by Quendrith Johnson, Los Angeles Correspondent
One hot week in August leading up to a full moon, from Aug. 1 to Aug. 7, there was a kind of ground zero for the D-word from Hollywood to Silicon Valley. We’re talking hot-button issues inclusion, fairness, and equity under the heading of Diversity. If you haven’t heard what happened, a recap is in order. Here’s a timeline: on July 31 “CBS This Morning” covers a new USC Annenberg study that cites “inclusion crisis” in Hollywood, based on Dr. Stacy Smith’s co-authored academic dissection of 900 films and 39,000 “characters” charted over a decade that prove demographics are not improving in re: diversity, including women behind the camera. Aug. 1 the fall-out at TCA (Television Critics Association) summer summit in Los Angeles is that, no surprise, CBS execs Kelly Kahl (CBS Ent. Pres.) and Thom Sherman (Sr. Exec. Programming) are mercilessly held to the fire by reporters on diversity stats and the fracas is covered by Los Angeles Times, even with a caveat at 6:45 pm that tellingly announces a quote correction as: “An earlier version of this post quoted Kelly Kahl as saying, “I don’t how to answer that.” It has been corrected to read “I’m not exactly even sure how to address that.””
A quote correction is a rare occurrence in journalism, and underscores that an ideological brush-fire has started. Nobody means harm, but the stats don’t lie. It’s business as usual, but with resistance now.
By Aug. 3, NBC which is owned by Comcast, also owner of Universal with the banner NBCUNI, uses TCA to introduce its “Female Forward” push that is supposed to address the underrepresentation of women in helmer positions in television. Slated for 2018-2019 season, a mere 10 women get a shot behind the camera, in a drop-in-the-ocean attempt to correct DGA-compiled stats that only 17 percent of episodes on all platforms were directed by women, with — get this — only 3% by minority women.
Next, over the weekend of Aug. 4 – 6, a bombshell goes off in Silicon Valley with a self-proclaimed “classic liberal” 28-year-old Google software engineer’s memo on a site called Motherboard that pretends to be a counterpoint to the lack of women in tech roles with a screed that includes charts and graphs on why women are “biologically” absent from high-profile engineering jobs in tech, as well as tech in general. Ka-Pow!
On Monday, Aug. 7, the world wakes up to worldwide coverage of James Damore’s surprising anti-PC punch in the gut to women, and suddenly the floorboards are ripped up on gender resentments from Hollywood to Silicon Valley.
By Monday night Damore is fired by Google, and Weds., Aug. 9 said memo-writer threatens (and files) a lawsuit for wrongful termination — but the cat is out of the bag, and all gender hell has broken loose. Because if you follow the Damore logic, women have just been handed their ass in every profession. Enter director Rachel Feldman, who is former chair of the DGA (Director’s Guild of America) Women’s Steering Committee, and wow, is she pissed off.
“James Damore, the Google engineer who wrote the controversial 3,300 word memo outlining his reasons why female employees were inferior workers, has been fired. Good for Google! Their response was swift and their message clear; that kind of caveman thinking won’t be tolerated at Google,” Feldman begins. “But responding to pseudo-science that tries to legitimize prejudice is overt and relatively easy to spot. What’s much harder to root out, to see clearly, and eliminate is the insidious infection of unconscious bias.”
“I work in the Hollywood film and television industry as a director and I am a woman. I have more than paid my dues – with a masters degree in directing, numerous prestigious film festivals for grant funded indie films, trained on big studio movies working for famous, brilliant directors, and then directed over 60 hours of network and broadcast television – both episodic television and original movies, as well as taught directing on the Masters level – yet every job is still as hard to get as the first one, and I am called “a first time director” by many.”
In addition to being a director, writer, and filmmaker, Feldman, who is currently working on a script about equal-pay advocate Lilly Ledbetter (FAIR FIGHT), produced the 2013 DGA Women of Action Summit that was a first in the guild’s 80-year history to shine a spot on gender disparity. Ledbetter was born in 1938, and even though a “fair pay act” was named for her in 2009, she continues to fight for an equal share for women — both in representation and in the paycheck.
