With Tuesday’s election victory of Donald Trump, often criticized for his treatment of and rhetoric about women, the second annual Women in Entertainment Summit, held Nov. 10 at Hollywood’s ArcLight Cinema, took on even greater urgency.
“I think we’re entering a very dangerous time period. We’ve elected a president who is overtly sexist, racist and misogynist. I think demeaning women is damaging to the goals and aspirations of women in America. We have a greater burden than ever to counteract it and fight back,” producer Lydia Dean-Pilcher (The Queen of Katwe), tells The Hollywood Reporter. She sat in on the summit’s first panel of the day, “Solving Hollywood’s Diversity Problem.”
The one-day event brought together figures from TV, film and the internet to untangle Hollywood’s custom of marginalizing women and people of color. Panel discussions on gender, sexuality, acceptance and the path forward featured people like Rob Thomas (Veronica Mars), Julie Ann Crommett of Google, (recently named one of THR’s Next Gen Execs) and Meredith Walker, co-founder and executive director of Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls.
Trump wasn’t the main subject of the day, but he lurked in the subtext of most discussions. “We did learn from this election what is happening, what is out there, and there’s a lot more sexism than we thought,” offers Walker, former head of the talent department at Saturday Night Live. “A lot of us saw racism. You see someone endorsed by the KKK and there’s a reason for that.”
Poehler’s Smart Girls began in 2008 with the motto, “You change the world by being yourself.” Through a web series, social media and digital memes directed at adolescent girls, they aim to encourage self-expression in a safe community and overcome gender discrimination. As chairperson of the Women’s Impact Network and vp motion pictures at the Producer’s Guild, Dean-Pilcher was thinking along the same lines when she came up with Ms. Factor Tool Kit. In it are facts and figures debunking myths about the viability of female-driven projects, handy for persuading recalcitrant money men during pitch meetings.
“People tend to be a little bit tribal in what they choose to greenlight,” Dean-Pilcher says. “If the top echelon is a homogeneous group, then the diversity of stories isn’t going to be told.”
Surprisingly, writer-producer Rob Thomas had the opposite experience early in his career, when he brought his untitled young adult novel based on a character named Keith Mars to Simon & Schuster. After he struck a deal with UPN to develop the material, Keith became Veronica Mars. “I wanted to tell a story of loss of innocence and it seemed more heartbreaking to me to tell that story from the point of view of a girl instead of a boy,” he explains.
While he confesses to a few blind spots when writing sex scenes from a female perspective, Thomas is otherwise comfortable creating women characters. Although he attempts to monitor his own implicit bias, he seldom finds producers doing the same. “I can create a male character and a female character doing the exact same things and the notes I will get to make that female character more likable will be much more abundant.”
In May, the EEOC expanded what is now a yearlong investigation into gender discrimination in Hollywood, adding studio executives, producers, agents, actors and male directors to the female directors they’ve already interviewed. Last year, women made up only 19 percent of those working behind the scenes in executive and high-level creative positions on the top 250 domestic grossing films. It’s a 2 percent increase from the previous year, but dead even with 2001.
“I still feel so raw and in shock,” Walker says, reeling from the change of tone on the issue of discrimination. “This is something where somebody is on tape saying these things about women, about sexual assault. What do we tell young girls about that and who the leader of the country is? It’s a real challenge.”