#WomenCallAction: Illuminating the Relevance of Women Directing U.S. Media

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by Rachel Feldman

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As a woman director who has been working in Hollywood for 30 years, banging the drum for gender equity behind the camera, I am delighted by so many voices coming together in unison, protesting the downright injustice and vestigial sexism that permeates the film and television industries.  Social media campaigns like #thedirectorlist and #hirethesewomen have burst onto the scene, naming names and hoping Hollywood executives notice.  Organizations such as The Representation Project, Women and Hollywood, and the Geena Davis’ Institute on Gender in Media magnify and clarify the issues. The facts are that less than 5 percent of Hollywood movies and roughly 12 percent of television shows are directed by women.

The point of these campaigns needs to be repeated over and over again. There are many accomplished, experienced, talented female directors whose careers and body of work are ignored and passed over. Our community will no longer tolerate executives defaulting to the myth that there are no women directors to hire.

As a recent co-chair of the Director’s Guild of America Women’s Steering Committee, my colleagues and I represented over 1200 female director members, each of whom has paid her dues, worked up the ladder, and has been successful working as a director for a signatory network or studio.  Sadly, only a tiny handful of these women work regularly as directors.  In the independent film world, where filmmakers raise funds for their films outside of Hollywood, the numbers of women directing rises significantly.  At the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, women directed 50 percent of the films.  The truth is, if those in charge of hiring determined that gender equality was essential, the disparity would be rectified overnight.

#WomenCallAction infographic

Image credit: Women and Hollywood

But examining this inequity as merely an employment and labor issue is missing a larger, hugely significant issue. The larger significance of this gender imbalance impacts the entire world. Hollywood film and television is our culture’s most powerful influencer and ambassador.  All around the world, even in the most remote corners of our planet, men, women and children see how Hollywood movies and television present the human condition. Our media is a great proselytizer and we have a tremendous responsibility to insure that the images and ideas we disseminate represent the most enlightened aspects of culture and are not created primarily by a single gender perspective. Shutting out women’s voices impacts the entire world.

From Afghanistan to Iraq, Kosovo and Nigeria, from Minnesota to Milan, girls and women suffer aggressions and exclusions fueled by an onslaught of exaggerated and victimized images of women perpetuated by Hollywood’s testosterone soaked sensibilities. The Geena Davis Institute has published studies identifying that when woman create media, more female characters appear onscreen and stereotyping is radically reduced. Women directors often cast females in roles that had been written for men; tone down hyper-sexualized wardrobe, gratuitous nudity and on-screen violence; and populate background talent with equal genders.

I can attest to making a difference in my own small way. When directing a low budget vampire movie many years ago, I asked the producer to consider altering dialogue between a wife and husband that would not resort to name-calling and violence.  The writer made a few changes and the producer was surprised how visceral the scene became without succumbing to the same old, abusive dialogue familiar to the genre. He later thanked me and told me that in the 30 years of his career, I was the first women director he had ever hired.

Storytellers have an essential role in society.  We disseminate morals and modes of behavior through emulation. In Hollywood movies, the vast majority of female characters are celebrated for their physical characteristics and their characters often function as sidekicks, or love objects, instead of functioning as a primary protagonist. This is simply not the right message to continually repeat. Putting more women behind the camera calling “Action!” will vastly alter this reality.

Certainly any discussion of women’s voices in media must include the under representation of women writers.  According to the Writers Guild of America, currently 23 percent of the writers in episodic television are women and in features women represent 14 percent.  While these numbers are greater than those for directors, it is not nearly good enough. The focus of this campaign is women directors because directors are the last stop, the final arbiters of what we record for posterity.

One of the biggest obstacles for women directors is the mind-set that being a good director means prior box office success. But, women will never scale this insurmountable wall if hiring practices do not change. Directing film is a job with many moving parts, one that requires a complex set of advanced skills.  Part visionary, part general, one must engage a prestidigitator’s feather touch, and a soldier’s endurance, all while keeping one’s eye on the schedule. The industry must investigate filmmakers from worlds such as shorts, webseries and documentaries, as well as mid-career workers who have been sidelined due to insubstantial female hiring.

Industry validation is a lame predictor that perpetuates the myth that only pre-established, moneymaking directors can make a good film.  Hollywood literary agencies have tremendous power in the industry-hiring engine, but very few women directors have the benefit of these moguls’ influence.  Agents know where the jobs are and have tremendous sway in influencing which of their clients is considered.  The agencies have a responsibility in this issue and must open the doors for more and more women directors.  Clearly monetization is the name of the game; but there is no doubt that hordes of accomplished women directors would be able to deliver smashing successes if given the chance.

Over the years, network and studio diversity departments have created a variety of lackluster programs in an attempt to ameliorate these embarrassing issues. Several networks and studios have hired new diversity directors and initiated newly designed programs.  With over 3300 episodes produced each year, television should be the great leveler for women directors. It is a perfect industry to elevate a female work force.  In the past, however, the majority of diversity programs for women directors were created with misguided criteria, seeking to initiate brand new, inexperienced directors instead of giving opportunities to the thousands of skilled, experienced, unemployed professional woman directors. With millions of dollars at stake on a single episode of television, producers, no matter how enlightened, were not going to hand over a directing job to a rookie. It is encouraging to see these same companies are rebooting their methods.  Perhaps this time they will get serious about hiring women.  The next few months will be pivotal.

Now is the perfect time to raise awareness regarding the importance of having more women directors calling, “ACTION!” The vision for #WomenCallAction is to become a dynamic social media campaign,  that can be used to apply pressure to those in power – the networks, studios and advertisers  – to hire more and more women to direct their content.

Let us make noticing credits important.  Start to pay attention to director credits on the media you watch.  Use the hashtag #WomenCallAction to congratulate a job well done by a women director or to question why certain shows hire no women at all. Numbers are important to industry builders.  If we can show Hollywood that huge segments of our citizens care deeply about who directs our media, we will have the power to force change.

Elevating the careers of women directors is vital to a society that cherishes equality and diversity.  It is also essential that the content we export around the world represent male and female perspectives. Women control over two trillion dollars of American purchasing power, 85 percent of household purchases, and are often the decision-makers when it comes to choosing what movie a couple will see.  So, next time you watch television or see a film, recognize that “Women Call Action” and let the studios, networks, and advertisers know that you want more of them at the helm.

KEY ACTIONS:  Use hashtag #WomenCallAction WHEN:

  • A woman has directed something you watch.
  • A man has directed something that could have been more sensitively directed by a female director.
  • Many episodes of the same series are directed by a man.  Or many movies of the same genre are directed only by men.
  • A movie or episode resorts to behavior that is insulting to girls and women, promulgating negative stereotypes.

CALL OUT PRODUCERS, NETWORKS AND ADVERTISERS – NAME NAMES!!

Banner image credit: Karolyne Carloss

rachel feldman 043 copy-1About the Author: Rachel Feldman is a director and screenwriter, currently in development with THE GOOD YEARS, a feature film based on the life of Lilly Ledbetter, with Oscar winning producer, and Women In Film President, Cathy Schulman and Mandalay Pictures. Rachel has directed many hours of series television and Movies of the Week for ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, CW, FOX, HBO, LIFETIME, DISNEY CHANNEL, TEEN NICK, LIFETIME and SYFY.  She teaches directing at Loyola Marymount University and has taught directing and screenwriting at University of Southern California.  Rachel received her BA at Sarah Lawrence College and her MFA at New York University School of Film & Television. Follow Rachel and this campaign on twitter @WomenCallAction.

Posted in Arts & Culture

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