Power shifting

Women seem to be appearing in minor roles on the big screen.

Do movies featuring strong female characters stand a fighting chance at the boxoffice?

That question has prompted spirited discussions this year as many women in entertainment -- even those who have been muted when complaining in the past -- are questioning the way women are being portrayed on the big screen.

"Try to find a woman in a contemporary movie in the last few years who didn't have a job that wasn't girlie," says producer and former United Artists president Lindsay Doran. "If you were a Martian and you looked at American movies, you would think 80% of the women in America write for magazines -- they write for magazines, they are food critics, they are artists, some of them are musicians. But try to find a woman in a business suit at the center of a movie." When one does, like Tilda Swinton's diabolical corporate lawyer in Warner Bros.' "Michael Clayton," Doran says, they are either villains or their movies "struggle to find an audience."

Why women should be relegated to minor or cliched roles is puzzling, given that women are reaching new levels within society at large. As Sony Pictures Entertainment co-chairman Amy Pascal points out, "We could soon have a woman president. And wouldn't that be awesome?"

In part, it might have something to do with the nature of moviegoing, which skews heavily toward young males.

"Over the past decade, you've had a real change," says Nikki Rocco, president of distribution at Universal Pictures. "You have the core moviegoing audience of 12-24, and there is much more interest in genre film, in action film, (whereas) in years gone by there was more interest in romance and human-interest stories."

Like it or not, she says, it is the males who go out to the movies on a Friday night, when all too often young females stay in with their friends -- as Rocco says she did when she was younger. Because of that, she says, "we are targeting mostly males and hoping females come along. But the films that open the biggest are, without a doubt, films that are driven by the male audience."

Still, there might be other, more complex reasons why strong and compelling women are disappearing from films, as they have been since the era when stars like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford dominated the screen.

Pascal ruminates that a shift in society took place in the 1950s that impacted film. Before then, she says, males and females equally attended female-centric movies. But not since.

"In the '30s and '40s, there were movies where Ingrid Bergman or Katharine Hepburn were the lead characters, and everybody went to the movies. They weren't 'women's movies' -- everybody went. What happened in the '50s? Was it TV or the baby boom, or both together? Something happened that segregated the audience, and that's interesting."

In her new book, "The Terror Dream," author Susan Faludi argues that there has been a more recent change and that American society reacted to Sept. 11 by reinforcing male and female stereotypes and allowing the kind of larger-than-life male heroes of the Old West to re-emerge on the screen. At the same time, in the news media, as well as entertainment, she says, even prominent women were heard far less than they had been.

"Immediately after 9/11, there was this dramatic decline in women's voices on op-ed pages and in talk shows," Faludi explains. "For instance, a study observed that in the several weeks following the attacks, there was a 40% drop in female guests on the (main political talk) shows -- and in all categories, not just talking about terrorism."

Worse, she says, "as you go out from 9/11, you see a decline in women news executives. By the end of the early 2000s, there was a slippage in the percentage of female newspaper executives; by 2004, the percentage of female news directors of TV and radio stations also began to erode. There were studies done throughout this period that find, repeatedly, women continuing to be grossly underrepresented."

Just as women went into retreat in nonfiction programming, so they did in fiction, Faludi notes.

"After 9/11, we went into this reflex reaction where, in our vulnerability and fear and shame at not being able to protect the 'homeland,' we reached for the old American cultural mythology: the unassailable nation guarded by 1,001 Daniel Boones and John Waynes."

With women in retreat onscreen, it was perhaps inevitable there would be a parallel retreat behind the scenes. And that has been remarkable in an industry where, until just a couple of years ago, one could safely say women were on the rise and indeed appeared poised to share studio leadership on an equal basis with men.

Sherry Lansing, the first woman to reach a top-level executive position, was also the first to leave when she exited her post as chairman of Paramount's movie division in December 2004. Not too long after, Stacey Snider left her job as chairman of Universal Pictures, opting for the lower-key position of running DreamWorks.

In July 2006, Nina Jacobson also left her job as president of the Buena Vista Motion Picture Group and segued to a producer deal at DreamWorks, replaced by former marketing chief Oren Aviv in a new and expanded position.

In January, after a brief and stormy tenure handicapped by the perception that she was a television interloper, Gail Berman left Paramount, where she had served as president of the movie division, to set up a smaller production company with another high-ranking executive out on his own, Lloyd Braun.

And recently Terry Press, arguably the best-known and certainly the most vocal female marketing executive in Hollywood, after segueing from DreamWorks to join her longtime colleague Jeffrey Katzenberg at DreamWorks Animation, left to launch her own marketing company.

This exodus has even touched the nonprofit world, where Jean Picker Firstenberg stepped down as president of the American Film Institute in the fall after a 28-year tenure, to be replaced by a male deputy, Bob Gazzale.

The reasons for these departures varied as much as the women themselves. If Berman was nudged out, that certainly was not the case with Firstenberg, who simply retired. But the result is that Pascal now stands alone as the sole woman at the top of a major studio hierarchy.

