Banishing sexual harassment and attaining gender parity in Hollywood will take more than a few black dresses and awards-show speeches. It’s time to restructure the industry from the inside out.
Black Panther has invigorated audiences with its depiction of Wakanda, a fictional East African nation untouched by colonialism. Bringing a vision of a better world—not a utopia, but a realistic interpretation of advanced world forged in possibility, rather than systemic subjugation—can instill hope that a better way is possible when people are truly free. What would it look like to imagine that better world when it comes to women in entertainment, an industry that is in the process of being exposed for longstanding injustices? What might our cultural landscape look like if all women were really free?
Many in Hollywood, predominantly women, are making a stand for their rights, whether in black dresses at awards shows including this weekend’s Oscars, speaking up with their own #MeToo stories, or working toward long-term change via the Time’s Up initiative. At the same time, we’re seeing unprecedented payoffs from years of working to correct the systemic imbalance of representation. While the Time’s Up initiative matures, Black Panther, A Wrinkle in Time, and the work of Shonda Rhimes, Issa Rae, Phoebe-Waller Bridge, and Lena Waithe are all taking cinema and television by storm. Progress feels like it’s accelerating, but we still need to play catch-up for the years of systemic concentration of power in the hands of a homogenous few.
Reimagining television and film as not only more inclusive of women but made for, created by, and celebrating women goes beyond the current process of removing predators. Rather, sexism is so pervasive that a complete overhaul of the system is necessary, going as far back as Hitchcock terrorizing and allegedly sexually assaulting Tippi Hedren in The Birds and then effectively torpedoing her career. But how else might the entertainment landscape look right now if we lived in a brighter timeline? What art have we missed out on? Whose careers have been hamstrung? The answers could help us bring about a future of film and television that more closely resembles the people who consume and create these works, one that aligns with our values and ideals, rather than the basest pursuits of a powerful few.
Surely a world without predation and abuse would include a reversal of Roy Price’s decision to cancel Good Girls Revolt. In spite of good numbers with a new demographic (and perhaps not even watching the show himself), the executive cancelled a show about a landmark workplace discrimination case, and was later himself ousted from Amazon for sexual misconduct.
Moreover, an industry that valued the stories of survivors would surely not have cancelled a critically acclaimed, fan-favorite show like Sweet/Vicious, which told stories of survivors of sexual assault with a rare sense of both humor and realism. A second season would have brought much-needed plots involving male survivors, LGBTQ survivors, and survivors of color. More to the point, sexual assault would never be used to titillate the audience, motivate male characters, or make women characters more likeable. Moreover, working to portray sexual violence would be a safe practice, one that is mindful of the emotional toll it takes on the cast and crew. There would be no refusing to safely plan the choreography of a difficult rape scene, and certainly no quest to make the “greatest rape scene ever,” like in Straw Dogs. It feels surreal to even have to say it, but there would be no real, on-screen rape, like in Last Tango in Paris. No one would deem sexual violence against women an acceptable price for “realism” and auteur filmmaking. And even regular, gratuitous violence against women would not only be deemed tasteless, but culturally irrelevant. Auteurs who craved those things would be cast out.
In a bizarre form of restitution, we are starting to see roles that may revert to the people who should have held them in the first place. After rumors of cancellation in the wake of accusations against Kevin Spacey, House of Cards has opted instead to re-center its story around Robin Wright’s Claire Underwood. Transparent has the opportunity to do something similar by recasting Tambor’s role or otherwise showing trans characters played by trans actors. In both cases, there are plenty of people who advocated for these configurations all along.
Many actors have come forward to express how sexual harassment and abuse has had personally and professionally affected them, but this is not a new phenomenon. Back in 2013, Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos, the stars of Palme d’Or-winning Blue is the Warmest Color, shared increasingly distressing stories of mistreatment and exploitation, particularly around the love scene that was criticized as both too realistic and a pornographic fantasy, given that many critics suspected there was no simulation, but rather real sex being shown. The two young actors described long hours and feeling humiliated during overly long takes for the love scenes, which they put up with because they saw it as part and parcel of working with the “genius” director, a director who makes the kind of art they are proudly committed to. The Palme d’Or was rightly and unusually awarded to the two actors as well as the director, recognizing their work but seemingly validating his methods at the same time.
Julie Maroh, the lesbian woman who created the graphic novel the film was based on, lamented the inauthenticity of sex scenes between two straight women, filmed by a straight man. A safer experience for the actors could have involved a closed set and fewer takes over a shorter period of time, as opposed to the 10 “grueling” days the women described. A different creative vision for the loves scenes, like one with fewer cameras, without the use of a hand-held camera up close, and using blocking that allowed for more coverage than just fake vulvas, might have made the actors more comfortable.
Some actors prefer women-directed sex scenes, due to what they choose to focus on and the degree of nudity. For example, Kirsten Dunst cited Sofia Coppola’s direction of the sex scenes in The Beguiled as one of her best experiences, due to Coppola’s speed and sensitivity.
The male gaze isn’t limited to the bedroom, of course. As the New York Times noted in their coverage of Blue is the Warmest Color, creative choices around how to frame each shot can empower or debase, betraying the true sentiments of, “movies that don’t necessarily love or even like women.” Upskirt shots and full-body panning direct a viewer to appraise an actor’s body while undermining their artistic credibility, as Michael Bay did to Megan Fox, to the detriment of her career. In marketing, the infamous ‘boobs and butt’ pose, a superhuman contortion of women’s spines in order to improbably show off all our physical assets at the same time needs to go. But there is a better way: two recent DC superhero movies highlighted the difference between how a male director and a female one treated the Amazons. In contrast to the skimpy outfits the Amazons wear in Zack Snyder’s Justice League, in Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman, the powerful warriors dress in utilitarian armor.