Ironically, James Damore’s Google platform for his numbskull pontificating about gender has opened the door for a class action suit, with some 60 female employees on board who learned via this scandal that they were paid up to $40K less than their male counterparts in some cases. Rampant sexism is the cause, as in Hollywood.
According to Deadline, an insider Hollywood news site, the EEOC is looking into gender discrimination in the industry’s most famous town in a big way.
“Decades ago producers and those who hire would say overtly sexist things to me and get away with it,” Feldman shares. “When a producer gives you the excuse for not hiring you because they “already had a woman director and the crew didn’t like her,” it was hard to hold my tongue and not point out the idiocy of that statement. But times have changed and now we are supposedly enlightened. We have diversity programs and initiatives up the wahzoo. So why has so little changed for women directors? What happened at Google was clearly terrible, but I wish my own industry were as vigilant in reacting to the perpetual gender exclusion that women directors in film and television live with every day.”
You can also follow her activism on these topics on Twitter @WomenCallAction, and track Feldman as she responds to some tough questions on women and directing here:
Q: What do you think of the recent Google memo about women (another male-heavy profession, tech), and are the attitudes in tech and movies parallel, if so why is that?
A: James Damore, the Google engineer who wrote the controversial 3,300 word memo outlining his reasons why female employees were inferior workers, has been fired. Good for Google! Their response was swift and their message clear; that kind of caveman thinking won’t be tolerated at Google. But responding to pseudo-science that tries to legitimize prejudice is overt and relatively easy to spot. We have witnessed the tragedies of Eugenics attempting to rationalize genocide and most of us are lucky enough to live in a progressive culture where we strive for equality in every facet of our lives. What’s much harder to root out, to see clearly, and eliminate is the insidious infection of unconscious bias.
Q: So why has so little changed for women directors?
A: What happened at Google was clearly terrible, but I wish my own industry were as vigilant in reacting to the perpetual gender exclusion that women directors in film and television live with every day.
Someone recently asked me if this was ageism because honestly, most of the woman I’m talking about are no longer the girls they were when they started directing in the 90’s. But when the obstacles we face are exactly the same as the ones we faced 25 years ago, we must admit that gender exclusion is the culprit.
Q: Tricky issue – Kathryn Bigelow, DETROIT, what’s your opinion on this production, that director?
A: I thought DETROIT was very strong and I believe that the race conversation about a white woman telling this story is misplaced. Kathryn Bigelow is at the top of her game, she doesn’t need us to talk about her. I believe what we need to talk about the thousands of NON-CELEBRITY women who are brilliant, skilled, talented, proven, accomplished – and not working. WHY? How do we get the industry to pay attention to the women who have been ignored for way too long by gender exclusion?
Q: How about the thorny issue of wanting to be counted as a female director, but wanting to be seen on the world stage as a Director, no gender?
A: I think that women directors who have already had some measure of success can afford to take this position, but from my activist seat and from the position of having a career that has been severely affected by gender exclusion, I feel that any women who takes this position is doing a disservice to her sister filmmakers. Not proclaiming your gender as a woman director in this day and age feels a bit like privilege to me. We must fight for every woman to have a fair share and we will only do that if we join forces as women behind the camera.
Q: Top ten women director list, your choices (living or dead, domestic and international)?
A: It’s important that we banish the notion that there are only a handful of directors! We are a huge, underutilized labor force, and there is AN ARMY OF HIGHLY SKILLED DIRECTORS in both film and television.
Find us, hire us.There are so many brilliant, expressive voices to choose from but anyone I would name is already well known. What I’d like to do it to invite our industry to hire new directors who they may never have heard of before. These two links will allow for a great exploration: http://www.thedirectorlist.com/database/thedirecorlist.com and here.
Q: Are initiatives from groups like Geena Davis’ gender institute helpful?
A: The GDIGM is a great organization and quite effective. Geena is a great speaker and Madeline is a wonderful advocate. We need more female protagonists and girls and women on screen who are not stereotyped, sexualized or victimized. These are hugely important issues.
