Examining Hollywood’s diversity issues: The Oscars, ‘Ghostbusters’ – and why women in film and on TV matters

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Geena Davis is an Oscar-winning actor and founder of the Geena Davis Institute for Gender in Media. Photo provided

Geena Davis is an Oscar-winning actor and founder of the Geena Davis Institute for Gender in Media. Photo provided

No matter how many statistics you put forward, if you read many stories about the underrepresentation of women in movies or on television, it won’t take you long to read this comment or some variation on it:

Why does it matter?

Geena Davis, Oscar-winning actor and founder of the Geena Davis Institute for Gender in Media, has spoken out about why it matters in an interview with The Guardian.

 Thelma & Louise changed my life,” she said, referring to the 1991 film for which she was nominated for an Oscar. “For the first time I realised how rare it is for women to come out of the cinema and feel excited and empowered by the female characters they saw. I was already a feminist – I had always wanted to empower women and girls – but Thelma & Louise was an awakening about how powerful media images could be. And also how negative they are; how women are being completely left out of entertainment media.”

A critical and commercial hit, Thelma & Louise was one of the movies that was predicted to finally move the needle on the number of women represented in film. Her follow-up, 1992’s A League of Their Own, also seemed a potential game-changer.

“Neither prediction turned out to be true,” Davis said. “After that, I started paying attention. Every few years there would be a new successful movie starring women and it would be the same – “This will change everything.” But nothing has changed. The Hunger Games came out and the numbers have not moved. The male-to-female character ratio in films is the same as in 1946.”

So, why does it matter if women represent about half of the population but represent significantly fewer on both the big and small screens?

“From the very beginning, we train children to have unconscious gender bias. Even in kids’ movies there are fewer female characters. And the female characters that are there are very often valued for their looks, and don’t have the same kind of aspirations and goals and dreams [as the male characters],” Davis said.

“Our research [commissioned in conjunction with J Walter Thompson] shows that the more TV a girl watches, the fewer options she thinks she has in life. She doesn’t see all the great options that are presented to men and boys; male self-esteem goes up when they watch TV. People can be inspired or limited by what they see. If they see women doing brave things, such as leaving their abusive husbands, it impacts us greatly.”

Her institute’s motto is “if you see it, you can be it,” it’s one that’s also supported by its research. The institute has found that since the release of Brave and The Hunger Games films, the number of girls taking up archery has shot up. In its studies of female occupations on TV, the institute found that one that was particularly well-represented was forensic scientist, because of the CSI franchise. In real life, the number of women wanting to enter that profession has skyrocketed.

“There are so few role models in many fields in real life – in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) careers, for instance – that we have to see them on screen because that inspires people to think they can do it,” she said.

Since I have a 5-year-old daughter – and another daughter on the way – it matters to me that they have all the positive voices they can get in their lives, including movies and TV programs that show them what girls and women can be, instead of what they should settle for.

Chris Rock hosted the 2016 Oscars. Photo provided

Chris Rock hosted the 2016 Oscars. Photo provided

The Oscars take on diversity – for better or worse

Davis also talked to The Guardian about how the #OscarsSoWhite controversy shook up the diversity debate:

“There are so few opportunities for women of colour that they barely register in the research [into the numbers of women in film and TV]. We are doing a bad job with women and a horrible job with women of colour,” she said. “There are female actors nominated for the Oscars because we divide by gender – if it were one category for best performance, we would have a really hard time. But the Oscars are emblematic of a deep-seated problem – really, it’s about the product being put out by Hollywood. Most profoundly, it’s what is made that needs to change.”

Davis is absolutely right: the reason for dividing the male and female acting categories at the Academy Awards is to give women a fighting chance since they face such bias.

But that didn’t stop Oscars host Chris Rock from calling out the idea in his 10 ½-minute opening monologue devoted to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, which you can watch here.

“There’s no real reason for there to be a men’s and women’s category in acting. C’mon, there’s no reason,” Rock said.

Sadly, there’s a great reason to separate them, which is that Hollywood’s gender bias is every bit as pervasive as its racial and ethnic hang-ups. As previously reported, the Women’s Media Center revealed that in its 10-year study of the Oscars, women represent only 19 percent of nominations, outside the divided acting categories. Women this year represented 22 percent of nominees, a high mark for the past decade, though still well below women’s percentage of the population, which again, is around 50 percent.

While it was great to see the Oscars address its dearth of diversity head-on; unfortunately, that seemed to be the Oscars’ way of handling of diversity: A lot of talk about lack about diversity that focused on the absence of black acting nominees, often at the expense of women, Asians and transgendered people.

