Sony Leaks, Free Speech & Women in Hollywood


By Roerick Sweeney

During the course of the recent Sony Hacks, the phrase “Free Speech” was tossed around so frequently, you’d think it wasn’t worth anything. MPAA commentators on CNN, Sony employees like George Clooney, even the President of the United States himself all made the claim that our free speech as Americans was under attack.

To some extent, those claims are valid. Death is the ultimate form of censorship, and people who fear death frequently self-censor. But many theaters screened The Interview without a hitch. Sony also launched their first VOD release to the public.

Someone had better tell North Korea about The Streisand Effect, because many more people watched this “desperately unfunny” film than would otherwise have seen it. Let’s be clear: at no point has Sony’s right to self-expression ever been threatened or prevented. The medium may have changed, but the message, despite Brecht, remains the same.

Unfortunately, that claim does not hold true for many others affected by the Sony hacks. Sony has issued a number of legal threats against journalists who are covering the stories, ordering them to destroy the documents or be held liable for damages against Sony

This caused an immediate chilling effect among journalists who were initially covering the stories. Sony has also threatened legal action against individuals like Val Broeksmit for tweeting about the leaks. Luckily for us, Broeksmit has kept tweeting, and is continuing his journalistic work.

As a result of the leaks, we learned a lot about the corporate institution of Sony. We learned that top executives had no problem making racist jokes about President Obama. We learned of sexist and racist allegations that would make Ari Gold blush.

We learned that A-List female actors like Charlize Theron and Jennifer Lawrence get paid millions of dollars less than their male counterparts. We learned that Aaron Sorkin doesn’t think it’s worth writing challenging roles for women. We learned that women directors are never considered for top blockbuster movies– not by Amy Pascal and not even by female stars like Angelina Jolie.

George Clooney was quoted in May 2015, saying: “One good thing that’s come out of [the Sony hack] is the conversation in very liberal Hollywood that women aren’t being paid the same and … there’s something like 15 female directors in a town of directors, I think it’s a very good conversation that they’re starting to have.” And yet, out of 25 feature films Clooney has produced or Exec’d, he has yet to hire even a single female director.

There are some things we haven’t learned from the Sony leaks. We haven’t learned about any kind of discrimination that did not in some way involve an executive or an A-List star. We haven’t seen any kind of budgetary analysis or statistical information about wages for women and people of color. We haven’t seen HR or hiring documents.  Those are all to come.

Movies are the art and craft of making the invisible, visible, but Sony seems to be pouring all of its legal, political, and public capital into making sure the invisible stays unseen.  There are hundreds of gigabytes of data in these leaks. I would guess that all the journalists reporting on the leaks to date have not even been through one gigabyte. Sony is burying a mountain, hoping that nobody will have the resources for close examination. If a team of 20 experts started going through these documents, it would still take years to go through the immense body of information.

In addition to silencing the voices of those few who are actually reporting on the leaks, Sony’s concerted efforts to maintain the status quo has a more insidious impact. Free Speech is not just about the right to say what you please – it is also about the right for marginalized voices to be heard. By attempting to prevent information about discrimination from reaching the public eye, Sony is perpetuating disenfranchisement through a conspiracy of silence.

In addition to cultural and social risk in speaking out, women and minorities risk getting blacklisted and losing their voices altogether.  I spoke with the DGA Women Directors Category Rep, Maria Giese, who believes the leaks are potentially revolutionary:  “Numerically, we have long known women are excluded.  Now the Sony leaks can provide the smoking gun evidence we need to create a legal basis for a class action lawsuit for women directors led by state and federal agencies to mitigate the rampant, ongoing Title VII violations in Hollywood.”

Giese said “One of the most difficult aspects of building a class action discrimination case against the studios for women directors is fear of blacklisting. The Sony leaks lift this burden from women’s shoulders. The evidence is out there as part of the public record and it’s not (women’s) individual responsibility that it came to light.  Yet even so it tells irrefutably the story of how women directors have been almost completely shut-out of the profession.”

In the same way the Snowden leaks provided the legal evidence needed for groups like the ACLU and the EFF to sue the NSA, the Sony leaks can be a foot in the door for women in Hollywood. If we’re allowed to see them, that is.  Reporting on the Sony leaks is a work of utmost importance to the public interest. To suggest otherwise is a willful act of ignorance enough to make an ostrich sit up and take note.

Sony’s legal threats are simple damage control, nothing more. It’s unambiguously cheaper to try and suppress free speech than it would be to address the institutionalized racism and sexism within the organization.

Charlize Theron just renegotiated her Universal Studios “Huntsman” contract ten million dollars higher as a direct result of the information published in the Sony leaks. The professional environment in Hollywood is already changing — but it remains to be seen if it will change for anyone other than A-listers.

It seems that Sony’s hypocrisy knows no bounds. In the name of “Free Speech,” Sony has threatened reputable journalistic organizations to prevent them from discussing the leaks. And they have tried to muscle individuals without legal protection into restraining their free speech.

The result of this chilling effect is that the already marginalized voices of women and minorities in Hollywood are even further silenced and sidelined. The Sony leaks are Hollywood’s Snowden Effect. It is a moral imperative for us to construct the cultural, political, and legal framework necessary to ensure complete freedom for journalists to pursue these stories without constraint.  Anything less is cowardice.


About the Author: Roerick Sweeney is a writer based in Bozeman, Montana.  He has developed a distribution model for artists combining BitTorrent, CryptoCurrency and the Creative Commons license which allows for free, unrestricted, unsurveilled entertainment. A passionate believer in free speech, Sweeney’s primary goal is to to enable artists to distribute and monetize their art without censorship or middlemen. 

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