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This story first appeared in the 2015 Women in Entertainment issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Twenty years ago I was a director, part of the Hollywood gold rush culture, chasing my dream. I pursued that dream relentlessly. By 2011, I had failed — utterly. A few months ago, my picture appeared on the front page of the Los Angeles Times, then in Fortune with the headline: “Meet the Woman Who Started the EEOC Investigation Into Sexism in Hollywood.” How did it come to this?
When I enrolled in the graduate directing program at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television, thanks to Title IX, my class was 50 percent women and 50 percent men. Still, I should have seen trouble ahead: There was only one female directing professor, and men had directed almost 100 percent of the films we studied.
Nevertheless, I was confident that, with talent and hard work, I would join the pantheon of auteur directors. My first short film, A Dry Heat, won a UCLA Spotlight Award and a CINE Golden Eagle and was a finalist for a Student Academy Award.
A few years and many awards later, I received my diploma, handed to me by Francis Ford Coppola. Shaking my hand, he said, “Good luck.” I was already green-lighted to direct a feature I had written, When Saturday Comes, produced by Capitol Films and starring Sean Bean, Pete Postlethwaite and Emily Lloyd.
The film screened at Cannes. I signed with the William Morris Agency. I was attached to several feature films and was observing on Dick Wolf shows in preparation to direct episodic TV. It was 1995. I was ready to launch.
Who could have guessed that 1995 would mark the year the number of female director hires hit its all-time peak? For the rest of my career, that number would decline and sink into stasis.
I would never work again as a paid feature director. I would never be entrusted with an episode of primetime TV. I would be dropped by my agency. I watched as my male peers became the cinematic voices of our time. I watched as men who hadn’t directed features and had half my training became wealthy and sought-after TV directors.
I became part of a lost generation of female voices in American cinema and television. Marginalized as a group, we blamed ourselves for our individual failures. Yet, deep down, we all knew that the industry had failed us. Finally, shut out no matter what I said or did, I lost all fear.
There were many triggers, but the strongest was my realization that the virtual absence of women directors in Hollywood was tantamount to the censoring and silencing of female voices in U.S. media — America’s most influential global export.
I spent countless hours in the downtown L.A. courthouse studying class-action legal efforts. I dug up the history of the Original Six, six female directors who had spearheaded the 1983 DGA class-action lawsuit against Warner Bros. and Columbia Pictures on behalf of women and minorities.
I walked into the DGA Women’s Steering Committee armed with statistics and determined to bring change for all women directors. What I found was a stagnant committee willing to accept the status quo or “chip away” at the problem incrementally.
So I went “to war.” In 2013, I met with ACLU attorneys Melissa Goodman and Ariela Migdal. Deep in the fight for gay marriage, they still took the time to listen.
On Oct. 6, 2014, Goodman called me amid terrific noise: The U.S. Supreme Court had rejected requests to review lower-court decisions on same-sex marriage — one crucial step closer to the June 26 ruling in favor of gay marriage. “You’re next!” she shouted.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, outlawed employment discrimination based on sex. Women do not have to fight that battle again, because our state and federal agencies have a legal obligation to enforce the law. And Hollywood — perhaps the most egregious violator of Title VII of any industry in our nation — has an obligation to obey it.
The ACLU launched a campaign of media awareness, advocacy and research. The New York Times broke the story, publishing the 15-page letter penned by Goodman and Migdal that called upon the EEOC and two California state agencies to investigate discrimination against women directors. It was a historic day. That night, however, at the DGA’s annual meeting, guild president Paris Barclay failed to mention it.
During the Q&A, I asked how the guild intended to respond to the news. Barclay made it clear that the DGA would not cooperate with the ACLU’s efforts. He invoked the words of Frederick Douglass on suffrage to suggest that equity for women directors would naturally follow that of minority men, even though history tells us that American women fought for 50 more years after minority men won the right to vote.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, ethnic minority males make up 18 percent of our nation’s population. The DGA’s own statistics show that ethnic minority males directed 18 percent of all episodic TV in 2015. Minority males are represented in proportion with their demographic — in that sphere at least.
Why had the DGA-studio diversity programs advanced minority men but failed women — and failed women of color utterly? A key reason is that female and minority male guild members have been combined in a single diversity mandate. Therefore, executives and showrunners have been able to comply with guild signatory diversity agreements by hiring minority males, and not hiring female directors at all.
We are at a tipping point: The ACLU efforts, the EEOC investigation and unprecedented media support promise new hope, but industry reticence could slow progress. I invite executives and showrunners who bemoan the “slippery slope” of government intervention in our industry to examine their reasoning.
Title VII does not mandate government oversight of who one hires; it merely ensures a level playing field. Producers, networks and studios simply have to do the footwork to find excellence among women as well as men.
Because of Hollywood’s long-standing discrimination against women, producers have a rich, deep pool of working male directors to hire from — and a meager and shallow pool of working women. Our industry needs to seek out the lost generation of gifted female directors — the thousands of women with exceptional reels and excellent credits who have been “disappeared” through gender bias.
Producers also must actively seek new, incoming women with the skill and talent to compete with the best and brightest men. The current federal investigation is not the harbinger of imposed socialism, but rather an opening of floodgates to a great wave of new and hidden talent and vision.
This is not a fight about jobs. This is a fight about how our stories are told. This is a fight about the perspective from which our universal stories emerge.
Storytelling affects the way we see ourselves and how we are seen by others. If these stories are coming only from a male perspective, we are building a world that is skewed and lacking authenticity.
Today, our government, our media and our people are unified in the belief that the exclusion of women from the voice of our civilization is unacceptable. This is something worth fighting for, and I don’t regret being the “troublemaker” who started the fight. What I will regret is if inertia, inaction and entrenched unconscious bias sabotage the change that is now so close at hand.
Read more essays from THR‘s Women in Entertainment issue:
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