scoffed, “That’s just because the whole women’s lib thing was going on back then.”
The WSC leaderships’s lack of interest in social justice was right in line with the fact that the Guild does not want to increase the pool of women TV directors. After all, it would certainly mean decreasing the number of men getting gigs. As the women in that select pool also participate in Guild governance, working in accordance with the Guild agenda has its rewards. In fact, many of those women get significantly more TV episodes each season than an average successful male TV director— but there are only around a dozen or so women in that pool.
That select pool of women are also included on a mysterious “Diversity List” that, according to the Guild’s official website (www.dga.org), is sent upon request to producers and show-runners who may feel obliged to hire a female now and again. It benefits the Guild to keep that pool small and manageable. If a woman does not work for more than 16 months, according to the head of Diversity, she is dropped from the list. Women TV directors should not plan on having children, and if they do, they can forget about maternity leave.
Show-runners who “need” to hire a female director call the agents of the women on the “List,” but often those DGA Preferred Women Directors are so booked each season they can’t accept another gig. If the show-runner is at all concerned about the potential stigma of ending up on a DGA “Worst Of” list (a list the Guild publishes annually to “embarrass” producers who fail to hire directors of diversity), they may be forced to hire a female from among their writers, producers, cast or crew. Or they can just hire one of the many male directors available—
— but they will have no way whatsoever of finding out who the other women DGA directors are, or what they’ve done to have become Guild members in the first place.
Most producers laugh about the DGA “Worst Of” lists and think it’s funny when they end up on it season after season. In any case, thanks to the “Diversity Director Lists,” the other 1,150 or so women director members of the Guild don’t have a chance. The Guild claims that it is not involved in getting its members jobs, but in fact, for the select few, the DGA is completely integral to the decisions about who works and who does not. It’s important to note that Lists (Rosters) can be illegal— a union may not disseminate lists if they benefit some members and disadvantage others, which this one does.
Needless to say, the women on the committee weren’t prepared for challenge. I saw at once that the whole thing needed to be torn down, its very foundation uprooted and built up again completely anew— returned to the spirit of its 1970’s origins. My view was that the DGA is the most powerful organization in the world representing the creative and economic rights of directors; the DGA-WSC should stand at the same level for women directors.
To educate myself regarding verifiable data, I asked for the statistics of female employment from 1979 to present in episodic TV, commercials, and features. I won approval vote for the request after three months of trying, and the Guild promised to provide the stats within a few months. Today, however, nearly two years later, the DGA has still not provided us with the numbers they claim to have prepared. Not one of us, not even the most loyal of women Guild members, wonders why.
My request made the Executive Director of the DGA, Jay Roth, suspicious and I think concerned about another lawsuit like the one initiated by the “Original Six.” These six women DGA members (Susan Bay, Nell Cox, Joelle Dobrow, Dolores Ferraro, Victoria Hochberg and Lynne Littman) founded the committee and transformed the directing landscape for American women forever. From 1983 to 1985, the DGA led their class-action suit against three major studios which sent the number of women directors soaring from one half of one percent (.5%) in 1985 to 16% in 1995— just ten years.
1995 was the very year Jay Roth was hired to run the Guild. Roth’s first task, which was successfully executed in 1998, was to expel Jamaa Fanaka from the DGA. Fanaka who died in 2012, was the African American radical director and founder, in 1994, of the DGA African American Committee. He is known as the “real” initiator of the “L.A. Rebellion” movement in cinema, even before Spike Lee.
As a new-comer to the committee, and one of the few who had directed feature films, I was able to speak convincingly in support of a WSC Summit event that several women, including veteran TV director, Rachel Feldman, and the young director, Melanie Wagor, had been fighting to get going for several years. This event was intended to bring attention to the overall underemployment of women DGA members, and I thought it was a great idea. Unfortunately, it was not supported by the leadership who only wanted to use their small annual events budget on individual glorifications, like the “Kathryn Bigelow Tribute.”
