How to Fix Hollywood's Toxic Gender Exclusion Problem (Guest Column)

Rachel Feldman - Publicity - H 2017
Jena Campion

Director Rachel Feldman argues that "female filmmakers’ careers have been thwarted by a system that blocks our progress and has colluded to keep us out."

Rachel Feldman, a director, screenwriter and activist, is the former chair of the DGA Women’s Steering Committee and has taught directing at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. 

Hollywood’s female filmmakers are hoping that the current spate of scandal exposures will challenge other entrenched sexist toxicities. Employment exclusion based on gender discrimination is certainly not sexual abuse, but it is cruel, torturous and an oppression that asserts power over women and strips them of their dignity. It’s also illegal. Sexual harassment and gender discrimination are difficult to pin down and when called out — often denied. We can only hope that in this explosive moment in time, a comprehensive examination of how our industry treats women will broaden beyond the most scandalous and overt acts of psychological and physical violence, will serve to illuminate other forms of suppression and will open doors of opportunity.

For decades, and to this day, female filmmakers’ careers have been thwarted by a system that blocks our progress and has colluded to keep us out. Just as so many are coming forward to end the conspiracy of silence that protected sexual predators in our industry, so must the agents, studio/network executives, showrunners and guilds, who have been complicit in this segregation, drastically change the mechanics of employment, embrace our vibrant labor force and end this apartheid.

Very little has changed in Hollywood for women directors and cinematographers since I first began directing in the mid-1990s, when Stephen Bochco saw my graduate thesis film and hired me to direct an episode of Doogie Howser, M.D. Bochco was aware that few producers hired women and he went out of his way to give me the break for which I am enormously grateful. But for the next three decades, every single hiring experience, and nearly every meeting of the hundreds I have taken, has been fraught with a tacit inequity to which even the kindest, most enlightened executives have unconsciously acquiesced.

Scarcity sets revolution in motion, and in the last few years female filmmakers have been busy ameliorating Hollywood’s creative cock-block by forging powerful communities who share contacts, resources and support in a movement that Seed & Spark’s Emily Best calls a “culture of plenty.” But this extraordinary, generous, highly skilled community needs a way to bust down the gates of the kingdom in order for our work to flourish and for our varied voices to have an impact on media that perpetuates the stereotypes of the male gaze. As a member of Film Fatales, the Alliance of Women Directors and the DGA, I am one of thousands of capable, talented, mid-career women whose ability to work has been segregated by an industry that has been punishing to an entire class of worker — just because we are women.

The cycle starts simply. As directors, there is no prescribed career ladder to climb. (Sometimes people outside our industry believe that being an assistant director is a path to directing, but it’s actually an entirely different job and skill set.) Every director has a different approach. Many garner an MFA, after which they enter their short films in film festivals and win awards, some raise money and make independent features, others spend years on film and television sets in a variety of jobs, or work up in commercials, music videos or web series. But the next step, to making a good living and thrive as a director inside our network and studio systems, is a daunting, soul-crushing challenge. Men often make this leap; women rarely do.

Having an agent is key. Vetting has profound power, and the anointing stamp-of-approval that comes with representation is a mandatory ingredient for success. But for a very long time, agents and managers didn’t sign many women because it was a waste of time — since the buyers weren’t booking us. If you were one of the lucky ones to secure representation and met with executives, both men and women entrenched in this system would point up and down their company’s hierarchy for all the reasons you were not the right fit. Then, if you did get through to producers, your experience would be belittled, your knowledge questioned and your abilities challenged. Assumptions would be made of what we were capable of, and the flimsiest of excuses were made to hire a man instead. I recall one producing director on a network series who told me that he was looking for “muscular” directors. Code for: not a woman. 

Sometimes we do get chances, and often these jobs go well. I’ve had many experiences with extraordinary producers, casts and crews, but it was also not uncommon for there to be a default hazing the new visiting director, especially if she was a woman. Some director colleagues have told me stories of sabotage and humiliation, making it impossible to become a repeat director or get a good report for the next job. The reputations of so many women directors are littered with the labels of “bitch,” “incompetent” and “difficult,” and while a few ladies might fall into these categories, the sheer frequency of these rants proves the prejudice.

