Sexism in Film, Part II: What’s the Solution for Hollywood?

Recently, I wrote about sexism in films today and the general lack of strong roles for women. The blog noted that Jane Austen has been the source for at least ninety TV or movie productions, nearly half of all female films in the last twenty years.

Though the quiet perseverance of her characters has a universal appeal, the point was not so much hooray for Austen as it was a raspberry for the dearth of female roles from other sources.

The discussion over women in films, it turns out, was only beginning to gather steam in the industry, and the numbers that have turned up are damning.

In a survey of movies from 2007-2012, the New York Film Academy (NYFA) found that only 31 percent of all speaking characters in film are women. Nearly 30 percent of all women in movies wear revealing clothes or become partially naked, versus less than 10 percent of men. Women characters tend to be younger than men and ancillary to them.

Gena Davis, star of “Thelma and Louise” and other female-driven films, points out that in family films the percentage of speaking female roles is even lower (28 percent) and the female roles are often stereotypical.

In animated films, in which the production company can include as many females as desired, women compose only 17 percent of crowd scenes! Are they that much harder to draw?

Black women have particularly difficult problems getting roles or visibility. By overwhelming numbers, black women in films are homeless, powerless, abused, or alone. Even when they achieve recognition, it’s often for a menial position. Two of the six academy awards won by black females in 88 years were for servant roles, Hattie McDaniel in 1941 and Octavia Spencer in 2011.

The lack of roles for women translates into a lack of leverage for paychecks. NYFA found that men took home the top 16 biggest paychecks in Hollywood. The highest salary for a woman, Angelina Jolie, was equal to the lowest two salaries for men on the list.

Nancy Myers, the acclaimed director of movies about women, said in a New York magazine interview in Sept. 2015 that, except for a “couple” of bankable female stars, most women are fighting over the same small number of roles. This gives them less negotiating power than men. She also said it’s hard to get male movie stars to play in a movie if a woman is the lead.

The assumption is that putting women in positions of power will help female actors, and that turns out to be true. NYFA found that a female director results in nearly an 11 percent increase in female characters and a female writer leads to a nearly 9 percent increase in female characters.

Female directors, however, find it difficult to obtain employment.

Vulture columnist Kyle Buchanan documents that, in 2015, not a single film directed by a woman was produced by 20th Century Fox, Paramount, Sony, or the Weinstein Company.

Movies in the pipeline for 2016 have a similar tale: A USC study found that just 3.4 percent of working film directors were female and only 7 percent of all films reflected the country’s diversity. A USA Today analysis of 184 movies by 14 studios slated for release this year found little female presence.

Even the next in the female-based “Divergent” series, which stars Shailene Woodley, went to a male director. And, in the entire history of the Academy Awards, only four women have been nominated for best director, and only one has won, Kathryn Bigelow in 2010. Surprise: 77 percent of Oscar voters are male.

Barbra Streisand observed that women were doing better 100 years ago, when 12 women were working as directors in Hollywood.

Directing is only part of the equation, of course. Women are vastly underserved in the Hollywood power structure. According to NYFA, women comprise only 25 percent of producers; 20 percent of editors, 15 percent of writers; and 2 percent of cinematographers. Women constitute 9 percent of directors; if only 3.4 percent made a studio film in 2016, then two-thirds of women are unable to find a major directing job.

To the complaint that there aren’t enough good women directors out there, Buchanan of The Vulture provides a list of one hundred female directors Hollywood should be hiring .

Nancy Myers, the director, says that the problem is part cultural and part psychological, because in Hollywood a male director can have a flop and get another chance, but a woman cannot. Shonda Rhimes, considered the most powerful female in television for her hit shows featuring strong black females, echoes these remarks, saying that men consider successful female productions to be a fluke—even when the “fluke” repeats.

What drives women film professionals crazy, of course, is that female films, when they can be made, are often very successful. Seven of the top twenty movies of 2015 were primarily female-driven, including “Mad Max: Fury Road,” which was really a women’s liberation movie in which the male lead is dragged along for the ride. “Pitch Perfect 2” and Melissa McCarthy’s “Spy” trounced their male competition on release. Yet it’s also true that all but “Pitch Perfect 2” (Elizabeth Banks) was directed by a man.

