Now It’s Time for Hollywood to Show It Cares

Liz Biscevic

The #MeToo movement has shattered business as usual in Hollywood. New allegations of sexual harassment and abuse against luminaries like Woody Allen, James Franco, and Harvey Weinstein make headlines almost daily, and powerful men are being forced out of writers’ rooms, sets, and studios. But for all the red carpet fashion statements, exclusive interviews, and new policies, it can be hard to remember that in terms of objectifying women, Hollywood is still public enemy number 1.

Historically, Hollywood has been a step of ahead of societal norms and has led the cultural embrace of once-taboo or progressive stances, except when it comes to sexism. More than 30 years ago, Alison Bechdel created what’s now known as the Bechdel Test in her comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For, in which one character explains that she only sees a movie that satisfies three basic requirements: the movie has at least two women, these women talk to one another, and they talk about something besides a man. While 2017 had several films that passed—a notable difference from the 32 years before—half of the Academy Award best picture nominees failed.

More recently, new gender equality tests have been proposed, like the Uphold test—requiring that 50 percent of the on-set crew are women—and the even more difficult White test—which asks that half of the department heads are women, half of the members of each department are women, and half of the crew members are women. Of the 900 movies released and analyzed by The Annenberg Inclusion Initiative in the past 10 years, none passed either test.

In fact, in the Inclusion Initiative found that only 34 women worked as directors on the 900 films. Because women in the film industry aren’t in decision-making roles, it’s not surprising that the work is skewed and the portrayal of women in fiction is often downplayed or flat-out wrong.

For every box office dominating Wonder Woman, there’s literally dozens of hokey action flicks where women are little more than set pieces or sexy plot devices. See: the entire James Bond oeuvre where, over the course of 24 films, Bond romps with 86 women (with objectifying names like Pussy Galore, Xenia Onatopp, and Holly Goodhead) but “loves” only two. These Bond Girls don’t make it to the next movie, and a third of them end up dead. The more recent installments have stronger women characters (with more serious names), like Casino Royale’s Bond-deflating Vesper Lynd, Quantum of Solace’s independent Camille Montes, Skyfall’s capable Moneypenny, and Spectre’s worldly Lucia Sciarra, not to mention Dame Judi Dench playing MI6 head M for three films. Still, it’s taken 55 years and seven actors for the possibility of a woman in the title role to be floated.

You can credibly argue that old school Bond flicks are just a symptom of the misogynistic times in which they were created, and action flicks in general are designed to appeal to a young male audience who, in the eyes of male studio heads at least, have little interest in talking women. But Hollywood’s anti-woman bias pops up in recent critically acclaimed fare as well.

In Academy Award Best Picture nominee Wolf of Wall Street, protagonist Jordan Belfort has a flashback to a night where he assaulted two flight attendants during a bender. Despite the harrowing conceit, the scene is portrayed from the viewpoint of intoxicated Belfort, and he’s having a great time. But what’s not pictured is the flight attendants’ point of view, how they felt after being sexually assaulted by a wasted passenger.

Of course, there are whole genres and franchises devoted to the supposed desires of straight cisgender women (mostly the white ones). Consider The Notebook, an instant romantic classic among many women who came of age in the early aughts. I loved The Notebook as much as the next person, but if modern-day Noah threatened to kill himself if modern-day Allie didn’t go out with him, we’d call it emotional abuse. This point was overlooked by The Notebook’s male screenwriters, director, and novelist.

Or take this charming opening scene from 2005 rom-com Hitch, when the main character (played by Will Smith) muses via voice-over: “No woman wakes up saying, ‘God I hope I don’t get swept off my feet today.’ Now she might say, ‘This is a really bad time for me.’ Or something like ‘I just need some space ….’ She’s lying to you … Lying … It’s not a bad time for her. She doesn’t need space.” Seems like the nearly all-male production crew missed the “no means no” memo.

Now, thanks to the nascent work of Times Up and other entertainment industry activists, Hollywood seems to have accelerated progress toward a more inclusive, and certainly less harrowing, environment for women, at least behind the scenes. The Producers Guild of America recently unveiled new guidelines set to combat sexual harassment and guarantee safety for women on sets. It’s supposed to lead to a “new era” of accountability for Hollywood’s most powerful men, and maybe it will. But the Guild needs to recognize that the problem won’t be solved by only condemning bad men—they need to start recognizing strong women, too, and that means hiring more women in leadership roles on their sets.

In the 2018 Golden Globes awards, only men were nominated for best director, slighting Patty Jenkins’ exhilarating work on Wonder Woman, Dee Rees’ thoughtful Mudbound and Greta Gerwig’s much-lauded Lady Bird (which won Best Picture). Gerwig did land among the Academy Awards’ best director nominee, the only woman. Some Oscar categories, like Best Original Score and Best Visual Effects, have no women nominees, and the only halfway decent excuse for that is that there’s just not many women working in those fields to begin with.

In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Heidi Moore writes, “Both men and women tend to underestimate the intelligence of women … The struggle to humanize women—to truly see women as having free will and agency—has only just started. Which is where hiring comes in: It becomes easier to humanize women when more women are around.” According to the Center for Study of Women in Television and Film, in 2017, women accounted for only 8 percent of directors, 10 percent of writers, 2 percent of cinematographers, 24 percent of producers, and 14 percent of editors. If we want more real, understandable, relatable depictions of women in film, we need more women calling the shots. And even then, it will take an open dialogue between both sexes, with women interrogating their own bias and internalized misogyny.

This work is slow, and meanwhile, films greenlit before scores of women celebrities started loudly voicing their displeasure with sexual objectification are hitting the theaters. On February 9, Fifty Shades Freed debuted, the finale in the “Fifty Shades” trilogy. In case you’ve been living under a rock, the films are based off the improbably successful Twilight fanfic that turned Bella and Edward into kink-loving yuppies. Readers and audiences are supposed to swoon at billionaire weirdo Christian Grey’s pursuit of smart young Anastasia, which goes from bedroom BDSM into corporate control freak (he buys the company Ana works for in the second installment for no reason other than to keep tabs on her). In a predictable-for-Hollywood-but-highly-unlikely-in-real-life scenario, Ana realizes she loves him and they marry. In Freed, Ana must adjust to Christian’s controlling nature, with the first conflict occurring about Ana keeping her maiden name. Can you guess what happens? That’s right. Ana caves and changes her name. And we’re still at the beginning of the film. It’s worth mentioning that, aside from the writer of the story, E.L. James, the director, screenwriter, and three producers are men.

(But don’t worry. Hollywood is holding off on releasing James Franco’s movie about the adventures of a 15-year-old Russian prostitute, Zola Tells All. So, as you can see, the industry is making real progress.)

On Friday, Amazon Studios named NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke the head of their studio division. She was hired to replace Roy Price, who resigned following sexual harassment claims. One of her first priorities will be overseeing Amazon’s latest endeavor: a remake of J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings series. Will this be the first time the movie expounds upon the subplots of important female characters? Time will tell.