I argued that the global media already provides Bigelow with enough tributes. Surely, even she would prefer that our committee spend its humble resources on helping all women in the Guild, not just further glorifying individual women. It was time to solve the appalling industry-wide problem of discrimination against women directors in general. This line of thinking was very meaningful to the rank and file of the committee, all of whom were victims themselves. The event was voted on and passed almost unanimously, even while the co-chairs voted against it.
A few months after the vote, however, we had not gotten an official go-ahead from the Guild to start working. I had lunch with the Guild’s diversity officer, Regina Render who told me, “The event is not going to happen.” I ask her why. She said the Guild perceived it as “negative.” According to her, they thought it might make the Guild “look bad”– it could be “embarrassing.”
We decided to write a letter to Regina. We wrote: “Jay Roth is not going to want to go down years from now as having been the guy in charge when the DGA is found to be in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title VII.” Two days later, the event was officially approved. We had the go-ahead. About 9 or 10 months later, on March 2, 2013 (almost exactly a year ago) the most important, fully inclusive event for women directors ever hosted by the DGA took place.
Everyone– from Jay Roth to directors/Guild leaders Paris Barclay, Lesli Linka Glatter, Mimi Leder, Betty Thomas, and nearly 200 participants (many of whom are America’s top film and TV directors) indicated it was an immensely successful event. As Betty Thomas later said to the WSC: “There was before the Summit and after the Summit. Everything changed in my thinking after the Summit.”
Jay Roth is acutely intelligent and, like an accomplished chess player, thinks many steps ahead. He had not been able to prevent the politically provocative Summit for just one reason: for the past 34 years, the WSC had not actually been legally bound to the DGA. In fact, the committee was an independent, ad-hoc group that simply held its meetings in the Guild offices and enjoyed a Guild budget for monthly meetings and events. It had no by-laws whatsoever and operated solely on Robert’s Rules. Roth must have thought: “Time to lay down the law.”
While we were planning the Summit, Roth called for the DGA National Board to vote in mandated new by-laws to be imposed on the Women’s Steering Committee. The bylaws they presented to us were draconian: they were designed to create a situation in which the Guild could assume total control over the committee. First, there was a bylaw called the “Working in the Trade Requirement” relegating under-employed women DGA members to a lesser, stigmatized class in which they could not even run for co-chair seats on the very diversity committee that was created for the primary purpose of helping support under-employed women DGA members.
Another bylaw took co-chair elections out of the WSC meeting room such that every woman in the Guild could vote for co-chairs by mail. This sounds like a good idea, but in practice turns the election into a popularity contest. Most of the nearly 3,500 women DGA members don’t know what’s going on in the WSC; they vote for the names that are most familiar to them which invariably belong to women directors who are “known names,” are high up in the Guild leadership, and benefit most by doing the Guild’s bidding.
A third bylaw gave absolute power to the three newly elected co-chairs: “The co-chairs may set the agenda.” An additional “No Longer Working in the Trade” co-chair alternate could be elected in room, but she would be provided absolutely no power, and is not even included in co-chair correspondences. My constantly-employed friend, Melanie Wagor, eventually won that seat by vote in the room, but was later told by a new co-chair: “You are nothing.” I wish I could say she was joking, but she wasn’t.
Overall, the new bylaws added up to a simple new reality. The new DGA Women’s Steering Committee would be chaired by women who were already Guild leaders, who had been deputized by the Guild to act in the Guild’s interest, and could select subcommittee co-chairs at their will.
In a move that sounds Orwellian, the three key WSC Subcommittees: Events, Communications, and Rules were all headed up by friends of the co-chairs who had helped run the WSC before the Summit. (“There was before the Summit and after the Summit”). Wagor and I were selected to head up the Proposals Subcommittee, but since the next DGA-Studio Collective Bargaining negotiations were not to take place for three years (in 2017), and the positions were to last for two, we were advised by a new co-chair to “do nothing at all.”
The DGA WSC was created 35 years ago, in 1979, by six incredibly courageous women directors, all highly accomplished women who had won numerous awards and honors, but year after year, could just not find work. They founded the WSC, the first DGA diversity committee ever created, and it was intended as a political action group to help all DGA women. Now, in 2014, the committee these women created had been stripped of its ability to accomplish anything for women except what was to be determined by the Guild leadership.
