Maria Giese & Her Inspiring Work To End Discrimination Against Women Directors
Maria Giese, a director and a member of the powerful Directors Guild of America (DGA), spoke out about discrimination against women directors in Hollywood long before the those interviewed by Maureen Dowd for a major New York Times article, published a couple of weeks ago – in interviews, through articles on her blog and in other social media.
Like Lexi Alexander, Maria is a hero. She began challenging the DGA back in 2011and in 2013 moved on to ask the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California to investigate discrimination against women directors.
The ACLU set up a webpage, Tell Us Your Story, where it issued a warm invitation–
If you are a director who has been discriminated against, excluded from directing jobs in television or get less TV work than your male peers, we’d love to hear your story to learn more about the experiences of women in the directing industry. Please tell us your story below.Women could respond by email or telephone, in confidence. And they did. Then, in May this year, the ACLU sent a 15-page letter to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal office of the Federal Contract Compliance Program, and to the state department of Fair Employment and Housing. The letter called on them all to investigate ‘the systemic failure to hire women directors at all levels of the film and television industry’.
The EEOC enforces the United States Civil Rights Act (1964), which makes it illegal to discriminate against someone on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex (other legislation makes it illegal to discriminate on the grounds of age and disability). The commission also conducted a report on race and sex discrimination in Hollywood in the 1980s. In early October, it responded to the ACLU letter by issuing letters to some women directors, asking to interview them.
There have been many other long-term activist projects in the United States, like the books and moving image associated with Ally Acker's Reel Herstory, Alexis Krasilovsky's Shooting Women and Beti Ellerson's Centre for the Study & Research of African Women in Cinema. There have been and are many amazing and courageous women who've kept making and distributing their work in spite of the obstacles, teaching and writing about films by and about women, who've created film festivals that have continued for decades as well as other events to showcase women's work in appropriate contexts.
And there's been a whole lot of recent activism, informed by data-gathering by academics like Martha Lauzen at San Diego State University's Centre for the Study of Women in Television & in Film, who's been gathering and disseminating The Celluloid Ceiling statistics for 18 years and Stacy Smith at USC Annenberg's Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative, which has expanded over the last decade from studying gender and race representation in front of the camera to analysing women's representation behind the camera.
But the EEOC investigation seems to have led at last to genuine action among Hollywood decision makers.
The Los Angeles Times' Rebecca Keegan has consistently written about issues around women and filmmaking. In an article last week, about a key meeting (participants listed here) of the Systemic Change Project organised by Women in Film Los Angeles and the Sundance Institute, she wrote–
[F]or two days this fall, a group of 44 entertainment industry leaders gathered quietly, turning off their phones and setting aside their rivalries to tackle an increasingly visible problem in their business: the lack of women both in front of and behind the camera.
The private meeting, one of the first attempts by Hollywood decision makers to grapple with gender bias as a group, came as federal investigators conduct a probe into possible gender discrimination in Hollywood.From that meeting came an action plan. Perhaps the most significant item in its action plan is the decision to hire an educator to train individuals and organizations about unconscious biases, as happens at Google. (I hope the group turns to Shaula Evans – no relation – who's been assiduous in her work on unconscious bias in filmmaking, including providing info on this blog.)
A gender parity stamp for films and TV programs that provide substantial employment opportunities to women is also part of the plan – an echo of the feminist A-Rating and F-Rating initiatives as well as the Producers Guild of America (PGA)’s Producers Mark, given to those who have received a verified production credit and the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s Corporate Equality Index, which rates corporations for their policies relating to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees.
Other initiatives will select a dozen early- to mid-career directors for a special year-long training and fellowship program where they will be paired with 'advocates across the industry who will actively help them move to the next level' and promote industry leaders as 'ambassadors' who will push inside their companies for more gender parity. (I like the emphasis on advocacy rather than mentorship.)
Throughout the discussions, according to Rebecca Keegan, ran an understanding that hiring more female directors, writers and actors is not just a moral imperative, but an economic one – creating films and shows that appeal to a wider audience. This economic reality is supported by the evidence in The Ms Factor Toolkit: the Power of Female Driven Content, developed by Melissa Silverstein of Women & Hollywood and Lydia Dean Pilcher of the PGA's Women's Impact Network and published by the PGA.
Whatever the successes of the action plan and whatever awareness the meeting's participants already had of the cultural and economic issues, I'm convinced that its participants must have been in part motivated by their knowledge of the ACLU and EEOC investigations and their possible consequences.
I'm interested in how the law can be used to make change, globally, so I wanted to learn more about the investigations and about Maria Giese's involvement in them. So I asked Maria for more details, shortly before the Maureen Dowd's article came out. And Maria kindly answered. At length. It's taken us a while. But we've got there.
