The Battle for Female Director Voices in U.S. Media

Maria Giese gave this groundbreaking speech on September 12, 2015 as a call to arms among women directors. Only legal action, she says, will bring change.
Maria Giese (above) presented this compelling speech to “Hollywood Business and Professional Women” at Lowe’s Hollywood Hotel on September 12, 2015 as a call to arms among women directors. Only legal action, she says, will bring change. (Photo by Genaro Molina).

By Maria Giese

On May 12, 2015 The New York Times published a 15-page letter, from the American Civil Liberties Union to the U.S. Department of Justice EEOC and two state agencies calling for an industry-wide investigation into Hollywood’s rampant discrimination against women directors.

That letter will almost certainly change the landscape for women directors forever.

Just four months previously, America’s top feminist film critic, Manohla Dargis, had written in The New York Times (1-21-15) that our industry’s “…refusal to hire more female directors is immoral, maybe illegal, and has helped create and sustain a representational ghetto for women.”

The groundbreaking news of an imminent investigation—to be perhaps the biggest of its kind in US entertainment history—rocked our industry.

It was an extraordinary moment for me, and the culmination of 4 years of full-time, unpaid work.

The next morning, I woke up to a buzzing phone and a photo of myself on the front page of The Los Angeles Times.

The opening paragraph read:

“On Valentine’s Day two years ago, film director Maria Giese met with U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission staffers in downtown L.A. to talk about an issue she said was stalling her career — gender discrimination.”

I knew I had accomplished something very significant, but I also understood that the road ahead would be a long one.

It had been a long journey already, and an often nerve-wracking rollercoaster ride as I challenged the industry and my own union, the Directors Guild of America, in an insurgence The New York Times called “a veritable crusade.”

In 2011— I had finally reached the end of my tether. I was broke and depressed and angry. I did not feel I could sink any lower. I did not believe I had anything left to lose.

I walked into a Directors Guild of America Women’s Steering Committee meeting asking questions and demanding answers.

What I found was a dead committee, apathetic and fearful women who could not imagine a future of equality, and a Guild that was hostile to change.

The few women on the committee who understood the problem, like my friends Melanie Wagor and Rena Sternfeld, were openly snubbed by the co-chairs.

I knew at once that we had a big problem. Something was rotten in Denmark.

There were no feature directors active on the committee when I arrived, and I was later told that the few who had attended meetings in recent years had given up in despair.

For women feature directors like me, the numbers were the worst of all, yet it would be almost two years before we knew exactly how bad. The statistics were simply not broadly available yet.

Today we know: a recent USC study found that only 1.9% of directors of the top-grossing 100 films of 2013 and 2014 were women.

1.9% directed by women. That means 98.1% of America’s top studio features are coming from the perspective of men.

Only about 4% of all feature films produced by our six major studios and three mini-majors are directed by women. Almost 0% by women of color.

And almost 100% of that 4% of female studio feature directors are movie stars or the wives or daughters of movie moguls.

So where does that leave us regular women directors? Where does that leave the next generation of American women filmmakers?

Twenty-one years ago— in the spring of 1994, Frances Ford Coppola handed me my Master of Fine Arts degree from UCLA’s Graduate School of Film & Television.

He shook my hand and he said: “Good luck.”

I was graduating at the top of my class, having won many of the top awards and scholarships available to students at the time.

Better than that, I was just months away from being green-lit on the first of my two feature films, the two-million-dollar budgeted British feature film “When Saturday Comes,” starring the great British actor Sean Bean and Oscar nominee Pete Postlethwaite.

What I didn’t know was that the following year—1995—would mark the peak of female director hires in the United States.

For the next 20 years, women directors would face stasis and decline in employment. And I would experience that in a very real way.

I was literally stepping out of film school (in a class of about 50-50 male and female students) onto a professional playing field that was almost vertical.

Based on the numbers then and today, women film school students cannot reasonably hope to ever get a feature film directing job after graduation.

As I was quoted as saying in the LA Times a few months ago:  “It’s not that it’s an unequal playing field; there is no playing field at all.”

Something had to done and when I looked around, there wasn’t anyone else to do it except me. I could risk my own career (whatever there was left of it), but I couldn’t expect other women directors to do the same.