The Motion Picture Academy has since announced changes designed to double the number of women and minority voters by 2020, which over time should help create more visibility for female and minority projects come award season.

But there’s the chicken-and-egg problem: What difference will that make if women and minorities continue to be overlooked for roles by the Hollywood establishment, which continues to make action-oriented movies primarily for young men?

It’s great that Austen is the go-to source for female movies, but there’s also only so much Austen material available. Though the newly released “Love and Friendship” is an excellent movie, the other new flick, “Pride and Prejudice and the Zombies,” is as awful as the book that spawned it. We’re now dredging the bottom of Austen’s manuscript drawer.

What’s the solution, readers?

Should women boycott male movies? Start a petition drive? Institute a quota system? Insist on equal pay for women actors? Is it enough that a few powerful women have created their own production companies?

Women in Films has started an online campaign, #52filmsbywomen, to encourage people to see at least one movie a week by a woman. One can rush out to see the lovely “Brooklyn,” for instance. Its star, Saoirse Ronan, was nominated for an Academy Award, and another dozen women are featured in prominent roles. Then one learns—it was written and directed by men.

Strong Female Film Characters

Strong female film characters: Will they ever consistently appear?

Movies with strong female leads have proven exceedingly popular. Consider only the success and variety of The Hunger Games, Wild, Kill Bill, Gravity, and Frozen. Yet the entertainment industry has had to be dragged—if not kicking and screaming, at least whining—into making films about strong women.

Women in the field, including the respected Emma Thompson, complain that sexism is as prevalent today in the entertainment industry as at any time in the past. “Some forms of sexism and unpleasantness to women have become more entrenched and indeed more prevalent,” Thompson says. “When I was younger, I really did think we were on our way to a better world, and when I look at it now, it is in a worse state than I have known it.”

The situation has caused Hollywood actresses, including Jennifer Aniston, Drew Barrymore, Jessica Biel, Jane Fonda, Queen Latifah, and Reese Witherspoon to found their own production companies to create films with strong female leads.

“My daughter was 13, and I wanted her to see movies with female leads and heroes and life stories,” Witherspoon explains. She and her business partner, Bruna Papandrea, through their company Pacific Standard, have already produced Wild, Gone Girl, and Don’t Mess With Texas.

Though some film heroines have used moxie and physical strength to take on a hostile world, more often women use their brains and character to hold their own in a society set against them. The source for the one consistent line of such strong, thoughtful women? Jane Austen.

At least ninety Austen-based movies, miniseries, and television shows have been done, including twenty-five or so major movies/miniseries. Most are relatively recent. The only early major movie was the Olivier-Garson Pride and Prejudice in 1940.

The Austen breakout began in 1995 with four popular Austen adaptations. Emma Thompson, quoted above, won awards as both an actress and screenwriter for Sense and Sensibility. Alicia Silverstone won accolades for the Emma-based Clueless. Jennifer Ehle battled Colin Firth until he surrendered to her charms in a Pride and Prejudice miniseries. Gwyneth Paltrow followed as Emma in 1996.

Another two dozen major productions have come along in the next twenty years, including four scheduled for release in 2015. Sarah Seltzer provides a thoughtful look at most of them, ranking the Ehle-Firth Pride and Prejudice the best and the two 1999/2007 Mansfield Parks as the worst. Even Austen’s minor books are being filmed—Love and Friendship and Lady Susan.

Why would a traditional author such as Austen be so appealing to the modern age? Perhaps women find the quiet perseverance and hope of a Liz Bennet, Catherine Morland, or Fanny Price closer to their reality than an avenging female gladiator.

There’s also a life richness often missing in action movies. Emma Thompson captures the bittersweet essence of Austen’s books when she says, “In all the great stories, even if there’s a happily-ever-after ending, there’s something sad.”

On the twentieth anniversary of the 1995 Austen emergence in film, such roles resonate today with ordinary women who face many of the same issues: a lack of respect, general economic disadvantage, and less opportunity than their male counterparts.

The same thing, of course, that females in the entertainment business face.