The ACLU initiative: Tell Us Your Story
WW Why did you approach the ACLU?
|from the Tell Us Your Story site|
That made me even more angry. I grew up with four older brothers. I know all about bullies, and I don't like them. I just decided, whatever happens, whatever the consequences, I'm going to do this thing. I'm going to end the exclusion of women from my profession. I'll do it for all other women directors. I'll do it for the next generation, for my daughter. Whatever it takes, the buck stops with me. That's all.
I had already gone to the EEOC to discuss the problem on February 14, 2013. I had tried to bring other women with me, but no one would come. The Department of Justice was intimidating to some women. The mention of the name seems to conjure images of hidden mikes and the need to move to housing under government protection. That's very silly. In the end the people who work there are just kind, concerned Americans, doing a really important job.
Even so, I quickly understood that the EEOC is, while very powerful, also a byzantine bureaucracy that moves gradually. They wanted me to bring in more women, which I knew would be difficult. They wanted me to bring in women who had smoking gun evidence of discrimination in the past 365 days which I knew was impossible. Women who had worked recently would never file a lawsuit in Hollywood. That would be career suicide. That's why I decided to take it to the ACLU instead.
I hoped that the ACLU would really take on this cause that I so clearly understood to have both national and global significance. I hoped that they would file an industry-wide class action lawsuit. I hoped they would question the DGA. I wanted them to line up every studio, agency, guild, and production company in Hollywood and expose them for Title VII violations. I knew that each and every company was guilty and could be sued.
When I first met with Melissa Goodman at the ACLU, in the spring of 2013, I had had Tell Us Your Story up on my blog, Women Directors in Hollywood, for over a year, but I had only received a few responses. It had been disappointing.
The ACLU created a new version that was beautifully laid out and easy to navigate. And of course, the ACLU has immense credibility and clout. As soon as I saw it I knew women directors would begin to respond. I brought in a core group of women to speak with the ACLU on a monthly basis, and the group quickly broadened. We each told our stories both in meetings and on their new site.
More and more women joined in over the next two years. During this time the ACLU did much research beyond gathering the stories. They commissioned statistical data from Stacy Smith at the University of Southern California. They studied the history and current industry landscape of women directors. They researched previous legal actions. And they began a campaign of media awareness as well as individual advocacy.
WW I sometimes wonder why more women directors in Hollywood don't do the same as Ava DuVernay – go the indie route and develop a complementary distribution system. Why did you choose the 'legal' route, instead of a more entrepreneurial one?
MG Because of free market capitalism in the United States, the legal route is our best solution. In other countries that embrace more socialism, the governments are more involved in film and TV production funding. And because of this equal employment opportunity laws must be considered. Hollywood is like the Wild West, producers out here don't seem to feel that United States civil rights laws apply to them. However, trying to go around the system doesn't work either.
I did try every conceivable independent alternative. In 1995, I directed a British indie feature film with a two million dollar budget. I had tried to seek financing in my own country, but as soon as producers heard a woman was the director they passed. United Kingdom producers didn't have the same sex bias. They were much more open to me.
In retrospect, after I completed When Saturday Comes, I should have stayed away from America. I was naive and optimistic. I came back.
In 1998, after several years of getting no work, I wrote my second feature, Hunger. I sought financing, but I couldn’t get it, so I decided to shoot digitally. The DOGME guys were already doing this in Europe, but digi-features hadn't taken hold in America yet. I was one of the first to do it here. In fact, Hunger stands as the first digital feature ever made based on a classic work of literature. Still, while the film got standing ovations in Europe, outside of a few small festivals no one was interested in America. I made that film for about a nickel – literally, our plan was to make it for a budget of zero, because that was pretty much the balance in my bank account at the time.
People are always trying to work outside the system in Hollywood and sometimes new directors break through that way, but beyond a few exceptions, not really women. If you’re a woman, you might get in some festivals with your indie film, you might even get distribution, but will you get embraced by the industry? Will you get directing work in the studio system? Will you be able to make a living? Not really. Statistics show that if you are a women, you are not likely to make it professionally. Women are simply shut out.
About 4% of studio features are directed by women, but almost all those women are movie stars, pop stars, or wives and daughters of movie moguls. If you're any average American woman, numerically you don't have a chance. You can't have that dream. Women are forever trying entrepreneurial solutions, but one way or another they get marginalized. If it's not during development, then they get their budgets cut, or they get bad distribution deals or no distribution, And they get terrible P&A. And of course, since more than 80% of critics are male, they get further sidelined with unfair reviews by a biased media.
