Hollywood's Revenge of the Old White Male

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Donald Trump signing executive order

Despite recent small advances for women and minorities in entertainment, the old boys' club comes roaring back to life in a series of top executive hires.

Last week, I came across this startling fact: The number of millennials who believe a woman’s place is in the home has risen, not fallen, over the past few years.

“The sociologists Joanna Pepin and David Cotter find that the proportion of young people holding egalitarian views about gender relationships rose steadily from 1977 to the mid-1990s but has fallen since,” wrote Stephanie Coontz in a New York Times op-ed. “In 1994, only 42 percent of high school seniors agreed that the best family was one where the man was the main income earner and the woman took care of the home. But in 2014, 58 percent of seniors said they preferred that arrangement.”

Another survey, by the Council on Contemporary Families, “found a similar trend, in this case concentrated mainly among men,” continued Coontz. “In 1994, 83 percent of young men rejected the superiority of the male-breadwinner family. By 2014 that had fallen to 55 percent. Women’s disagreement fell far less [and] by 2014, men aged 18 to 25 were more traditional than their elders.”

For those of us who believe in progress, however fickle and fitful it may be, that’s a slap in the face. These aren’t statistics from some distant, male-dominated theocracy; they reflect America here and now. And that’s shocking, given that half a century has elapsed since feminism entered the mainstream, and twice as long since a Constitutional amendment gave women the vote.

All this might be easier to understand if there were a dearth of female role models. But they’re all over the place, from Sherry Lansing to Sheryl Sandberg, from Megyn Kelly to Madonna. Women have reached the highest echelons of the working world — they’ve held almost every job except the presidency — and proved they can do those jobs as well as men.

So why such backward thinking, when you’d expect it to be going extinct?

The truth is, even as society rolls forward, a riptide is tugging us back, bearing us (like Fitzgerald’s boats) against the current, ceaselessly into the past — a past bigger and better than anything today. And maybe it was for a few alpha males, but not for anyone else.

That sentiment was central to President Trump’s election, and so it’s hardly a shock that it runs deep in the country, reinforced by a chief executive who surrounds himself with men. There’s an almost total absence of women and minorities in the current administration — four women in the Cabinet, out of 24 Cabinet members in all. That’s outrageous, and all the more so in an age when Angela Merkel and Theresa May are exemplars of what dignified and rational leaders should be, whatever you think of their policies.

How astonishing it is that the Old World is proving more progressive than the New.

But Trump isn’t so much the cause as the effect, not so much the mover of the tide as the flotsam and jetsam it’s thrown up in its wake.

Hidden in the dark pools of the internet, lurking in the stagnant waters of the alt-right, surfacing in the private fishing grounds where the old boys cast their lines, that tide is gathering force and will one day burst its dam, unless it’s actively resisted.

We’re awash in prejudice, not the sort that actively fights against women and minorities, but the sort that does nothing to help them.

***

Thank God Hollywood’s different.

Um, sorry?

The truth is, Hollywood’s experiencing a riptide of its own, and rarely was that more apparent than last week, when the Old White Guys reasserted their grip on power.

First came word that Jim Gianopulos, the recently ousted Fox chairman, had been named chairman of Paramount Pictures, replacing Brad Grey. Then came the news that Robert Iger had re-upped as CEO of The Walt Disney Co., even as the corporation flips and flops in search of a successor. It’ll just be a matter of weeks before we learn who takes over for Michael Lynton as CEO of Sony Corp. of America, and who’ll fill the role of Thomas Tull at Legendary Entertainment. And I guarantee this: Whoever it is will be neither black nor female.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with the guys who are getting the jobs; Iger and Gianopulos are supremely talented executives with long and estimable track records. The former, in fact, is among the most revered of contemporary business leaders, and his impact on Disney has been nothing short of magical; as for the latter, he had such a stellar run at Fox that nobody could ever understand why he was let go.

I’m glad to see them doing well. But I’m not glad that women aren’t doing well, too, or that there wasn’t a single woman in the mix when it came to finding a new chief for Paramount, or when Iger promoted two men to be his deputies a few years ago.

Only one female executive has even been mentioned for the current seniormost posts — Mary Parent, the head of production for Legendary Entertainment.

Even the motion picture Academy, presently headed by an African-American woman, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, looks likely to pick a man as president when her term expires later this year, with Sid Ganis and Jeffrey Kurland two possible frontrunners.

Starting to see a pattern?

We have Kathleen Kennedy and Stacey Snider and Donna Langley, but where are their successors? Where’s the deep bench that they and their male colleagues should have been nurturing all this time? Innumerable female and minority executives have talent; but with very few exceptions, they haven’t been given a fair shot.

Instead, whenever there’s a high-level vacancy, the same middle-aged males are always in the mix. Michael De Luca, Tony Vinciquerra, Rob Friedman, Steve Mosko — you name them, it’s the Hollywood Cowboys, tossing the ball to their pals. And if they fumble, so what? There’s always another to pick up the ball.

I used to think at least things were better in television. But even in TV, where there are several top-ranking women (from Jennifer Salke to Dana Walden to Bonnie Hammer), there’s been a subtle slide back. Sharon Levy is out at Spike, replaced by a white man, Keith Cox; Susanne Daniels has left MTV, with a series of white men jumping into her job; Comedy Central’s Michele Ganeless is out and Kent Alterman is in; and when Nina Tassler left CBS, Glenn Geller took her place.

Even the one woman who’s landed a major leadership post of late, ABC’s Channing Dungey — the sole woman of color named to be a network’s entertainment president — saw a man take over her old job, and a white one at that.

Parity, schmarity.

The Old White Guys still rule.

***

That’s no surprise.

Progress is inevitably accompanied by regress, revolution by counter-revolution. And certainly, we’re living in revolutionary times. More than at any point since the Industrial Revolution, society is in the midst of transformation, and there’s no clue when it will ever end.

And that’s threatening to everyone, not least the establishment that has so much to lose. The people at its pinnacle, the studio and network chiefs who seem to epitomize success, are running scared, too. Don’t blame them for defending their territory; they’re petrified that if they cede it, there’ll be nowhere for them to go. There’s nothing worse than being has-been, except for never having been a success at all.

I understand they’re afraid. I understand they want to cling to the comforts of power. But that doesn’t mean they should do so unchallenged.

When two of the most liberal groups in America — millennials and Hollywood executives — start moving backward instead of forward, it’s time to say they’re wrong and do so at the highest possible levels.

Unless shareholders demand equality for women and minorities at the very top, inequality will remain in place at the very bottom, too.

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