Dee Rees, Whitney Cummings & 29 More Women On What Working Behind The Scenes In Movies & TV Is Really Like
Back in January, we at Bustle made a pledge: that for the entire length of awards season, we'd devote ourselves to acknowledging and honoring the many women who work behind-the-scenes in Hollywood. Over the past few months, that's taken the form of interviews with filmmakers like Issa Rae and Heather Graham; a panel at the Sundance Film Festival all about women in film; analyses of studies produced about the sorry state of Hollywood gender equality; and a survey, in which we spoke to 31 women working in movies and TV and asked them the same four questions on how being female has or hasn't affected their time in the industry.
Suffice to say, we've learned a lot. It's been no surprise to hear that female filmmakers are still massively underrepresented in Hollywood, of course — one only has to look at the 77 percent of behind-the-scenes 2018 Oscar nominations given to men to see that — but the experiences these ladies shared are nothing short of eye-opening. From seasoned directors working on their fourth or fifth movies to 20-something production assistants just starting out, nearly all of these women have a story about witnessing or experiencing unequal treatment on set because of gender — and everyone is pretty damn tired of it happening.
So what do we do? Truly absorb these women's words and realize that Hollywood isn't the male-dominated world we so often see it as. Women are here, they've been here all along, and they have voices that demand to be heard. It's time we see the industry as it actually is — a world where women on all levels are making movies and TV shows we can't get enough of, all while doing their pat to make Hollywood a more equal place.
For decades now, sexism and gender inequality on film sets have been hot-button topics — but we wanted to know what women actually feel like in this world. So for the first question in our survey, we asked women if they think of film as a gendered space — and by and large, their answers can be summed up with a giant "hell yes."
"Since the mid-'90s, there has been very little movement towards balanced representation for women in executive, above the line, below the line and on camera positions," explains Cathy Schulman, president of Women in Film and CEO of Welle Entertainment. Echoes Carlson Young, the writer, director, producer and star of the short film The Blazing World, "the higher up the chain you venture, you realize there are hardly any women in positions of power."
And it's true; in 2017, women comprised just 17 percent of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers on the top 250 grossing movies, according to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, the same depressingly low percentage as in 1998. Of course, film isn't the only workplace where gender is a factor — "the world's a gendered space," sums up Holly Sorensen, creator and showrunner of the YouTube Red series Step Up: High Water — but there's no denying that the industry is absolutely catered to men.
Some of this is due to how we, as a culture, view filmmaking. "We automatically think that directors are men, or cinematographers are men," says Jacqueline Durran, the Oscar-winning costume designer of films like Beauty and the Beast. Echoes I, Tonya editor Tatiana S. Riegel, "big action movies are almost exclusively cut by men [so] it's assumed that women aren't good at doing that."
Furthermore, the few female filmmakers that do get acknowledged often have to fight for their spots and work to appear unflappable. "The industry is made of mostly dudes and the women who are bold and badass enough to find their way in," said Renee Felice Smith, who wrote, directed, produced and starred in the new film The Relationtrip. Adds Black Panther costume designer Ruth E. Carter, "They have to be these über strong women to survive in the Hollywood system."
It all comes down to the past. "Historically, this business was run by men, and it’s hard to change a system that is so deeply ingrained," explains Noreen Halpern, producer of series like Alias Grace. "White men have held positions of power for so long, they have tended to mentor those from their own communities, which are often other white men. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy," adds Lori McCreary, CEO of film and TV production company Revelations Entertainment.
For years, men have been — and still often are — the ones in charge on a movie or TV set (in 2017, men made up 76 percent of producers on the year's top 100 grossing films according to Women in Hollywood, for instance). "I've never met a female DP and most directors that I've worked with are men," says Abbie Johnson, an accountant on Billions.
Sometimes, this disparity is due to unfair gender roles in general. "We can’t ignore the fact that women are usually the ones who take time off to have children or take care of family and this means they find themselves outside of the system for a period of time. Careers get stalled or sometimes derailed because of this," explains Halpern. Adds producer Jennica Schwartzman, there's a "lack of parent-friendly practices at all levels of the industry."
Other factors, too, cause the industry to appear male-dominated. "Even though there are more women now who have accrued some of that experience and power, and who may be giving more opportunities to women, we are still seeing the age-old dynamics of misogyny play out in a lot of workplaces," says Caissie St. Onge, an executive producer of Watch What Happens Live! When women on the rise experience sexual harassment, assault, and other behaviors, it "cumulatively contributes to a culture where it can be difficult for any woman to thrive," St. Onge adds.
This lack of visible female filmmakers can discourage women from pursuing careers in the field, and it's not just Hollywood; according to Catalyst.org, just 6.3 percent of women worked in fields considered male-dominated in 2016. Explains Riegel, "If you don't get a chance to see people doing the job that you want to do, how can you even imagine doing that job?"
All in all, the "extra challenges that women have to address" in order to succeed in filmmaking are "exhausting," says Amy Adrion, director and producer of Half the Picture.