In America, you have to solve the problem at the roots. In fact, we have to rip up the whole plant and start over with better seeds and soil. Many women now are proposing plans to give women small budgets to get to work. These are well-meaning concepts, but in my view they are merely diversions. Women need to force the American film industry to obey our basic civil rights laws and provide us an even playing field upon which to compete, to include our voices in our story-telling media. It's as simple as that.
Unfortunately, I don't believe real, enduring change will come until women succeed in bringing the might of America's Federal justice system to bear on our industry. And don't be fooled by women executives – they discriminate against women directors as much as men do – perhaps more.
The ACLU writes to the EEOC & Others
MG By the time the New York Times broke the story of the ACLU letter to the EEOC and two state agencies calling for a federal investigation into the exclusion of women directors from Hollywood (Cara Buckley, May 12 2015), I believe the ACLU had accumulated at least 50 stories.
After that news broke, more women submitted stories.
And then another wave came in after Rebecca Keegan officially broke the news that the EEOC joint government agency investigation was on, again in the Los Angeles Times. It was pretty exciting. It was a historic day (October 2, 2015).
I don't know how many women directors have submitted stories today, but I would venture to say it's in the hundreds, particularly since women can now contact the EEOC directly. Considering there are about 1300 women director members in the DGA and a few thousand more outside the DGA, that number represents a pretty good sample.
Although the EEOC launched the investigation in partnership with the office of the Federal Contract Compliance Program and the state department of Fair Employment and Housing, at first only the EEOC was up and running. Within a month or so the EEOC had a team with feet on the ground in Los Angeles, and so did the other two agencies. They had all taken the ACLU letter very seriously.
WW Has the EEOC invited everyone who responded to the ACLU to appear for an interview?
MG Perhaps, but not necessarily. At first the ACLU wanted to cull from the stories they received and forward women to the EEOC. I was the first women director to be interviewed. It's possible that some women who submitted stories were not selected for further discussion. I'm not privy to the decisions made internally at the ACLU, though I know them to be assiduous and I have no doubt they are doing what is best.
The investigation is now open to any women director and any person – male or female – who has insights into the problem of discrimination against women directors from our industry. The EEOC and other agencies are not bullies, they are comprised of civil servants who are American citizens, funded by tax-payer dollars to solve problems relating to equal employment opportunity violations.
The American citizens employed in the United States entertainment industry should be glad to work in cooperation with their fellow citizens who are giving years of their lives to serve our country’s laws. We all believe in the basic tenets of the United States Constitution. We are all in this together. There is no need for enmity. Together, our industry and our government could solve this problem amicably and cooperatively.
WW Will the EEOC continue to invite women to interview on a rolling basis, so that – for instance – any woman who responds to the ACLU today will be part of the interview group?
MG Yes, that is correct.
The ACLU Process
|The ACLU offices, Los Angeles|
MG I was amazed and incredibly impressed by the efficiency and alacrity of the ACLU. The people who run this union are deeply committed to being watchdogs for American civil liberties. The people who work there are hard-working, innovative, and dynamic thinkers. I truly thank God for the ACLU. They do very, very important work. Every American should contribute to this organization that exists 100% on donations.
WW Did you feel safe writing or speaking to the ACLU, even though it was possible that the organisation might be ordered to present your information in court?
MG I feel very confident that they can protect the anonymity of those who speak out. That said, I am appalled by the level of fear that exists in Hollywood. Why so much secrecy? Why aren't Hollywood studios more transparent? Why did it take the Sony hacks for top actresses to learn they were being paid less than their male counterparts? What other forms of sexism are they hiding? Our industry needs to be subject to the same lawful scrutiny all other United States industries face.
I believe that I was able to make such great strides for women directors specifically because I refused to be intimidated or fearful. I always used my name. I think all women directors should use their names and speak out fearlessly. The only way to end this corruption is to refuse to accept this culture of fear. The minute enough women refuse to be victims and simply speak out truthfully, the power of fear will dry up and disintegrate – we will be able to blow it away with a single breath. Fear means nothing if you don't accept it.
My participation helped me immensely because once I spoke out I was no longer a victim. I was empowered. I knew I could not fail because I knew I had the might of the law and ethical right behind me. Do good, be of service and expect no reward.
You can change the world. I didn't know that before. But I know it now.
My greatest hopes have been vastly surpassed, even though numerical change is not yet visible. We helped create a national movement, and contributed to a global movement for the empowerment. There could not be anything more important for the future of our world than the proliferation of female voices and perspective in American films and television shows – in United States media.
The EEOC Becomes Involved
|The Roybal Federal Building Los Angeles|
WW How was the EEOC invitation worded?