Actors also need to do their part in welcoming, accepting and inviting women who direct. There are certainly scores of progressive actors who are gender-blind, but there are still many actors, both male and female, who hang onto a vestigial, unconscious desire to be dominated and seduced by a male director and are uncomfortable and insecure in the presence of female power.

I’ve co-written and will be directing a feature film about fair-pay activist Lilly Ledbetter, and sometimes I joke with Lilly that I don’t know what’s worse: to work and be cheated of your salary, or to be cheated from having the opportunity to work at all? Jon Goldfarb, the Birmingham, Alabama, civil rights attorney who first took on Ms. Ledbetter’s case and has guided her throughout the years, believes that her pay issue was precipitated by the sexual harassment of a man in power who lowered her performance ratings when she spurned his advances, damaging 20 years of pay raises.

It’s validating that so many companies are stepping forward to educate their employees about appropriate workplace behavior, but will the impenetrable employment mechanisms for women directors change? Will the studios and networks continue to believe the fake news that there aren’t enough women directors to fill the ranks to parity today? Because it’s not true! The only thing that is true is that the current system of relying upon reps to supply the labor pool, or the foolhardy, feel-good investment in training new directors for the future, is not the way to break open the floodgates.

I’m one of the lucky ones who has had many excellent experiences directing television, and though I’m aware of many women who have been harassed and worse on set, the kind of subtle but sexist mistreatment that most of my colleagues and I have endured over the years has been degrading and devastating nonetheless. Though employment discrimination based on one’s sex is against the law, I wonder if the current EEOC investigations will be able to put teeth into their findings, and if the thousands of experienced, mid-career women who have more than paid their dues will ever stop hearing the refrain they haven’t done enough to deserve to work. When will it be enough?

Women directors will succeed when those in charge utilize their cinematic experience and human instinct, instead of relying on an antiquated, patriarchal paradigm where one’s credits must align perfectly with standards few women can ever hope to satisfyNot many women have already directed studio tentpoles, but look what just happened when Patty Jenkins was given a chance with Wonder Woman, or when Reed Morano was able to create a vision with The Handmaid’s Tale! Few of us have the sample reel or résumé that is precisely what a producer or executive believes they need to see in order to “take a chance,” but skill and imagination can be evidenced by sitting down with us, getting to know us, hearing our vision and learning about our experiences. Find us and invite us into the room!

Sometimes it feels that gender has been swapped for celebrity; if you’re already inside the castle gates, then it’s almost as if you’re “as good as a man,” but without that sheen of acceptability, most women are serfs, locked outside the gates of the kingdom, begging for crumbs. (There are 1,400 women directors in the guild, and only a tiny handful work on a regular basis!) This is why the initiatives of Ryan Murphy and Ava DuVernay have been so radical. They have proven that the old model of hiring is broken and that strong directors will rise to the occasion when powerful forces believe in them. They looked way beyond the agency lists, hiring women from unconventional sources outside the establishment and highly experienced women who suffered the dreaded “career gap” due to family obligations.

Social scientists like to say that “we measure what we treasure,” and countless organizations have spent time and money proving how we fail women in Hollywood. We elected a pussy grabber as president, and now we’re cleaning house of misogynist behavior in an industry that has long claimed to be a bastion of progressive thought. I hope this terrible moment in time will be the Genderquake we have been waiting for, and that the numbers of women directing and shooting American media rise like a tsunami, drowning out the old patriarchy and its despicable ways. The brilliant Rebecca Solnit writes that, “It’s the authoritarianism of violence that seems too often overlooked, the acts that are the opposite of the democratic ideal that all people are created equal, with certain inalienable rights. There is no greater authoritarianism than that of someone who violated the will, the body, the wellbeing, or takes the life of another.” Although I am in no way asserting that physical violations are equal to employment violations, I am connecting the root of the patent employment blockage of female filmmakers as being rooted in the same extreme authoritarianism.

Sources to find accomplished women directors:

Sources to find experienced cinematographers:

Sources to hire female crew & department heads: