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Wanted: More female directors

THE BIG PICTURE / PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

May 20, 2008|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

AS Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has stumbled during the last few months in the Democratic presidential race, a host of supporters have raised a hue and cry over sexism in coverage of the campaign. Clinton herself has complained about a "double standard" among media commentators -- and she's not just talking about MSNBC's Chris Matthews, who regularly comments on his female guests' appearance and compared Clinton to Nurse Ratched, the schemer in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."

It's true -- the media have obsessed over Clinton's pantsuits, her laugh, her steely demeanor, her eyes misting over in New Hampshire, things that you'd hardly imagine meriting a story if the candidate were Sen. Harry Reid. But if you think Clinton has been bedeviled by a double standard, wait till you see what women directors are up against in Hollywood.

The summer movie machine is in full swing, and, once again, it's almost impossible to find a studio film with a woman at the helm during the season that provides more than 40% of the year's box-office revenue. According to Media by Numbers, all 30 of the 30 top-grossing films from last summer were directed by men. According to my informal survey of major studio films from this summer, only two -- "Mamma Mia!" and "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2" -- are directed by women.

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As the executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in TV and Film at San Diego State University, Martha Lauzen is considered the most reliable statistician for female employment in Hollywood. Her numbers are equally depressing. Of the 250 top-grossing American movies in 2007, only 6% were directed by women, down from 7% in 2005 and 9% in 1998.

How bad is that number? Well, the number of women serving in the U.S. Senate is more than twice that 6%. Lauzen doesn't mince words. "Hollywood is far more embarrassed about being labeled racist than sexist," she told me. "There are a host of causes -- it's not like there's a smoke-filled room where men get together and prevent women from getting jobs. It's more insidious than that. But Hollywood is in denial, and as long as they're in denial, then they don't feel they need to do anything about it."

When people are underrepresented in Hollywood, conspiracy theories abound. It's an article of faith among political conservatives that, because Hollywood is swarming with liberals, conservatives are denied jobs. But whenever I've looked into specific accusations, the evidence has been flimsy at best. It's far more likely that liberals dominate theater, music and film for much the same reason conservatives hold sway in talk radio and Wall Street -- it's simply a world that speaks to their interests.

It's especially hard to cry discrimination about female directors when women flourish in so many other areas of the business -- Hollywood is loaded with powerful female producers, studio executives, managers and publicists. By and large, the track record of hiring women directors is no different at any studio, whether the studio is run by a man or a woman.

Nonetheless, the track record is terrible. Catherine Hardwicke, director of such youth-oriented films as "13," "Lords of Dogtown" and the upcoming "Twilight," says she studies the Directors Guild of America calendar of upcoming screenings each month, adding up the director's names. "It's usually 30 guys and one woman," she says.

If you were looking at Hollywood's history through a gender lens, you might say the industry went almost directly from male domination to post-feminism without ever enjoying a true feminist age. The rise of feminism almost exactly overlaps with the last glory days of filmmaking (roughly 1967 to 1978), yet the era as portrayed in Peter Biskind's compelling history "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls" is one of pure male ego and excess.

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The paucity of female directors seems rooted in a variety of hard-to-define issues, including lifestyle choices, aesthetic interests and personality differences. But one key contrast stands out. While there is a sizable number of women working in indie films (Sofia Coppola, Mira Nair, Nicole Holofcener, to name just a few), when you ask studio chiefs to name women who would be on their list to direct a mainstream summer movie, they offer up Nancy Meyers, Nora Ephron and -- well, then they start to run out of gas.

"You can name the women directors in our business by their first names -- that's how few there are," says DreamWorks Co-Chairman Stacey Snider. "It's flattering that they have such instant notoriety, yet it speaks to the larger issue that there just isn't a very wide pool of talent to choose from."

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