Hey, Hollywood: What’s Wrong With This Picture?

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Photo of the Hollywood sign

HOLLYWOOD–The real story for women in Hollywood is more gloomy than glamorous. New research reveals that men still dominate all movie and TV jobs in vast numbers compared with women. In fact, the numbers of women in some key Hollywood jobs have decreased in recent years.

“It’s as if the women’s movement never happened in Hollywood,” says Emmy winner Jan Wahl, who reviews movies for the NBC-TV affiliate in San Francisco. “It’s a tragedy for all women.”

New research by Martha Lauzen, Ph.D., a professor at San Diego State University, reveals that among the 207 top grossing films last year, women constituted only 17 percent of all creators behind the scenes, including producers, directors, writers, and editors.

Only 4 percent of directors were women, a drop from 8 percent the previous year. There were other significant declines in the numbers of executive producers from 21 percent to 15 percent, and female editors from 13 percent to 8 percent. The picture for television is similarly bleak.

“People think we’re doing better than we are,” says Robin Swicord, a respected film screenwriter whose credits include, “Little Women.” She laments that women in Hollywood “have worked so hard and tried to get more jobs for other women, but it’s discouraging that we have so far to go.”

Stay tuned for a nationwide girl-cott against TV, movies

In November, Chicago-based Merge Magazine and the Media and Women Project are calling for a second annual “Girl-cott of the Movies,” a nationwide protest against Hollywood and movies that unfairly represent and employ women.

“We hope to get thousands of people involved in staying away from bad-for-women movies,” says Tamara Sobel, founder of the Media and Women Project. “We have to start speaking up with a single voice,” Lauzen agrees. “If we don’t, no one will.”

And it’s not just an issue of jobs in an industry that rakes in over $22 billion a year.

When the numbers of women working on a movie or TV show decline, females are more likely to be portrayed unrealistically on screen as what Lauzen calls “adorable dopes.” They are powerless, indecisive and childlike, with men at the center of their universe and a need to be rescued.

“These are the Ally McBeals and the Dharmas, just one step up from the classic bimbo,” Lauzen says. “When women have more powerful roles in the making of a movie or TV show, we know that we also get more powerful female characters onscreen, women who are more real and more multi-dimensional.”

Blood and sex sell big overseas–the biggest-grossing market

“Hollywood is only interested in what guys want, like old geezer movies and slob sex comedies where all girls are bimbos,” says Wahl, a member of the Directors Guild who has reviewed movies for 20 years. “I’ve never seen our culture in such bad shape.”

Wahl and other Hollywood observers blame the bottom line: money. They say a hit movie can take in most of its gross–as much as 80 percent–overseas.

“Overseas audiences still want sex and violence. That’s what sells outside the U.S.,” says Wahl. “The whole world may have to change before the picture for women in Hollywood gets brighter.”

“It is very hard to get movies made that are genuinely feminist, or even portray women in a fair way,” Swicord says. “I genuinely believe there is a big domestic audience for this kind of movie, but if there is only a domestic audience, it won’t get made.”

Quality and realism improve with more women on the sets

Swicord and Lauzen agree that it’s not a male conspiracy and it doesn’t help to label men in Hollywood as sexists. Lauzen’s research also shows that women who have jobs behind the scenes in Hollywood try to help their sisters.

“When women have power roles behind the screen, we get more women on the crew and we get a different kind of portrayal on screen, which is a more powerful female character,” she says.

But women working for their side are up against a conspiracy of the money-hungry, whose job is to pull in the big bucks–and often the grosser the movie, the bigger the gross.

The TV picture appears to be just as dim.

Research released by Lauzen last week shows that in the latest primetime TV season, 1999-2000, women accounted for only 40 percent of all characters, and overall they were portrayed as being younger and less powerful than men. Male characters were identified more by their occupation, while women were identified more by their marital status.

“Veronica’s Closet” is a good example of a bad show, Lauzen says.

At first blush actress Kirstie Alley seemed to be a great character. She was over 40, not stick-thin and she was CEO of a multi-national company. “But then the show’s creators ‘youth-enized’ her by making her very childlike and indecisive,” Lauzen says. She cites one episode when she said she couldn’t leave her husband even though he cheated on her dozens of times.

“That was supposed to be a source of humor,” Lauzen says.

Revealing bias that had been suspected but never proven until now, Lauzen’s newest study also shows that the scheduling practices of the major TV networks systematically favor shows where men dominate over women both on camera and off.

“When the networks dole out time slots, they are doling out the fate of a show,” Lauzen says. “So the networks can be doling out a death sentence or guaranteeing that a show will be a hit depending on its time slot.”

On the major networks (ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox), as the percentage of females increased both onscreen and as creators of a show, the more that show “got moved around and surrounded by programs not getting high ratings or shares,” Lauzen reports.

“In other words, the female shows got a much tougher batting order,” she says.

Best shows for and about women get shabby time slots

The picture was just the opposite–brighter–for women in the scheduling practices of the smaller networks studied, UPN and WB, where more favorable time slots were given to shows with higher percentages of women characters and creative talent behind them.

Overall in primetime TV, women constituted only 18 percent of the creative talent, including executive producers, writers, and editors. Only 7 percent of all directors were women.

The cause of these low numbers, Lauzen believes, is the power of the status quo. “People like to work with other people who are like them, so men tend to hire men, women tend to hire women, and so forth.”

Lauzen began researching the state of female employment in movies and TV because she kept hearing that women were making progress in Hollywood, “while the numbers didn’t seem to jibe with what I was seeing on film and on the air.”

She admits changing Hollywood “is going to be like turning around a battleship. It will take time, but awareness is the first step.”

Jeannine Yeomans is a former television correspondent and creative consultant based in San Francisco.

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