Unconscious Bias and Hollywood’s Arrested Development – Dr. Martha M. Lauzen comments (Exclusive)

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Martha Lauzen
Martha Lauzen
As this year’s Oscar nominations attest, the film industry continues to suffer from an acute case of arrested development when it comes to gender diversity. The lack of women nominees as directors, cinematographers, and writers is a symptom of wider biases operating in the business. Read on…

According to the latest Celluloid Ceiling study of women’s behind-the-scenes employment, women comprised a meager 7% of directors, 5% of cinematographers, and 11% of writers working on the top 250 (domestic) grossing films of 2014. These percentages do not differ appreciably from those obtained in 1998 when women accounted for 9% of directors, 4% of cinematographers, and 13% of writers. They also belie the fact that women are well represented as students in film schools nationwide.

Women’s continuing under-employment can be chalked up, at least in part, to unconscious bias. As Sony Pictures Co-Chairman Amy Pascal blithely noted in a 2014 interview with New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, any gender biases in Hollywood “are completely unconscious.” However, counter to the executive’s insinuation that the subtle nature of the bias makes it somehow less harmful or odious, academic research on the subject suggests that the under-the-radar character of the bias actually makes it more difficult to address. Such gender bias is expressed in myriad yet painfully predictable ways. In what has become a common refrain, executives profess that they would like to hire women directors, but they can’t find any. They make this claim in spite of the fact that women work in greater numbers in independent film and television, and voluminous lists of women directors are readily available on a number of websites, including the Directors Guild of America site, as well as on the Pinterest site, Women Directors (www.pinterest.com/destrimartino/women-directors/). It is difficult to believe that executives and producers have made a good faith effort to locate women filmmakers when they can simply consult the DGA’s website or the directing credits on some of today’s most critically-acclaimed television series.

Executives also maintain that they have offered positions on high-profile, large-budget features to women filmmakers, only to be turned down. In a recent three-part series on women directors in The New York Times, film critic and writer Manohla Dargis quotes Amy Pascal and Hannah Minghella, president of production for Columbia Pictures, as saying that they try to hire female directors. Women filmmakers offer a different perspective. In response to such declarations, director Mimi Leder notes, “I hear that a lot, ‘Oh, we approach women.’ And I hear that about a lot of producers who run companies. But I don’t really believe that is really, truly the case. Otherwise, there would be more women making films.”

Further, the coupling of unconscious bias with wishful thinking has stifled the perceived need for significant and immediate action on the issue. In the Dowd column, Pascal maintains that the success of films such as Gravity, The Hunger Games, and Frozen represent “gigantic change” for the industry. While these films are financial blockbusters and feature female protagonists, they misrepresent the situation for women in mainstream film. In 2013, females comprised just 15% of protagonists in the top 100 grossing films, down 1 percentage point from 2002, according to the study, It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World. But the promise of imminent and substantial change after decades of stagnation is incredibly seductive. This sleight-of-hand tactic uses anecdotal data to effectively halt any further discussion of the facts or the need for change.

Finally, the inclination to pose questions about women’s employment almost exclusively to women heads of studios and producers has helped to narrowly define women’s under-employment as a “women’s issue.” This is unfortunate since studio heads such as Amy Pascal and Donna Langley qualify as tokens in their organizational roles. As such, they reside precariously between their gender affiliation and the norms established by, and associated with, the male majority of their peers. As a result, they must be acutely aware that moving any agenda championing members of their lower-status group imperils their position. The fact is that any successful industry-wide initiative to improve women’s employment will most certainly require the leadership and support of men in the business who enjoy greater ideological and behavioral latitude.

The unconscious bias underlying the stagnant gender dynamics is in desperate need of outing. Notions that there simply aren’t any women directors, women filmmakers aren’t interested in high-profile studio gigs, change is just around the corner, and that this is solely a women’s issue need to be challenged and recognized for what they are – excuses that serve as roadblocks to change.

Dr. Martha M. Lauzen is the executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film (http://womenintvfilm.sdsu.edu) and professor at San Diego State University. She is the author of The Celluloid Ceiling, It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World, and numerous studies of women working on screen and behind the scenes in film and television. She is a member of the Board of Advisors for the Alliance of Women Film Journalists.

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