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OPED Oscar's female deficit
Hollywood is stuck in the boys-in-baseball caps stage: demonstrably, provably unable to budge from its white male past. The 24 producers of the best film Oscar nominees this year include just seven women, which, at 29 percent, is the high point for women producers, directors and writers. For perhaps the most important position in the movie industry — the director — not a single woman made the cut.
It's not a matter of ability, it's not for lack of paying dues and trying, it's much simpler: It's gender discrimination, whether conscious or not.
And it's not just the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In 2016, the academy had considerably fewer female-directed films than male-directed ones from which to choose. According to Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, a mere 9 percent of directors for the 250 top grossing American films last year were female, a percentage more or less unchanged for decades.
It's not that women don't direct, or don't do it well. Four women have received best director nominations in the past, starting with Lina Wertmuller in 1976. The sole woman to take home the prize, Kathryn Bigelow, bested a director whose budget was 20 times that of Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker."
Stacy Smith, director of the Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative at USC's Annenberg School, found that career paths narrow pretty rapidly for women directors. While male-directed and female-directed Sundance movies are picked up for distribution in roughly equal percentages, men are more likely than women to get distribution with the Disneys, Sonys, and Warner Bros. of the world. Women are left to independent companies with less money and clout. When it comes to broad distribution — more than 250 theaters — males outpace female directors by a ratio of 6 to 1.
"A gendered marketplace" affects male and female filmmakers differently, Smith concludes. "As market forces increase, the opportunities for female directors decrease."
Why does it matter who directs the films we see?
Lauzen calls the director's chair a "gateway position." "Individuals in these roles," she says, "may open the door to greater opportunities for others that resemble their own demographic profile, consciously or subconsciously." Films directed by women employ twice as many female editors, and five times as many female cinematographers. When a woman directs, more than half the writers on average are female, compared to 10 percent on films directed by men.
But the effect of female directors doesn't end there; it fans out into the portrayal of women in the media, providing role models for girls and young women. Films with at least one woman writer or director feature more female characters, and those characters tend to speak more and interrupt others more often, "powerful language behaviors," Lauzen says.
The pressure to solve Hollywood's diversity problems is increasing. In November, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission began an investigation on gender discrimination among directors.
Power agents and big studios could make an impact, too. The men in Hollywood need to pull off those baseball caps and look around. They need to stop pretending talented women directors aren't there, and hire them to make great films.
Meg Waite Clayton's latest novel is "The Race for Paris."