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This story first appeared in the 2015 Women in Entertainment issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
As a psychiatrist treating scores of women (and men) who have worked in just about every position in the entertainment industry, I have heard frustrated confessions from the couch that collectively seem to ask this question: Why am I not further ahead in Hollywood?
If we were to look only at statistics, like the ones in a recent study by San Diego State University that examined the top 700 films of 2014, we would come away believing that there is, in fact, an impenetrable celluloid ceiling, with a significant dearth of women in top-billed positions such as director (13 percent), executive producer (21 percent), producer (27 percent) and writer (15 percent). However, there is a large number of women in less visible positions in film and TV — for example, casting directors, whose ranks are approximately 75 percent female, according to the Los Angeles-based Casting Society of America.
My female industry patients, stymied by what seems to be their lot, first blame defensive, frightened macho men carefully guarding the gates of power. But as they look inside themselves, they begin to recognize a psychodynamic that for some causes them to naturally gravitate to supportive positions where they take orders from men. The Hollywood old boys’ club is still alive and well, and that’s hardly a secret. But when the women I’ve worked with ask themselves what part they play in their own success or sabotage, some thought-provoking insights can arise.
As with everything else, it begins in childhood. When girls are raised to be people-pleasers, and in particular to want to please Daddy, a pattern is formed that steers grown women into jobs where they continue pleasing their boss, a Daddy substitute (and bosses in Hollywood indeed are, for the most part, male), instead of striking out on their own. Typically, these women, stuck in this early phase of psychosexual development, become personal assistants, production assistants, wardrobe assistants and stereotypical eye candy onscreen.
Unfortunately, this early developmental phase is not just about seeking Daddy’s love and attention, but also about wanting to steal him away from Mommy. This innate female rivalry is what stops many women from helping one another scramble to the top in Hollywood.
Looking into what drives women toward other female-dominated positions, including those that are higher up on the industry ladder, I’ve been able to identify certain personality patterns. I’ve chosen case studies, all anonymized here, that represent psychological profiles of women who gravitate toward roles in casting, publicity, film editing and other jobs that tend to be, if not female-dominated, at least female-heavy compared with more powerful professions.
One casting director, who was tossed around as a child into various blended families, had no control over whom her divorced parents remarried. She wouldn’t have chosen an alcoholic stepdad or a stepmom who preferred her stepsiblings. As a casting director, however, she found satisfaction in deciding who best fit each part. In my work, I’ve noticed comparable scenarios that color the background of other female casting directors, propelling a need to control who gets the part in a script, unlike their own life-script over which they had little control.
Issues around attention-getting often can be found in the childhoods of female publicists, drawing them to the field. C., a celebrity publicist, was endlessly told, “Little girls should be seen and not heard” by a parent and sibling who wanted all the attention. When she grew up, she was driven to defy these admonishments by making her voice heard as loudly as possible as a first-class messenger on behalf of her star clients. Touting their accomplishments felt comfortable and satisfying, allowing her to bask in the secret belief that she was the one truly responsible for their success.
Little girls are raised on fairy tales, so when their real-life story endings disappoint them, some may become editors, where they can focus on what went wrong with the story and fix it. One editor I worked with was abandoned by her dad when she was 6, causing her to be attracted to boys who ended up abandoning her in turn. As an editor, she changes the course of history, stopping and starting scenes at her discretion — as she often has wished she could do in real life — and affecting characters’ lives.
Behind some of the female documentary filmmakers I’ve treated, there are childhood secrets that compel them to go on a dogged search for the truth. D., one documentarian, once thought she had an idyllic childhood, only to discover that much of it was built on lies. Only when she turned 18 did she learn that her biological parents had given her up for adoption at birth. This drove her to search for the truth in everything and naturally led to investigating stories and making documentaries.
Any of the above professions are essential and creative and can make or break any Hollywood project. But the inconvenient truth is that some of these women may have been just as successful — and perhaps even happier — as directors or executive producers or in other positions that offer more in terms of salary, control, power and prestige, jobs that statistically are more frequently held by men. So, what’s holding these women back? Based on my clinical experience, it’s a collusion between wary men at the top not wanting to disrupt the status quo and women trying to navigate through a storm of breakers: from the celluloid ceiling, to wanting to please Daddy, to searching for happy endings for their personal stories from childhood.
Read more essays from THR‘s Women in Entertainment issue: