Bustle & Kickstarter's Sundance Panel Uncovers The Sneaky Roots Of Film Industry Sexism
It's no secret that sexism is a huge factor in Hollywood, even now that women's voices are being heard more loudly. What does seem to be a secret is that the industry, contrary to popular belief does not actually belong entirely to men, despite statistics like the fact that the top 500 films of 2017 only saw 21 percent of behind the scenes roles go to women. But Hollywood is not a place where women are suddenly trying to create change and find room for their stories; it's a place where women have been doing this for years, against the odds. To celebrate that and to raise the voices of four women working behind the scenes in Hollywood, Bustle & Kickstarter partnered up for a panel during this year's Sundance Film Festival called Louder On Set, as a part of our Awards Season pledge to focus on women behind the scenes. And what we learned is that the roots of sexism are even sneakier than you might think, and that the path to removing them is tricky, but not impossible with the right allies.
Thanks to panelists Franchesca Ramsey (actor, creator, and executive producer of a Sundance selection and new digital series, Franchesca), Christina Choe (director of Sundance selection Nancy), Iyabo Boyd (producer on HBO's new series, Lenny), and Anna Klassen (former Bustle editor and screenwriter of Black List selection, When Lightning Strikes), the path to a new industry might just be a little clearer. Here's what we learned.
The Roots Of Film Industry Sexism Aren't Always So Obvious
"I realized in retrospect that I was dealing with a lot of casual sexism that I wasn’t really able to put my finger on until later on," notes Ramsey, who's been a comedy writer for 10 years before producing Franchesca. "I had a lot of experiences where I will be working on projects or in writers rooms or just collaborating on something and I would pitch an idea and like the dudes wouldn’t listen to me and then a dude would pitch like the exact same idea and the dudes would be like, 'That’s amazing!'" It's something Klassen refers to as the "penis phone" — something that we need to figure out how to smash if we want writers' rooms to be a place where women are truly represented.
According to Boyd, however, the issue can often actually start in film school, where, as she puts it, everyone shows up not knowing anyone, so you can't use the age-old excuse used by men who don't hire women: "I just like to work with my friends."
"The guys immediately do not want to work with girls at all, they just crew up with guys, guys, guys. And so the girls were just like, 'Oh, I want to' or 'I want in,' and were never given the chance. So there were these all girl crews, which is awesome too, but there was that push out," says Boyd. But it's not just the composition of these film school groups — it's the way young men behaved, in her experience. "And the other thing is the sexism and lack of understanding, or lack of interest in understanding of how a woman’s voice or vision is executed," she adds. "So when a guy would show a short film in class, even if they didn’t like it, they’d be like, 'Yeah, that was cool, that was cool. Good job,' because they want to protect themselves and they want to protect a potential relationship. But when a girl shows something it’s just like ripping it to shreds. And I’m all about constructive criticism, but on the other side them not being constructive to guys in the same way, was really so obvious."
The real issue is that, because of these kinds of behavior that Boyd experienced and because women are so limited, statistically, in these behind the scenes conversations, it's often easy to feel like what's happening isn't actually happening.
"I wasn’t really sure if I was like imagining this thing, and then I would talk to other female comics and other female writers and they were like, 'Oh my gosh, that happens to me all the time,'" notes Ramsey. "There would be instances where I was frustrated about something and I would be told that I was overreacting or I would need to calm down, this like minimization of very valid feelings where I was talking about sexism or racism or just like my enthusiasm for something." Per Ramsey, those microagressions have "long-lasting effects in that "we spend so much time doubting ourselves that we’re surrounded by oftentimes men, whose voices have been so prioritized, that we’re not really used to saying like, 'Oh, I actually have a really good idea and this is something I believe in.'"
There Are Systems That Give Sexism Staying Power — And It's Not Just Men Who Use Them
Beyond the elements that create sexism, there are things that help keep in place that might be less-than-obvious as well. As Choe points out, all of these elements have created something of an unconscious bias against women, and especially in the directing world, the idea that women simply don't belong in certain film & TV roles.
"I did an HBO directing fellowship in 2013 that was, you know, basically they put you on different sets and you shadow the directors. I did Boardwalk Empire, Girls, and Looking and every single time I’d go to whatever show and shadow whoever, all the crew, they would always ask me, 'Oh, are you an actress? Are you one of the producers? Are you an agent?' Anything but 'Are you a director?'" says Choe. "And I think that that is a really unconscious bias problem that I think goes much deeper. I think that’s psychological, it’s cultural, the way people are. Another female filmmaker, who had a film here, we were talking about this exact thing, and we were coming from a directors brunch and she was like, 'F*ck, I just did that to someone.'"
