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Calling Susan Faludi

Women Who Run the Show: How a Brilliant and Creative New Generation of Women Stormed Hollywood, 1973-2000, Mollie Gregory, St. Martin's Press: 400 pp., $26.95

November 17, 2002|Lynda Obst | Lynda Obst, a producer at Paramount Pictures, is the author of "Hello, He Lied: And Other Truths From the Hollywood Trenches."

"We forget history so fast in this country," a television writer named Dianne Dixon told Mollie Gregory. "Like water on a hot sidewalk, it evaporates before it's recorded." It's a telling quote that captures the importance of Gregory's recent book, "Women Who Run the Show," an exhaustively researched, if not elegantly written, tome about how a band of sisters crashed the all-boys party that was Hollywood.

Gregory's is encyclopedic oral history; the index alone refers to just about every woman who strode through the halls of network television and studio back lots over the last 20 years -- at least the ones I ever heard of and many I had not -- and it comes just in time to record a history that seems in danger of seeming trivial. "I don't think there's been a women's movement in a decade. Is that dangerous?" a former business affairs executive is quoted as saying. Good question, well worth answering.

"Nobody seems to know what post-feminism is, but we are definitely in it," Gregory concludes. "Scholars have defined it as cultural constrictions favoring those men in power.... It points to struggles that were won, and they're over." Definitely over, but won? True, women producers are now commonplace, and three studios are run by three remarkably gifted women. This would have been unimaginable a brief 15 years ago despite their undeniable talent.

But there are fewer women directors than 10 years ago, and nowhere near parity in writing in film or television. But most troubling is the increasing attrition of women in the middle ranks because of exhaustion. Of late, it has become a kind of status to leave your high-paying job to stay at home with a late-life child or for marriage to be the goal of middle-management development-girls, as it used to be for dental assistants. While signs of extraordinary change are omnipresent, most women sense ambivalence from their bosses when dealing with a pregnancy. That reaction creates conflict matching a woman's own internal ambivalence. It's this internal ambivalence that troubles me.

Gregory's book reveals the chasm between then and now, more like an eon than a mere 20 years. To wit, Paramount Chairman Sherry Lansing, the foremost of the great dames of Hollywood, recalls her expectations at the beginning of her career: "[I]f we sought careers," she tells Gregory, "we could become a nurse or teacher. They are wonderful professions but they were practically the only ones open to women. I sort of accepted the fact that a woman would never run a company." Now she has run Paramount for an unprecedented 10 years and is still standing. Yet women all over Hollywood are in retreat.

Pop culture indicates that this is not just a local backlash -- indeed, it is endemic to the culture at large -- but like everything else in Hollywood's value system, it is most bald and cravenly unapologetic here. I first noticed the sea change when I read Drew Barrymore -- a woman I know to be smart and ambitious -- deny with horror that she was a feminist. The word suddenly had an icky old-fashioned quality that she took for granted. It stunned me.

Where is Susan Faludi when we need her? Why is no one calling this by its real name: backlash? But this is a female-driven backlash from formerly driven women or their proteges, all under the approving gaze of the men in power, denouncing the life of the Big Career. These are the newly chic stay-at-home mothers who shine at their children's schools' fund-raising but are free enough for a manicure in the afternoon.

Women in Hollywood are dropping like flies. Off to the suburbs to bury the hatchet of the dream career and erect the white picket fence we once saw as jail. Say goodbye to striving for success. Say hello to striving for status, for safety, for the comfort of the husband's financial umbrella, so that only he will feel the tremors and dread of the fray. We're off to redecorate, to wax -- the floor, whatever. It was far more horrible out there than anyone led us to expect.

Where have all the brave women gone? Off to try out new painful cosmetic surgeries? Doesn't anyone remember how painfully poignant it was to grow up with a brilliant mother stuck in the suburbs with nothing to do? Doesn't anyone else see Betty Friedan around the corner? Why does Donna Reed suddenly look more glamorous than Mary Richards?

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