Women Directors: Lessons From The French Revolution

"Okay!  Forget I said it!  Parity for women directors is a dumb idea!"
“Okay! Forget I said it! Parity for women directors is a dumb idea!”

By Maria Giese

“The number one reason women directors don’t speak out about discrimination in Hollywood is that they are afraid of getting blacklisted.”

America’s extraordinary influence comes largely thanks to a prolific entertainment industry that provides more media content to the world than any other country. While media is our most influential export, however, it comes almost exclusively from the perspectives of male directors. The ratios are staggering: according to recent DGA statistics, 95% of feature films are directed by men, and just 5% by women. Episodic TV is nearly as bad, with the male-to-female ratio of working directors at 86% to 14%.

Is that a problem?

If women are not directing film and television content, it means half of the voices of the American population are silenced and half the visions are suppressed. Ending discrimination against women directors is vital to establishing a society of equality and diversity of perspective. It is not just the validity of the female point of view and basic fairness that gives this issue such immediacy, but if we as a nation are to maintain a moral upper hand in geopolitical affairs, we must at the very least obey our own laws protecting equality.

As former DGA President Martha Coolidge recently said of directors: “For guys competition is fierce, but for women you are more likely to win the lottery.” Why is the gender gap among film and television directors so wide and so blatant? Why have women directors experienced so little progress in so many decades? Why does gender disparity remain, year after year?

The answer is this: the Revolution for Women Directors hasn’t happened—yet. But stay tuned. It is coming soon to a theatre near you!

We watched the theatrical trailers every day in the national news as women got drawn toward the voting booths by both sides of the aisle. Women are playing a pivotal role in American politics right now, and that should come as no surprise. It has happened often throughout history, from Lysistrata to the French Revolution.

In 1789, 7,000 women marched on Versailles and forced a shaken King Louis XVI to return to Paris. All of Europe and America sat up and took notice. Was the patriarchal absolute monarchy that had ruled France for centuries about to collapse? Yes it was! In just about three years.

The women’s Epic March helped set the French Revolution on fire. And history never looked back. The people won the French Revolution and equality became the central focus and the guiding force of the new liberal democracies of the Western World. However, it still took a few powerful men from the two upper estates — the clergy and the nobility — to join together with the third estate, the people, to bring on the real transformation.

Hold on to your seats!

There’s a connection here: Hollywood also has two powerful estates that are running the show—in fact, running ALL the shows: the studios that finance, produce, and distribute entertainment and news media, and the Directors Guild of America, which is the primary negotiator on behalf of directors. Both estates, the studios and the guild, have been very busy in the past 30 years paying lip service to the need for more women directors, but lip service is all they have paid.

While nearly every other industry in the United States has been making dramatic strides toward gender parity, the entertainment industry power players have been fundamentally negligent of this effort.

As a result, today’s Hollywood is often regarded as America’s most visible industry-wide bastion of discrimination against women.

And because the American media industry influences cultures around the world, changing American media could help alter global perceptions of women and girls as well as the social, economic, and geopolitical concerns that affect them. Initiating this change, however, will require that the DGA join forces with the studios to ignite a revolution to bring about equality for women directors.

Unfortunately, there seems to be an institutional bias within the DGA that prevents effective movement toward parity for women. For instance, in the 1980’s the DGA filed an anti-discrimination class-action lawsuit against three major studios on behalf of their women (and minority) director members. However, the guild was denied class certification on the grounds that some of its own policies put it in conflict with the very interests of the women plaintiffs who had initiated the complaint in the first place.

Judge Pamela Rymer refused to allow the guild to proceed with the case.

Therefore, because of entrenched policies within the DGA itself, the guild was not allowed to proceed with the case. While the suit could not continue, it is important to note that the fact that the DGA initiated the legal action at all resulted in a dramatic positive change to the employment landscape for women and minority directors. In 1979, women director employment comprised 1/2 of 1% of the male-to-female ratio, yet thanks to the lawsuit that number grew to almost 16% female employment by the mid nineties.

The change did not last, however. In the wake of that aborted legal effort, the guild and the studios made a joint promise to use only “Good Faith Efforts” to try to increase their employment numbers. While other industries understood that only clear goals and timetables could level the employment playing field, the film industry refused to implement that mandate. Thus, the three words “Good Faith Efforts” rang the death knell to hopes for parity for women directors.