For Klassen, the unconscious bias on the part of some men in the industry has affected her ability to get scripts produced. In fact, she notes that in one pitching meeting for a dark, cable-style series, an unnamed agent told her that her script and writing were great, but that the plot was too dark for a female protagonist and that perhaps she should consider switching that character to be a man.
"The script was about a woman fighting sexism, so I wasn’t sure how that would work," she says, as the audience laughs. "That really shocked me. I had heard all these stories of instances like that, and I thought for whatever reason that I would be immune to them, for whatever reason. I think that it’s just years later or recently when I did sign and I had all these meetings, I just skipped right over them."
Which brings us to the most important bit: how do we fix this?
What Do We Do Now?
For Ramsey, there are some temporary solutions that women can use to make it through — like leaning into the dreaded "girl who can hang" trope. Ramsey says that she had to advocate for herself "because no one else is going to advocate for me" and that meant playing a part in a room full of men.
"I don’t like break down because some dude starts yelling at me," says Ramsey, a self-professed "crier." "So I really tried to take that and say you know what I’m going to be as much of a d*ck in the room as the dudes are, and sadly it started to earn respect," she says, adding that while it worked it wasn't all positive. "It was really difficult for me, because sometimes people would tell jokes I was really uncomfortable with and I didn’t want to be the wet blanket in the room ... I hope that we get to a place where women don’t have to like, actively try to change their personality in order to be successful in a room."
For Choe, the solution is finding your "tribe" or her "film therapists" who help her push through the BS parts of being a woman in an industry where respect isn't always given to women.
"You’ll get it from so many angles, you never even know when it’s coming and I think that you do have to have tough skin, because until we’re equally represented and we’re in this room and it’s a safe space, you just have to [act] like you’re going to war and you have to kind of look at it as the art of war," she says. "And sometimes you just have to say, 'I don’t want to fight, I’m just going to call my film therapists and like go back and heal.'"
More Importantly, What Can Men Do? (A Lot, For Starters)
The main, and most important thing, for male allies to do as the industry strives to change is to put their money (and support) where their mouths are.
It's something that many women are finding frustrating, especially at a time when some men wearing TimesUp pins on red carpets aren't standing for the point of the organization in all areas of their lives. Choe points out that this isn't a new phenomenon: "I remember someone from my own team who I do not work with anymore, said to me about the ending of my script, was like, 'You know it’s very un-feminist that the two main female characters cry at the end.' And I was just like, 'Excuse me?' And this is like a man, and a very like, supposedly woke man."
Ramsey has a handy analogy to help any men out there who are confused about what being woke or being an ally really means.
"I feel like we’re seeing this a lot right now, where a lot of people are kind of self-proclaiming their allyship without doing any of the work. I like to use the analogy that allyship is like long-division, you have to show your work, right? You can’t just say it," she says, while pointing out that men are far more likely to listen to other men (so, dudes, get it together). "We need the more nuanced conversation of what consent looks like, what active consent looks like, what coercion looks like and how that’s not consent. And I think when guys are hanging out and talking to each other about like who they hooked up with, why they think someone woman is hot, there are conversations about what’s happening in the world like Timesup and Me Too ... These are really hard conversations. You will lose friends over them, you might lose jobs over them, but you do the work because it’s important, right? And that’s why it’s called work."
While the burden should of course be on men to catch up, Boyd finds herself taking matters into her own hands, too. "I’m being very blunt with guys, there’s a guy making a film about a little girl and I said, you should find a female co-director and I said it to these guys before and they were like, 'Oh I don’t know if we need one,'" she offers. "And it’s like no, if you say that you care about women progressing in this industry, you should find a female co-director."
To that, Klassen adds an important point about the number of women working on high budget films — which outside of folks like Ava Duvernay and Patty Jenkins — isn't exactly the norm.
"I think that Hollywood has been male and pale for an eternity and men, 99 percent of the time, are the ones who make decisions, so it’s obviously hiring more women. I think it’s also trusting women with large amounts of money," she says. "When women are hired onto their projects, oftentimes they will not be trusted with a giant budget for whatever reason. And unfortunately, as we know, people go to see movies that have huge budgets an marketing budgets that are large and we need to give women the change to actually be making these bigger decisions."
Luckily, some directors, showrunners, and film bosses are working to do their part, however small, to do this themselves. Choe, whose crew on Nancy was 80 percent female and 50 percent people of color thanks to her conscious effort to make it so, points out that people like Ryan Murphy and Jill Soloway are living by mandates to hire more female directors, but that unless that expands, progress will continue to be slow.
"Put your money where your mouth is, do the hiring, change the actual statistics. Because we can talk until we’re blue in the face about unconscious bias, how we’re being treated, but things will begin to change once [we change who we hire]," she says.
Well, we've got our marching orders, folks. Let's make it so.
This piece was created in support of Bustle's Awards Season Pledge. Read more here.