It would be foolish to say women in film have been on a universally downward trajectory, of course. There are exceptions -- like Amy Baer, one of Pascal's most trusted lieutenants, who left Sony to become president and CEO of a new entity, CBS Films, where she will make four to six movies a year under CBS chairman Leslie Moonves.

But subtly, undeniably, a change has taken place. There are fewer women in positions where their voices can be heard, fewer who have the authority to greenlight what reaches the big screen.

It's something Pascal acknowledges with stoicism. "Little shock waves go back and forth in society all the time," she reflects. "The way that cultures and societies work, there are great big things that happen, then little tiny things, and they go back and forth. No one makes progress in a straight line; that's not how progress works."

If this were true throughout Hollywood, one might believe there has been a "backlash" against women in Hollywood, to use the title of an earlier Faludi book.

But what complicates this argument is that the very opposite seems to be true in television. If strong women are disappearing from movie screens and are in retreat within the studios, they are doing better than ever in television. One woman, Oprah Winfrey, dominates the medium to a greater extent than anyone since Johnny Carson; and another, Katie Couric, last year became the first female to anchor one of the three big primetime news broadcasts on her own.

"Women are seeing increases in their onscreen and behind-the-scenes representation in primetime television each year," notes Martha Lauzen, a professor of media studies at San Diego State University who publishes an annual report on women in the media. "In fact, we are now seeing historical highs -- whereas in film, we are in the midst of a steady decline."

Her statistics make that clear. Comparing this year to last, she says, "The number of women writers in film is down: Last year it was 11%, and this year it's 10%. The number of producers in film is down: Last year it was 26%, this year 20%. The number of women cinematographers is down -- from 3% to 2%."

By contrast, her study notes that in television, "women comprised 26% of all creators, executive producers, producers, directors, writers, editors and directors of photography working on situation comedies, dramas and reality programs. This percentage represents an increase of two percentage points from last season."

Lauzen emphasizes, "The numbers are down across the board for women in film, and they have been going down for the past five years. But in television, the numbers are up."

So how can one explain this discrepancy? Why should it be that women in television are doing so well, when they are doing so poorly in film?

For Anne-Marie Johnson, a SAG board member and a senior adviser to its president, it boils down to the different economics of film and television.

"You've got women who are dynamically powerful, violent, capable of bringing the world down on television," she says, "because the advertisers know that women make up the predominant viewership on television, and we are the ones who buy the washing machines and the stoves and the toothpaste. The advertisers are dependent on them. Women are the mainstay of the shopping."

At the same time, the growth of niche cable channels has given more opportunities for women on the small screen, opportunities that reached a peak this summer.

"What happened this summer was amazing," says writer-producer Ligiah Villalobos (Fox Searchlight's "Under the Same Moon"). "You had Kyra Sedgwick on (TNT's) 'The Closer'; you had Holly Hunter on (TNT's) 'Saving Grace'; you had a huge hit on Lifetime with 'Army Wives.' What was extraordinary was that they became the highest-rated shows of the year, and they were all driven by women."

Villalobos attributes this to several cable networks' decision to move more heavily into original programming. And she says its effect will reach beyond these networks or the individual shows' ratings. "Shows like that are allowing female writers to create other shows, and those women will be more apt to hire other women."

Not all are convinced that the women at the center of these shows are quite as positive a development as Villalobos claims.

Faludi says their recent emergence does not diminish her argument that in the three or four years following Sept. 11 the image of women did change, and, even so, she notes: "It seems very important to the producers of these shows to ensure that these women are portrayed as miserable in their personal lives, which is that old theme of 'Women have to make a sacrifice if they are going to be actors on the public stage.'"

Even on television, these strong women may be exceptions to the rule, Doran argues. Throughout the rest of the medium, the image of women is not that much better than in the movies.

"It is just getting to be howlingly funny when you turn on the television news to see what an anchorwoman looks like nowadays," she says. "Some of the people anchoring the news are a stereotyped image of female sexuality. That used to be the last place you'd see it, and now it is the first."

But by far the majority of those interviewed for this article were unstinting in their praise for the new female-driven programs.

"'Saving Grace' is a very nontraditional female," says Lauzen. "That's a very complex, multidimensional character who doesn't fit into any of the traditional stereotypes. She is messy, she is excessive in a lot of her habits, she drinks too much, she smokes too much, she has a lot of indiscriminate sex. But she is also very good at what she does. And in 'The Closer,' we see the Kyra Sedgwick character, Brenda Johnson, actually being more effective than her male counterparts. That's quite unusual -- they even refer to her as Chief. We get to see her at home and at work. We see the balancing act that she does between those two environments."

At some point, that balancing act -- an act that Mandate International president Helen Lee-Kim calls the hardest part of any woman's job -- might be better reflected in motion pictures, as well as television.

But for now, the fact that characters who wrestle with reality are being presented at all is cause for hope, a sign that we're already seeing a backlash to the backlash.