Although she attended the Oscars, South Korean soprano Sumi Jo wasn't invited to perform the best original song nominee "Simple Song #3" from "Youth. Photo provided

Although she attended the Oscars, South Korean soprano Sumi Jo wasn’t invited to perform the best original song nominee “Simple Song #3″ from “Youth. Photo provided

For example, in addition to Rock’s 10 1/2-minute monologue, the broadcast included at least two more skits focused on the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, one in which black actors (including Leslie Jones, whom we’ll talk more about later) were interjected into best picture nominees and another in which Rock interviewed Compton moviegoers about Oscar-nominated films. But the producers couldn’t find time to let two of the five Oscar best song nominees perform: Grammy-winning South Korean opera soprano Sumi Jo wasn’t invited to sing Simple Song #3 from Youth, nor was Anohni – the first transgender performer to receive a nomination – allowed to perform her duet with J Ralph, Manta Ray from the documentary Racing Extinction.

In other words, the Oscar producers passed up a chance to truly showcase diversity in favor of just talking about it some more.

“Everyone told me that I still ought to attend, that a walk down the red carpet would still be ‘good for my career.’ Last night I tried to force myself to get on the plane to fly to LA for all the nominee events, but the feelings of embarrassment and anger knocked me back, and I couldn’t get on the plane,” Anohni (AKA Antony Hegarty) wrote in an essay.

Those weren’t the only instances in which the Academy Awards’ focus on diversity was disappointingly less than diverse. Rock eventually trotted out three Asian children posing as accountants from PricewaterhouseCoopers.

“They sent us their most dedicated, accurate and hard working representatives,” the Oscars host said. “Please welcome Ming Zhu, Bao Ling and David Moskowitz.”

He added, “If anybody’s upset about that joke, just tweet about it on your phone that was also made by these kids.” So, he added that bit of irony just so we all know it’s OK. Plus, it’s Asians, and we’re allowed to make fun of them for being so smart and having child labor and all, right?

Charlotte Hornets basketball player Jeremy Lin has spoken out about an Asian joke at the Oscars. Photo provided

Charlotte Hornets basketball player Jeremy Lin has spoken out about an Asian joke at the Oscars. Photo provided

Um, no. Actor Jeffrey Wright tweeted in response, “Half-assed Asian joke, #Oscars, and then preach about diversity? #LoseMe,” while Asian-American NBA player Jeremy Lin weighed on the situation at practice Tuesday:

“I just feel like sometimes the way people perceive Asians or Asian-Americans today can be disappointing in the way they view them,” Lin said, according to the Associated Press. “Even Asian-American masculinity or whatever you want to talk about, just a lot of the ways that Asians are perceived I don’t always agree with.”

Although the Oscars were a bit hit and miss in their efforts to address #OscarsSoWhite, the good news is that the controversy seems to be making a difference. The Hollywood Reporter reports that since the Oscar nominations were announced Jan. 14, a slew of diverse stories and color-blind castings have gained momentum. Newly announced projects include the young Barack Obama movie Barry and Disney’s immigrant story Dr. Q. The Zero Dark Thirty team of Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal next will make a film set during the 1967 Detroit riot that will cast several actors of color.

And Fox 2000 and Chernin are developing Hidden Figures, a movie about the African-American women who helped NASA launch its first space missions. As previously reported, Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer recently were cast.

Those come on the heels of the record-breaking $17.5 million Sundance deal for University of Oklahoma graduate Nate Parker’s slave drama The Birth of a Nation.

Plus, J.J. Abrams’ production company Bad Robot has teamed with its agency, CAA, and studio partners to require that women and people of color are submitted for writing, directing and acting jobs in proportion to their representation in the U.S. population.

Leslie Jones appears in a scene from "Ghostbusters." Sony Pictures photo

Leslie Jones appears in a scene from “Ghostbusters.” Sony Pictures photo

‘Ghostbusters’ trailer spawns controversy

Sony Pictures released Thursday the official trailer for its reboot of Ghostbusters, directed by Paul Feig and starring Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones as the new team of ghost-fighters, with Thor’s Chris Hemsworth as their receptionist. Watch it here.

Although the humor in the trailer won my diehard Ghostbusters’ fan husband and me, some were upset that Jones, the only non-white actor, plays a transit worker while the other three leads are scientists.

“I understand this is a reboot of Ghostbusters from 1984 and the new characters mirror their male counterparts. But it’s been over thirty years and the dynamic of three white scientists and ‘street-wise’ minority is dated. Even Ernie Hudson (Winston) has talked about the marginalization of his character in the original franchise,” Donna Dickens wrote for HitFix.

Jones hit back at the critics on Twitter:

“Why can’t a regular person be a Ghostbuster,” tweeted Jones, who plays an MTA worker named Patty. “I’m confused. And why can’t I be the one who plays them I am a performer. Just go see the movie!”

“Regular People save the world everyday so if I’m the sterotype!! Then so be it!! We walk among Heroes and take them for granted,” she wrote in a follow-up tweet.

She added that people can’t know all about her character from a 2 ½-minute trailer and shared a note from an MTA token booth clerk, who said, “the fact that my position as a clerk is the most abused by society, I feel this may give us a semblance of humanness.”