So in 2011, I started my own blog to collect and publish the stories of other women directors like me, and to publish my own articles. It was the beginning of my “crusade.”

And I knew I could not do this for myself.

It would only work if I did it for all women, for the next generation of women filmmakers, and for little girls like my daughter, Bea, who today is nine years old.

My blog was disseminated by social media— and it was advent of social media that made it possible to bring us women directors together into a community that had never existed before.

Social media also brought us together with other women who had already been working for years on Hollywood gender equity:

–Geena Davis and her Institute on Women and Gender in Media

–Jennifer Seibel Newsome’s Miss Representation

–And the relentless Melissa Silverstein of Women and Hollywood.

They were already speaking forcefully about the under-representation of women in the industry and that was great.

In my mind, however, the connection had not yet been made between gender disparities on the screen and the lack of women directors behind the camera.

The absence of women directors was the lacuna, I thought— the missing link.

Jane Campion said it best:

“(Women) gave birth to the whole world. Without them writing and being directors, the rest of us are not going to know the whole story.”

The essential proliferation of the female point of view could change the world.

Okay—I have a confession to make: The Directors Guild of America doesn’t like me much.

This is true because I know one thing for sure that they don’t want to fess up to themselves:

Hollywood studio executives and showrunners are not the only ones to blame for the fact that women directors don’t get hired.

The real problem is a blockage in the diversity program at the Directors Guild of America.

Look, we all know that women are discriminated against in almost all sectors of our global society. We know there is a gender bias that keeps male—and especially female—executives from hiring more women.

Discrimination against women exists, and it is prevalent in every industry in our country.

So why is it that of all the industries in the United States of America, liberal Hollywood has the worst numbers of all?

We know quotas are illegal, and who doesn’t hate affirmative action? But what’s new? Every industry in America is like that.

So why is the problem of discrimination against women so much worse in Hollywood than anywhere else? What’s different here?

Paris Barclay, our current DGA president and a phenomenally successful TV director, helped establish the DGA Diversity Task Force in 2004.

This is our union’s primary committee designated to make Guild signatories comply with Title VII and hire more women and minorities.

Even so, after 11 years of heading up the DGA Diversity Task Force, he came across as being confused about the issue of women directors when talking to The New York Times last January.

According to Manohla Dargis, in responding to a question about why he, the president of the DGA and head of the DGA Diversity Task Force, was getting so much directing work while female director numbers were so low–

Barclay said with a laugh: “The number one director was me, that’s true. I’m a black, gay man, so I’m virtually a woman.”

And since women are not a minority, why are they clumped together with ethnic minority men in the DGA diversity program?  Shouldn’t women DGA members be broken out into their own category?

Paris Barclay said: “We really believe in this particular fight that solidarity is the way to go.”

Dargis made the astute observation: “Solidarity is a seductive word, but it can also obscure the differences between sexism and racism.”

Consider this: Women make up 51% of our population. Minority men make up 18% of our population. So why are women only directing 16% of TV episodes, while minority men are directing 18%?

And what about ethnic minority women? They make up 19% of the U.S. population, yet direct just 2% of TV shows!

Why were the DGA-studio diversity agreements serving minority men, but failing women utterly?

I wanted to find out the answers to those questions.  And I did.  But I could not have done it without strong and powerful shoulders to stand on.

In 1979, six courageous DGA women directors became the first women in the history of the US film and television industry to spearhead a class-action lawsuit challenging race and gender discrimination. I named them “The Original Six.”

These women are: Susan Bay, Nell Cox, Joelle Dobrow, Dolores Ferraro, Victoria Hochberg, and Lynne Littman.

They are our own heroes who launched the landmark 1980’s class action lawsuit that sent women director employment numbers soaring from .05% in 1985 (that’s one half of one percent) to 16% in 1995 in just 10 years.

From 1979 to 1985 these women risked their careers to create change for all women in our industry. The work they did altered the landscape for women directors and their teams forever.

There is not a single woman director working in Hollywood today who does not have the Original Six to thank for their jobs.

The work that they did came on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s, and the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1970’s. Those were revolutionary times.