It’s so interesting to see how much of Roth’s job, even from his start as National Executive Secretary in 1995, has involved restraining the success of diversity efforts that might upset the status quo for the “white male industry power establishment.”
Of course, today it’s not really just the “male power establishment.” Not being white is no longer such a handicap for male directors. Today we have Alfonzo Cuaron, Ang Lee, John Singleton, Guillermo del Toro, Steve McQueen, Pedro Almodovar, Walter Salles, Takeshi Kitano, Lee Butler, among countless others. Many of these men are considered by elite international critics to be among the top auteur directors in the world ( I don’t think there is such a thing as a “women auteur director” of any ethnicity, but that is up for debate). It’s not like the old days when it was just a lot of white guys, and then the great Akira Kurosawa.
The women at the DGA WSC Summit were very passionate. We had a brainstorming session that everyone participated in and came up with dozens of proposals to create change for women. ACLU, EEOC, Lawsuits, protests, rallies, websites, publicists, media involvement, and significantly, preparing a document articulating the pressing need to separate women directors of all ethnicities into their own class, separate from men of diversity.
We event creators were supposed to follow up on all these proposals– and we did. I met with the US Department of Justice, EEOC, and the ACLU. I spoke to countless lawyers and started a website: www.womendirectorsinhollywood.com (with the feminist/journalist, Heidi Honeycutt) where we women directors could unravel and examine our history, past legal action, and tell our stories. We revamped the DGA-WSC Facebook site, increased its membership and made it politically active. We also drew up a detailed proposal to include DGA women’s issues in the upcoming 2014 Collective Bargaining negotiations.
There was a huge amount of solidarity about the need to make radical change. Women’s employment numbers were moving down, even while those of male directors of diversity were moving steadily up. As always, men of every ethnicity come before women of any ethnicity. Our newly elected African American Guild President, Paris Barclay, used the diversity platform, a foundation laid first by women in 1979, and then by Jamaa Fanaka in the early 1990’s, to benefit ethnic minority males, starting with himself.
Jay Roth led the recent 2014 Collective Bargaining negotiations this past fall, but Barclay, as the DGA President, was an important voice. While several adjustments were made on behalf of diversity in general, mostly based on the proposal recommendations we women had officially put forth through the WSC, none of the proposals they chose to “fight for” would help advance women.
Unfortunately, in the new Agreements, women remain buried within the general category of “diversity.” Under the new contract, the studios could continue to advance diversity without advancing women. In fact, there is no legal obligation for them to advance women in any way; the only legal requirement is that ‘diversity’ hiring improves. This can mean, and often does, hiring African American men, Hispanic men, and Asian men—not women.
In order for the agreement to benefit women, it must specifically refer to women of all ethnicities as a separate class, in their own right. If women are to be aided in this reach-out, then their employment numbers need to be measured specifically and tracked. That can only be accomplished if the Guild and the studios specifically break out women as a separate class.
In a recent WSC meeting in which Jay Roth and Paris Barclay both spoke briefly and entertained a Q&A session, I asked what they thought about breaking women out as a separate group. Roth seemed open to discussing this with women members, but appeared strangely concerned about the potential “costs.” While saying he would be willing to consider the possibility, he suggested that the DGA does not have the resources to do certain things.
The Directors Guild of America is the most powerful union in our industry. Guild leaders are always quick to boast of being the richest union in Hollywood, perhaps having in excess of $100 million in their coffers. The membership pays Roth millions of dollars a year in deferred bonus alone– that’s on top of a $750,000 salary. Yet they can’t cough up ten or twenty thousand dollars to promote equal employment opportunity for women directors? Something they are legally bound to do in accordance with Title VII? There is something curiously awry in that valuation disparity.
In addressing the question of breaking women out as a separate class, Barclay immediately negated the possibility clearly indicating that it would not happen during his presidency: “We (diversity members) have got to stick together in this.” A smattering of women applauded, but most of us knew that his words signified more difficult times ahead.