Q: What’s the greatest challenge of directing for women — getting funded, hiring enough women, etc?
A: The greatest challenge for women is to squash the idea that we don’t exist. Day after day we hear the same refrain – that there are only a handful of directors to hire – while THOUSANDS of us with Oscars, Emmy’s, Sundance awards, and hundreds of credits are ignored. Why? Why is all the focus on change to develop a pipeline for the future, with educational programs for new directors, when there are so many of us trained directors who could be working now and changing the stats NOW! The answer is that many of us don’t have agents, we are invisible – and why don’t we have representation? Because the agencies only want to hire hot celebrities who bring in fast money. This cycle must change!!!
Q: Who is your favorite female director, or top three favorites and why?
A: I’d rather not talk about my s/heroes, but instead introduce folks to a tiny, tip of the iceberg list of hard-working, accomplished women who you’ve never heard of. This is by no means intended to be exhaustive or comprehensive, and this list focuses on television and not features. There are thousands of talented women in the independent space, with stunning, award winning films – and many more in TV as well – let’s promote these women and get them working
Feldman’s Director Short List
Victoria Hochberg, Gloria Muzio, Neema Barnett, Debbie Reinisch, Hanelle Culpepper, Martha Coolidge, Amy Heckerling, Tanya Hamilton, Tessa Blake, Kat Candler, Shannon McCormack Flynn, Ellen Pressman, Leslie Libman, Vicky Jenson, Stacy Title, Linda Feferman, Matia Karell, Maggie Greenwald, Debroah Kempmeir, Debra Granick, Darnell Martin, Anna Forester, Heather Cappiello, Martha Coolidge, Nicole Rubio, Tanya Hamilton, Tessa Blake, Kat Candle, Leslie Libman, Beth Spitainy, Daisy Von Scherier Mayer, Jan Eliasberg, Elodie Keene, Diana Valentine, Jessica Landaw, Julie Hebert, Julie Anne Robinson, Katherine Brooks, Martha Mitchell, Nicole Kassell, Nzingha Stewart, Rachel Talalay, Rose Troche, Stacey Black, Alexis Korycinski, Allison Anders, Ami Mann, Amy Redford, Anna Mastro, Anne Renton, Catherine Jelski, Claudia Weil, Dee Rees, Helen Hunt, Jessica Yu, Donna Deitch, Kasi Lemmons, Lily Mariye, So Yong Kim, Neema Barnette, Tina Mabrey, Tanya Hamilton…
Q: Is film school a non-starter in production for women, what about AFI’s women in directing program, and is Sundance viable for women?
A: Film schools are great if you want to learn how to make movies and meet others who love the same. I have an MFA from NYU in directing and have taught directing in the MFA program at USC, but you don’t have to go to film school to learn to make films.
It’s important to note that women graduate at 50% of film school classes but the employment drops off the moment they enter the workforce.
We exist, we are interested and trained, we just don’t get the opportunities.
Q: About getting distribution and screenings — is it the same dog-and-pony show for any director?
A: If your project has a female protagonist you are in for a hard road.
If you can’t get one of the top 10 female actors who are interesting to foreign sales, your chances are slim to none.
These are insidious forms of gender discrimination and ones that need to be challenged.
Q: On how to promote a film — is it an advantage to say a woman is at the helm, or is it better to go in blind on that in some cases?
A: It’s probably never an advantage to be a woman director unless you are already a celebrity, no matter what the media might claim.
But I believe that for better or for worse, if we are not brave and proud and willing to take the heat – things will never change.
Q: What about sexism and entries into foreign (international) film festivals, any thoughts?
A: Women are terribly excluded from film festivals. More of the same.
Final Thoughts on Similarities, Call it “GoogleWood”
In closing, here’s a metric ex-Googler James Damore doesn’t understand: the ageism against men in tech is so ingrained that by 26, most men are done in the fast lane if they haven’t migrated from the engineering track to management. In Hollywood, most women are done by 26 as ingenues, and fall out of the fast lane if they don’t accept character roles. The point? Technology was James Damore’s Hollywood, he just didn’t get the rules of the game.
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