Furthermore, their work began a year after the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission prepared a significant report detailing race and sex discrimination in Hollywood.

That EEOC report stated in no uncertain terms that something needed to be done immediately to mitigate Hollywood’s bias against women and minorities in the industry.

Unfortunately, that report signaled the beginning and end of concerted U.S. state or federal efforts to help solve the problem.

Listening to the “Original Six” and learning everything I could about their work motivated me even more to study up.

I headed to court in downtown Los Angeles and began researching their DGA-led class-action lawsuit against several major studios.

I read the final ruling by California’s 9th District Circuit Court Judge, Pamela Rymer.

In a final judgment in 1985 in favor of the studios, Rymer wrote that while she believed the lawsuit was important and viable and should be continued, she had to disqualify the DGA from leading the class because, in her opinion, the Guild did not share the interests of the women and minorities in the class.

Rymer’s ruling meant that the DGA could not lead the class-action case against the studios because, as a Guild run but its majority white male members, the DGA had an intrinsic system that discriminated against women and minorities as much as the studios did.

The DGA was in no position to be pointing fingers and suing the studios.

It was like the pot calling the kettle black.

Ultimately, as a result of the suit, the DGA and the studios did get together in subsequent Collective Bargaining negotiations to set up diversity agreements and programs in compliance of Title VII.

These programs included TV directing fellowships, mentoring projects, networking programs, panels on various diversity issues, and events to glorify the successes of women directors.

Unfortunately, as time passed, none of these programs were effective for a number of not-so-surprising reasons.

(I have written in depth about this on my web forum, “Women Directors in Hollywood,” so look there for more on that subject).

The important take-away, though, is that after the initial surge in female director employment numbers, from 1995 onward, the number of working women directors fell into stasis and decline.

Why?

I said that no one did anything for twenty years, and I guess I’m referring mostly to myself, because perhaps a certain measure of complacency on the part of my generation of American women figured into it.

I believe in my heart that that must be true, because 20 years ago when I entered the profession I didn’t see any community of women filmmakers to join, and I didn’t try to create one.

My generation did not seem to carry forth the torch of women’s liberation and equal rights as exemplified by “The Original Six.”

So, four years ago, it seems to me, I woke up…

I remember in 2012, walking into a DGA National Board meeting and introducing myself to then Guild president Michael Apted, and Vice President Steven Soderbergh.

Pete Postlethwaite had just died after a long battle with cancer.

Apted and I had both worked with him on feature films and TV series’, but when I told them about my interest in getting women directors back to work, their eyes glazed over.

“Yeah, women and everyone else,” Soderbergh said.

It turned out that the only immediate support I could find was from a handful of underemployed women directors who had also hit rock bottom.

That said, the support from those women was immense, and it was from that foundation that a whole community has been built.

Soon, our efforts became a cause

And then, thanks to the ACLU and mainstream media, a movement.

Our first major step was to produce the DGA Women Directors Summit, held at our Guild headquarters on March 2nd of 2013.

Putting this event together was very challenging, but when we finally overcame the obstacles, it was the biggest event ever held for women directors in the nearly 80-year history of the Guild.

The event was a huge success, and even though the DGA would not allow us to include the press, the entire industry sat up and took note.

And while it was the beginning of a palpable shift in our perceptions about the power of transformation we could create, it also signaled unwelcome change to the DGA leadership.

Immediate repercussions to our success included mandated new ByLaws to prevent women from speaking out.

Today, if you haven’t been able to get a job in 7 seven years, you are cut from full membership in the Guild, and you can’t run for elected office, not even on the very committee created 35 years ago specifically because women so often can’t get work for seven years running.

Why this blow-back?

The directing profession is incredibly competitive no matter how you look at it, and if we women start getting our fair share of jobs, it’s going to cut into the giant piece of pie that white guys comprise—the guys who make up the vast majority of the DGA membership.

In other words, white guys need to keep minority guys off their turf, and minority guys need to keep women off their turf.

So, the few highly-employed women who have a piece of the action know their pool is limited, and they feel they have to keep new, incoming women shut out.

In the end, guess what? Women as a group suffer. We all suffer.