Sticking together, in fact, has been just one more reason women have fallen so far behind ethnic minority male directors in our employment numbers. Today ethnic minority males comprise 7% of the director membership, but helm 17% of TV episodes (many of those by Barclay himself). Women, on the other hand, comprise 13.7% of the director membership, but only direct 14% of TV episodes.
This itself is a cunning circle. A woman cannot become a member of the Guild unless she is hired for work, yet the number of female hires remains criminally low, keeping the percentage of women DGA directors low. Then the Guild uses those ratios to justify the low number of hires. As Paris Barclay stated at the Summit: “Considering the ratio of male to female directors in the Guild, I’d say the studios are doing pretty well.”
This month’s DGA Quarterly Magazine just came off the press in time for the one-year anniversary of our DGA WSC Summit (March 2nd). Its contents say it all: there are 16 feature films being screened, none of them directed by a woman. There is an African American male (Tyler Perry), a Mexican male actor turned director (Diego Luna), a French male actor turned director (Guillaume Canet), a Canadian male director (Denis Villenueve), a Spanish (from Barcelona) male director, a few Jewish guys, an Italian-American guy (Ray De Felitta), and the usual white male director suspects. The “DGA Directors Finder Series” also features a white Iranian male.
Although women make up more than half the US population, for some reason no woman has managed to have a film shown this month. Instead, males from Canada, France, Mexico, and Spain have succeeding in screening features in our country— but not our own women. In the body of the magazine, there are no females in the “Meet The Nominees” section for commercials, no female nominees in the reality section, no female nominees in the feature film section, or in the TV movies section.
The most important developments that have taken place since the DGA-WSC Summit are politically motivated actions that directly resulted from the Summit itself. That extraordinary organization, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), has announced that it will be taking up the cause of women directors. As the Melissa Goodman, Senior Staff Attorney at the ACLU recently wrote:
“The ACLU has a long history of defending the rights of content creators in television, film and the arts. At the same time, we advocate for gender equity, particularly in job sectors traditionally dominated by men. Gender bias – like all forms of bias – is complex and hard to dismantle, but the statistics alone strongly suggest that more action is needed in the industry. The DGA says it is working to address the problem and reportedly has new diversity agreements with the studios that strengthen enforcement and require improved programs to help women and people of color break into directing work.
“No doubt truly effective diversity programs and real enforcement of these agreements (and employers’ legal obligation not to engage in sex discrimination) would make a real difference. But real change often requires making problems more visible, human and clear: to translate cold statistics into human stories so that talk turns to action. Many brave women in Hollywood are speaking up about their experiences. If you are a woman director who has been discriminated against, excluded from directing jobs in television or get less TV work than your male peers, we’d love to hear from you. Tell us your story” (aclu.org)
This is a powerful expression of support for women directors. In the United States, it’s about as powerful as it gets. The ACLU is our nation’s strongest independent “guardian of liberty, working daily in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties that the Constitution and laws of the United States guarantee everyone in this country” (aclu.org).
Furthermore, American media seems to be talking about the problem of the under-employment of women directors every day— in print, on the radio, on TV. It’s ever-present now. I know we have made great strides in the past two years, but there is much, much work to be done.
If we women directors cannot find resources for legal action, then we must rely on our American media to spearhead a paradigm shift in thinking among all Americans about the value and abilities of our own women. Thirty years ago few bothered about recycling, the Green Movement was just sprouting. Today, every American is conscious of the need to recycle, to take care of our environment.
I have no doubt that the same can be done for women directors, but American women certainly deserve a hasty resolution. There is no need for our small, powerful industry to amble in first gear toward gender equity among directors. Change only requires that executives make the choice to include women.
We Americans teach our sons and our daughters equally that they are free to choose their careers— it’s just a matter of choice. Well, the same must be said for honoring the choices our children make: it’s just a matter of providing the opportunity— equally—regardless of gender. Some will succeed and some may not, but everyone deserves a level playing field upon which to compete.
Maria Giese is a feature-film director, a member of the Directors Guild of America, and an activist for parity for women directors in Hollywood. She writes and lectures about the under-representation of women filmmakers in the United States. A graduate of Wellesley College and UCLA graduate school of film and TV, Giese was recently elected DGA Women’s Director Category Representative.