Thirty years later…

…the playing field for women directors has returned to a near-vertical tilt. A simple examination and evaluation of the prevailing DGA-studio approaches to increasing job opportunities for women directors clearly reveals why they have failed.

Over the years, the DGA, in conjunction with the studios, has experimented with a number of ‘diversity programs’ in the hope of improving statistics for women and minority members. Sadly,the programs have been widely acknowledged to be completely ineffective in budging the numbers of women directors at all.

While the few studios that do anything at all for diversity directors are to be roundly commended, the long-running Disney/ABC-DGA Directing Program, launched in 2001, has resulted in relatively few actual directing jobs for its participants. Equally disappointing results have emerged for those who have completed the HBO-DGA Television Directing Fellowship Program.

Why do the DGA-studio directing fellowships fail to deliver significant results?

The DGA is a craft guild. Since the Middle Ages trades have used guilds to provide apprenticeships. Skilled, experienced artisans handed down expertise to the next generation in a wide variety of professions from the arts to banking. When we analyze the success of mentorships throughout history, what emerges as a key-contributing factor is the presence of reciprocity and mutual benefit.

In this light, we may begin to understand one reason for the overall ineffectiveness of the DGA-studio diversity fellowships. These programs are intended to engender mentorships between young talent and experienced directors and/or executives, and hopefully result in jobs. The programs are highly competitive, selecting the best of the best after a rigorous application process that takes months to complete. Winners enter with high expectations, yet at the completion of the program, the participants often feel crushed.

What is the reality?

One woman recipient of the ABC/DGA Fellowship, who was already an accomplished director, spoke of her experience: “The DGA-ABC fellowship was a complete waste of time. On the sets, they stare at you like you’re a homeless person or a spy or a freak. The executives running the program and the showrunners don’t want the shows to hire the people in the (fellowship) program. They are more worried about their own jobs.”

From the standpoint of studio employees who must tolerate these unwanted shadows, the selected fellows are little more than a nuisance who provide no opportunity for reciprocity at all. Since the relationship is not mutual, the reluctantly participating executives and TV crews often seem to look upon the women fellows as interlopers.

The production crews of episodic TV shows usually run like a well-oiled machines, and for producers it is propitious to hire from within. The best choices to helm each show fall to those who are most familiar with the show: the producers themselves. Writers, editors, and script supervisors also make natural choices, and of course, on a long-running show–

…Nearly every star will make a demand to direct at some point or another.

If TV director mentorship programs designed for women are to be successful, they need to include a policy of guaranteeing the mentee a directing assignment on a show after the observation period is completed. Since the fellowship application process is so rigorous, it is safe to assume that anyone who at last receives the venerated position would likely be adequately qualified to helm a show.

The DGA Diversity Program, however, continues to promote these prestigious fellowships as progressive joint efforts forged by the guild and the studios to remedy the under-employment of its women and minority members. ABC and HBO, from their sides, continue to call the programs a success. And indeed, the programs are a wonderful boon to the maintenance of reciprocal good will between the DGA and the studios. But do they help increase employment opportunities for women DGA members? They do not. Unfortunately, they mostly serve to provide the DGA and the studios the mutual benefit of good publicity, rather than helping the women who participate in the programs.

Herein lies the very heart of the problem of the under-representation of women directors in America. If the primary negotiating entity for directors in the U.S. film industry is not demanding parity standards for women directors, then they are acting in collusion with the studios to maintain discriminatory policies. In such a case, women directors have little hope of changing the status quo.

So how can an Epoch of Parity for Women Directors begin?

Ending discrimination against women directors is vital to establishing a society of equality and diversity of perspective, and it is of paramount importance that the film and television content that we export represent male and female perspectives equally. It is not just basic fairness and the validity of the female point of view around the world that give this issue such immediacy. If we as a nation are to maintain a moral upper hand in geopolitical affairs, shouldn’t we start by obeying our own laws protecting equality?

The fact is that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on sex. Discrimination against women in the film industry is against the law in the United States of America. So, is it inevitable that women must file another class-action lawsuit to establish parity? Is this the only way to get things done?