But what if—and just think about this for a moment—what if women had their own diversity category that DGA signatories had to hire from in order to comply with America’s equal employment opportunity law, Title VII?

And that brings me to the very heart of the battle I’m fighting right now, and it’s really important.

This disparity in employment advancements between women and male ethnic minorities is due to the fact that women get buried under the general category of “Diversity.”

Studios and signatories can fulfill diversity agreement obligations simply by hiring male ethnic minorities, and without hiring women at all.

In an effort to end this loophole that makes it so easy to keep women shut out of directing work, I proposed that the DGA create a separate DGA-studio diversity mandate for women.

I asked that upcoming DGA-studio Collective Bargaining Negotiations include working toward establishing a new double-mandate system to break women out as a separate category from minority men.

In this way, studios would have to hire women directors as well as ethnic minority males.

Significantly, this would also provide a numerical edge to ethnic minority women since they would then qualify for two diversity pools: once among women of all ethnicities, and again among ethnic minorities of both sexes.

A group of us fought this battle in the Women’s Steering Committee last spring. We proposed the motion to break women out, but the co-chairs managed to delay the discussion to the following month.

The final meeting was a circus. The Guild leadership stacked the room.  Fur started to fly. Threats were made to have women on our side escorted from the meeting by DGA guards.

The feature director, Lexi Alexander, grew so frustrated she started live-Tweeting the meeting.

One observer on Mentorless.com wrote in amazement:

“Lexi Alexander live-tweeted the session, and re-tweeted live reactions. I don’t think this has ever been done before (…) From Alexander’s tweets, it seems that the room was mostly composed of women filmmakers, and yet, (the motion) was denied. How did they justify it rationally in their heads, I don’t know.”

Alexander’s final Tweet said simply:

“We lost the vote. I’m done.” She has never attended another WSC meeting.

We lost the battle for independence and democracy in our Women’s Steering Committee.

And so far, we have lost the battle to break women out, but this is a result we will only get through legal action.  And legal action is coming…

In the overarching war, however, we are already way, way ahead.

The groundbreaking ACLU letter has tipped the scales, and American media knows it.

Our social media and mainstream media is now bursting every day with new articles, documentaries, commentaries and postings about Hollywood’s refusal to hire women directors.

There is so much daily content, you can’t even take them all in.  The expression “Woman Director” has become a household term.

So, onward!

The hardest part has been accomplished. We’ve got the ACLU on our side, and our nation’s most powerful state and federal agencies are committed to helping us create change.

Let’s give them all the support we can by keeping our voices strong and or vision steady.

We know what we have to do:  SPEAK OUT!

As Victoria Hochberg recently proclaimed to a standing ovation at the DGA—

“THIS IS OUR TIME!”

 

Drawing by Daniel DeJean www.danieldejean.com

"Who's messing with my blog?"

5 thoughts on “The Battle for Female Director Voices in U.S. Media”

  1. Ma’am, you haven’t directed in fifteen years. There are plenty of women directing in television. It’s the height of narcissism to think that the reason you’re not working is because of sexism.

    Did you ever consider that maybe, just maybe, you’re not a very good director?

    1. Perhaps, Tank, I am not a very good director, but as I have been shut out from my profession for many years how can we know for sure? I wonder why you think there are many women directing TV. Just 16% of TV shows are directed by women, and mostly the same 20 or 30 women over and over again in a static employment pool that perpetuates the exclusion of women. Women of color only direct 2% of that 16% of episodic TV, which is shameful. Women direct less than 4% of studio features and 1% of commercials. Is that because we are all “not very good”? I suspect, given the opportunity, legions of women could improve the quality of US media 100 fold. That’s why I am fighting so hard, because I’d like to see this theory tested. Thanks for reading my blog, Tank. I’m glad you are interested in this incredibly important subject.

  2. Well constructed piece Maria. It kept me fully engaged until the very last word. There is nothing that I can add apart from my support. I believe that until we have equality across the board (ie: all industries), we cannot achieve the ideal society that many of us dream of. Without the female perspective in the all important, hollywood studio storytelling machine, we are stuck in dangerous place where guns, wars & violence in general is the norm. Keep up the good work & fight the good fight. You can change the outcome of the planet with what you are doing right now.

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