Salma Hayek’s December op-ed on the tentacle-like hold Harvey Weinstein had on her career during and after she made Frida was disturbing in part because it’s one of the first attempts to account for the impact a perpetrator has had on the career of an artist. According to the piece, Hayek had initially been promised more leading roles after Frida. Looking back at what came through the Miramax pipeline in the ensuing years, what if she had been in Kill Bill, which could have lead to more action movies? Or Ella Enchanted, a mainstream, family-friendly role that would have reached audiences who sat out the art-house-like Frida? Or if she had been in Proof, cementing her image as a leading lady and causing her to be seen as a romantic lead for other movies? Hayek’s talent is undeniable, but surely a world without Weinstein’s misconduct would mean a faster rise, better pay, and more interesting films for us all. Or might her production company, Ventanarosa, have more visibility?
Hayek and other women of color face unique hurdles. It is no surprise that up until just recently, the only accusations Weinstein has directly addressed came from Hayek and Lupita Nyong’o, both women of color. Gabrielle Union has been speaking out on the issue of rape for 20 years, but has not been treated as a central figure in this fight by most mainstream media. How many more women of color have been held back by a compounding blend of racism and sexism? Any reimagining of a more equitable world must surely prioritize women of color. The successes of women like Oprah, Shonda Rhimes, and Ava DuVernay have demonstrated that when women of color hold key positions of power, the work that they create transforms the landscape of whatever genre and medium they touch, from family dramas to Sci-fi epics. And perhaps most importantly, they create pipelines for more women to move up and share their art.
We’ve seen the results of that pipeline, like Oprah producing The Color Purple, Selma, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Queen Sugar, and Green Leaf, all vehicles for Black women on screen and behind the scenes. Oprah’s support has helped many artists rise in prominence, including director and showrunner Ava DuVernay, who has in turn paid it forward to others with her complete slate of women directors for Queen Sugar, many of whom were directing television for the first time. Aside from Queen Sugar, 13th, and Selma, DuVernay directed March’s A Wrinkle in Time. With a $100 million budget, she is the first woman of color to direct a blockbuster of such scale. It can change careers, and makes a huge statement about her values, that DuVernay insisted on assembling what Reese Witherspoon referred to as the most diverse film crew she’s ever seen. Finally, it’s impossible to think of television right now without considering the undisputed queen of Thursday nights, Shonda Rhimes, whose programs showcase diverse casts, or as she likes to put it, “the world as it actually is.” Her commitment to supporting and empowering women was strongly demonstrated by her support and encouragement of star Ellen Pompeo during contract negotiations, which led to Pompeo becoming the highest paid woman on television.
In this brave new world, there would be no more “sexposition,” parading nameless naked women around during long expository scenes on shows like Game of Thrones. Women’s nudity would be a question of artistic integrity, not a necessity exclusive to those women who are powerless to protect against it in their contracts. And of course there would be similar levels of male nudity, something that is currently a long way off. On the other side of the coin, the sexual pleasure of women characters would be an equal priority, and not subject to a double-standard. Instead, love scenes would be shot from the female gaze, following in Outlander’s footsteps. This means there is a focus on the relationship between the characters, both partners express autonomy and sexual preferences, and traditional hang-ups like a less experienced man with a more experienced woman or a skittishness around oral sex for women are nowhere to be found.
But behind the scenes things are even more dismal, if that’s possible. There are still far too few women with a seat at the table, and even those who are able to find work and perfect their craft still face an uphill battle for recognition. This year saw no women nominated in the Best Director category at the Golden Globes, and only the fifth woman in history was nominated for a Best Director Oscar. Rachel Morrison, the director of photography on Black Panther, Dope, Fruitvale Station and Confirmation, made history this year when she was nominated for an Oscar for her work in Mudbound, the first woman ever to be nominated in the cinematography category. These positions have the power to affect many more aspects of a show or movie, making them critical to progress.
The tide turns the strongest when more women amass the power, wealth, and visibility to create the parts that they wish had existed for them, throughout a production. Queen Latifah, Jennifer Lopez, Elizabeth Banks, Eva Longoria, Reese Witherspoon, Drew Barrymore, America Ferrera, and Angelina Jolie have all started their own production companies, some expressly as a result of the narrow roles they had been offered over the course of their careers, and a desire for creative control. Their choices come from knowing that if we really want to move the goalposts with shows like Big Little Lies and Queen Sugar, where women shine on screen, in the story, and behind the scenes, we need more women in decision-making roles.
The welfare, careers, and artistic expression of survivors of sexual harassment and assault have been curtailed for far too long. If we want to truly change our world for the better, we must think bigger than the simple removal of the most egregious serial predators. In a sort of feminist entertainment utopia, storytelling that centers and respects the experiences of women, by women, and for women must be a priority. The reality is that we have a long way to go. But as more women find their voices, their hard-won revelations about the past can help show us the way forward.
There’s never been a more important time for quality journalism. Please consider supporting DAME’s reporting, commentary, and cultural criticism by becoming a member. When you join, you’ll be entered to win a copy of Robin Marty’s new book, “Handbook for a Post-Roe America,” As a member, you’ll have access to our members-only newsletter and exclusive content. And we’re sending you some swag too. Become a supporter today.
AN INDEPENDENT FREE PRESS HAS
NEVER BEEN MORE IMPORTANT.
Your financial support helps DAME continue to cover the critical policies, politics and social changes impacting woman and their allies.