Both the DGA and the studios have repeatedly proclaimed their commitment to solving the problem of gender disparity. The DGA, as the primary negotiator of basic agreements between its membership and producers, must use every effective means possible to help institute new events, programs, and policies that really do change the playing field. We need to move beyond “Good Faith Efforts”— which apparently are not good enough. Those three words in the DGA Basic Agreements need to be changed to the more legally binding term: “Best Efforts.”

Affirmative action deserves a moment of attention here…

…For there are restrictive constitutional safeguards in place that make affirmative action difficult to implement in this country. The key reason for this is that many Americans believe that affirmative action conflicts with the interests of a free-market economy. In the entertainment industry, which often pays lip service to the need for “artistic freedom,” many oppose the validity—indeed, the legitimacy and fairness—of affirmative action programs. And it is true that choosing talent (i.e. film and TV directors) in this industry is ambiguous for the simple reason that artistic merit is subjective.

Producers and executives need to exercise personal aesthetic decisions based on subjective criteria, but as we have seen, visible and invisible discrimination continually interfere with perceptions of merit where women are concerned. To inform this argument, it is useful to recall a famous quote from one of Great Britain’s foremost art critics, Brian Sewell, in the “The Independent” in 2008:

“The art market is not sexist. The likes of Bridget Riley and Louise Bourgeois are of the second and third rank. There has never been a first-rank woman artist. Only men are capable of aesthetic greatness. Women make up 50 per cent or more of classes at art school. Yet they fade away in their late 20s or 30s. Maybe it’s something to do with bearing children.”

Conscious or unconscious…

…this misogynist perspective is equally applicable to many executive decision-makers in the profession of film and TV directing. Therefore, one can easily see why affirmative action for women in the entertainment industry may be extremely important in working toward parity. The fruits of affirmative action programs in the United States from the 1950’s on, are paying off for many American minorities today, even though they were intensely controversial in their time.

Within the European Commission right now (The New York Times 10-23-12), there is a powerful effort being made to force gender parity within European companies. Currently, there is a proposal up for approval that would mandate that a 40% minimum of women be included on corporate boards of directors. This proposal comes with sanctions and penalties for violations in the case that corporations fail to comply.

This new effort is so controversial it is actually splitting the European Union, and it may not pass, but it is a striking example of the pressure for gender parity in all European industries and professions. If gender balance is of such acute concern on corporate boards, it most certainly should be an issue of immediacy in the American entertainment industry.

The DGA points its finger at the studios…

And the studios point their fingers at the DGA. Each shifts the blame to the other, and each responds with frustration to the suggestion that nothing is actually being done. The over-riding sentiment seems to be that everyone is simply flummoxed by the problem. Last year, a longtime DGA Executive VP wrote to me: “I hope you are successful where we were stupefied by our inability to move the issue forward. The legal complexities are stultifying.”

Stupefied? Stultifying? Honestly, is this really an insoluble conundrum? Or is it verbal obfuscation to maintain the status quo? While the responsibility of gender parity among directors ultimately falls to America’s film studios and other producing entities that actually do the hiring, the organization that must initiate crucial change is the one whose primary raison d’etre is to represent the rights of directors: the Directors Guild of America.

Back in 1979, the DGA picked up the baton from six courageous DGA women directors, and led the charge for equality by initiating intense negotiations and finally legal actions against the studios. If that action 30 years ago so effectively resulted in the brief, but triumphant move from ½ of 1% of employed female directors to 16% in employment rates for women directors…

A second class-action lawsuit today could push the numbers well above 30%.

Looked at from this point of view, the immediate future could be hopeful for women directors. Furthermore, the DGA is fortunate to have Jay Roth, originally a civil rights lawyer, as National Executive Director. He is one of the finest negotiators in the industry and Daily Variety called him the “showbiz point person on making a deal to ensure Hollywood’s labor peace.”

Roth has successfully led negotiations on the guild’s major collective bargaining agreements six times since becoming National Executive Director in 1995. If ever there was a maverick to cut through the legal tangles of this “Gordian knot” of buck-passing and lead this industry to gender parity through negotiations with studios, Jay Roth is it.


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