I can’t help but agree with Jones that it’s too early to weigh in on her Ghostbusters character since the movie doesn’t even come out until July 15.

I also can’t help but wonder if anyone has informed Kevin Hart that the “street-wise” minority character is dated and passé. There seems almost a double standard in play here: Jones is a comedian who has developed a particular persona, as a fierce, funny underdog, which we saw on view during the previously mentioned Oscars bit. Why shouldn’t she in her first big movie role take advantage of that persona, much like Hart does in his movies? Or is it because she’s a woman that she has some sort of obligation to play a kind of perfect intellectual?

And just because a character happens to be a wise-cracking toll booth worker, does that mean she can’t be intelligent, interesting and worthwhile? Let’s hope not.

the Oklahoma feature film Heartland made its world premiere over the weekend at the CineQuest Film Festival taking place in San Jose, Calif. The film will screen there again at 1:30 p.m. Thursday. Image provided

the Oklahoma feature film Heartland made its world premiere over the weekend at the CineQuest Film Festival taking place in San Jose, Calif. The film will screen there again at 1:30 p.m. Thursday. Image provided

Quick hitters – from the Oscars and beyond:

Heartland premieres at CineQuest festival. As I reported on my BAM’s Blog, the Oklahoma feature film Heartland made its world premiere over the weekend at the CineQuest Film Festival taking place in San Jose, Calif. The film will screen there again at 1:30 p.m. Thursday.

The movie is about a young Oklahoma artist struggling with a recent death who finds escape in a reckless affair with her brother’s girlfriend. For more information on the film, go to Heartland’s Facebook page.

Costume designer encourages women to be comfortable in their own style. One of the bigger viral videos to come out the Academy Awards ceremony was a Vine viewed over 37 million times that showed many people in the audience failing to clap when Mad Max: Fury Road costume designer Jenny Beavan walked down the aisle to accept her best costume design Oscar. The speculation was that many of these people failed to clap because Beavan skipped out of the usual frothy gown and instead wore jeans, a scarf and a faux leather jacket adorned with a rhinestone skull from the movie.

I’m not wild about the Internet’s habit of speculating on people’s thoughts and intents based on video clips running less than 10 seconds, but I was wild about Beavan’s response to the furor:

“The only thing I would like is for my outfit to have a positive effect on what women feel about themselves. You don’t actually have to look like a supermodel to be successful. If that could be a takeaway, I think that would be a good thing. It is really good to have a positive feeling about yourself, because then you can do anything,” she wrote for The Hollywood Reporter.

Women get a win for FX. This year’s Academy Awards came with at least one milestone for women: Sara Bennett became the first woman visual effects supervisor to win an Oscar, for Ex Machina, according to Vox.com. Visual effects is a heavily male-dominated industry, and Bennett shared the award with her otherwise all-male team. But she was only the second woman to win an award in that category (the first being Suzanne Benson for Aliens in 1986) and the third to be nominated. Good for her.

Patricia Arquette continues quest for equality. In the days leading up this year’s Academy Awards, 2015 best supporting actress winner Patricia Arquette, who used her acceptance speech last year as a platform to speak out for equal pay for women, co-hosted the first Dinner for Equality, gathering celebrities including Elon Musk, Reese Witherspoon, Stevie Wonder and fellow Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence, who as previously reported, also has spoken out on equal pay in the past year.

“It’s not about being an actor, or how many zeroes are behind the number. What it is about is that this is in 98 percent of all businesses,” Arquette told The Daily Beast.

“Standing behind Jennifer Lawrence, while they seem totally unrelated to this big movie star who makes a lot of money, are 33 million women and kids who are seriously suffering because their mom’s not paid her full dollar,” she continued. “To diminish that argument and make it about actresses or wealthy actresses is really a stupid argument because the reality is it’s in all businesses and we need to talk about it.”

Arquette is hoping to get people talking with Equal Means Equal, a new documentary she executive produced and appears in alongside an impressive coalition of national advocacy and activist leaders.

Tribeca Film Festival sets record for female directors. The Tribeca Film Festival unveiled last week the first half of its annual slate of films, a record third of which are from female directors including Sophia Takal and Ingrid Jungermann, according to the AP.

RIP Nancy Reagan. Former first lady Nancy Reagan, who as an aspiring actress married affable leading man Ronald Reagan, died Sunday at the age of 94.

Variety reminds us that Nancy Davis was an actress under contract with MGM in 1949 when she first met Reagan, then president of the Screen Actors Guild, and asked for his help in clearing her name after it mistakenly appeared on a list of Communist sympathizers in Hollywood. Over dinner, they hit it off and started dating, but it was several years before Reagan, recently divorced from actress Jane Wyman, would be ready to tie the knot again. They married in 1952, had two children, and offered unflagging support during his political career, which took them first to the California governor’s office and then to the White House.

-BAM

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