For nearly all the women we interviewed, gender has been a factor in their treatment on set for as long as they've worked in Hollywood in some way or another. For Sorensen, who's also a screenwriter, that meant being put in "romantic comedy jail" in the '90s; for Loving Vincent director Dorota Kobiela, that meant watching the men on her set shake hands with each other, but not with the women; for producer Ashley Van Buren, that meant once being paid half the salary of a male co-worker in the same position; for UnREAL showrunner Stacy Rukeyser, that meant being told, on more than on occasion, that a series she pitches is "too female."
And then there's the sexual harassment. RBG filmmaker Betsy West recalls being given a penis-shaped cake for her birthday by a "bunch of men" back in the '70s, while her co-director Julie Cohen says she once had to do a job interview with a man "just wearing his underwear." Script supervisor Merina Seidel says she's been "hit on by men regardless if they are way older or married," and White Rabbit writer Vivian Bang says that as an Asian woman, she's been "fetishized or stereotyped" her whole career. Production assistant Michelle Israel recalls a summer on set when she wore jeans every day to avoid getting harassed for wearing shorts by her male peers, while Crazy Ex-Girlfriend co-creator Aline Brosh McKenna says she never wore skirts to meetings for similar reasons.
With instances like these occurring all too frequently, "you just learn how to steer the conversation away from that very quickly," adds McKenna. Some women try to ignore the harassment completely. "I just can’t stop every time something like that happens because that’s all I would do all day," says Whitney Cummings, co-showrunner of the Roseanne reboot and director of The Female Brain. "A lot of that stuff, I’m learning to just block out — not normalize or desensitize but just like, I can’t give you my power right now." And others just do their best to not let gender impact their on-set lives at all. Explains Harriet the Spy director Bronwen Hughes, "I have always been completely oblivious to my gender being something of note on a set."
Still, that's not always possible. "I've experienced all the -isms," says Mudbound director Dee Rees. "It's just my reality," adds actor and Insecure writer Natasha Rothwell. "As a person of color and as a woman, a lot of things are projected onto you, and so I have to dispel the myth and the mysticism of what and who I am." In a 2016 study by USC Annenberg, just two directors out of 407 surveyed were black women — the industry is clearly a highly unequal place for those who aren't male and white.
More female representation in behind-the-scenes roles is imperative, most of the filmmakers agree. But what people get wrong about "women in film" is not realizing that we also have to give more respect and recognition to the ones that already exist. "What people get right is a growing realization that there are women at every level, from interns to studio execs," says Jane Root, CEO of TV production company Nutopia. These women are working hard — but they require more resources to continue. "Women need the recognition in ways that are most difficult for others in the industry to give up — the money," says Schwartzman. "Women need to be valued. Value through payment. Offer women what they deserve in the first place."
After all, it's no secret that female-led films make major money, and that female audiences are filling in the theater seats — so why aren't more studios responding? "Women control something like 60 percent of the personal wealth in the U.S," says St. Onge. "To ignore that just seems like a terrible business model." Adds Heather Graham, actor and first-time screenwriter and director of Half-Magic, "I mean, we're 50 percent of the audience and we do have power. So if we watch those movies and if we ask for those movies and if we make those movies, I do believe they'll make more."
The more success that movies made by women have, the more likely studios are to greenlight future ones — and thus, give more behind-the-scenes roles to women on-screen. And with more women in positions of power in all areas behind-the-scenes, up-and-coming filmmakers can get more help and experience in the industry. "We need to be placing equal emphasis on programs for women in entertainment, whether it be official training or mentoring, in order to help ensure their future successes," says Halpern.
While all the women we interviewed are clearly passionate about equality on set, some of them would understandably prefer the conversation to be focused less on their gender, and more on the quality of their work. "When I'm referred to as a 'female' director instead of just 'director,' I can't help but feel like the men in this industry think the opportunities that we are we are getting now is just because we are women," says Swiss Army Man producer Miranda Bailey.
Yet others are taking this moment to celebrate the focus on women and shine more light on their female peers. "When I started as an assistant 30 years ago, my boss was a woman, and we worked for all men. And it was many years of my life as I was coming up, that I was the only woman," explains Crazy Ex-Girlfriend casting director Felicia Fasano. "Now, I have three series that my leads are not only women; the creator, the director, the producer and the writer are women... it’s kind of a plethora of female power."
And so many of these filmmakers are leaning into that power. "People are talking about underrepresentation now in a way that feels urgent and passionate and paradigm-shifting," says Megan Griffiths, writer/director of the film Sadie. Adds Graham, "Women haven't been allowed to really speak the truth about our experience. It feels like now is the first time."
Or, as Van Buren bluntly adds: "Women aren’t going to take any crap anymore." Hell yes, ladies.
Additional reporting by: Kelsea Stahler, Anna Klassen, Amanda Chan, Kerensa Cadenas, Samantha Rollins, Kadeen Griffiths, Alani Vargas, Casey Cipriani, and Taylor Ferber
This story was created in support of Bustle's 2018 Awards Season pledge. Read more here.