MG The letter was this, exactly. Sent by email, it was dated October 1, 2015.
Good Afternoon,WW Did the invitation include documentation about confidentiality and offer a formal agreement about how your interview will be conducted and used? Were you offered an opportunity to take a support person or lawyer?
I would like to begin by introducing myself. My name is Marla Stern-Knowlton and I am the Systemic Supervisor for the Los Angeles District Office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC is a Federal agency charged with enforcing Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, which prohibits employment discrimination based on sex, race, color, religion, and national origin; the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, as amended, which prohibits employment discrimination against individuals forty years of age and older; the Equal Pay Act of 1963, as amended, which prohibits wage discrimination based on gender; the American with Disabilities Act of 1990, as amended, which prohibits discrimination in employment against a qualified individual with a disability; and the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act of 2008 which prohibits discrimination based on genetics.
Your name was provided to our agency by Melissa Goodman with the ACLU. Ms. Goodman has advised the EEOC that you would be willing to speak with us, so that we may learn more about the gender-related issues which you are facing in both the Film and Television Industries. To that end, I would like to begin coordinating dates and times for these interviews, to take place during the month of October at our Los Angeles District Office. Please note that these interviews will be considered confidential.
At your earliest opportunity, please contact me and let me know your availabilty so that we can schedule a date and time for your interview. Once confirmed, I can provide you with directions and any other information which you require.
We greatly appreciate your willingness to share your personal stories and the obstacles which you have faced in pursuit of success within your profession.
I can be reached via email at [ ].
Systemic Supervisor, San Diego Local Office
U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
MG No, it was simply the above email letter.
WW Where do the EEOC interviews take place? Do you have to travel to Washington?
MG My EEOC interview (and I was the first) was held at the United States Department of Justice in downtown Los Angeles. The confirmation letter read as follows–
Assuming you are available, I would like to conduct your interview at 1:00pm Wednesday, October 14 at the EEOC's Los Angeles District Office. The office is located at: The Roybal Federal Building 255 E. Temple Street, 4th Floor Los Angeles, CA 90012, in downtown Los Angeles. There is $8.00 parking in the public parking lot which is located directly across from the office on Temple Street. You will go through security on the ground floor. Take the elevator to the first floor and then a second bank of elevators to the 4th floor. Please give my name to the receptionist and I will come get you.
With respect to how much time the interview will take, I'm leaving the afternoon open to meet with you. Please let me know if this date/time will work for you and please bring your CV/Resume with you and any other documentation which you would like us to review.
The EEOC Interview
WW How formal is the interview setup?
MG There was a lot of security entering the building. After that, the interview set-up was very simple. The room was utterly ordinary, white paint, simple desks and chairs, florescent lights. These hardworking people work without luxury or preciousness. The opposite of Hollywood.
WW Did you have to declare that you’d tell the truth etc?
MG No, but the truth of my words was anticipated. There was no point in lying or exaggerating. The truth is all that is necessary to demonstrate the level of sexism and discrimination against women directors in Hollywood.
WW Who conducts the interviews and are they women or men?
MG Both men and women. Marla was clearly remarkably intelligent, very down-to-earth. She took notes. She said she would be sharing my information with the other agencies.
WW Is there an opportunity to see the transcript of your interview and to make additions and alterations?
MG It’s an organic process. We are all part of it. I was not personally informed of the possibility of reviewing my file or making revisions, but it was made very clear that my discussion could be ongoing. We are free to talk with the agents afterward, to make corrections or discuss anything. They are very open to follow-up discussions and submission of documents, studies, and articles that may further inform them in their discovery.
The transcripts are confidential. We cannot be privy to other statements, nor see what other women say.
WW Were your motivations for participating in the EEOC interview different than for participating in the ACLU project?
MG My motivations were the same as those that compelled me to speak to the ACLU. I had to tell the same story over again, but of course new intelligence is always emerging and better informing the discussion. I was very grateful for the opportunity to continue speaking out. I was drained and exhausted when I left. I'm sure my EEOC investigator was exhausted as well. We spoke for four straight hours. No one brought in smoked salmon and fine wine. This is not the DGA or a studio.
Perhaps our industry suffers from too much luxury. Perhaps the temptations of lucre and glamour motivate those in power to keep women shut out.
WW Did you take a support person or a lawyer? Or a list of what you wanted to be sure to remember?
MG No, it was just me. I felt safe. And I brought no list, though I recommend other women to do so. Few women have been as immersed in this issue as I have. It has been my daily work for going on five years. I know it inside out.
WW Did Marla have a set list of questions?
MG Yes, she had a list of questions, but was also able to embrace discussions that were not on her list. Exploration was encouraged. Broad discussion was encouraged.
WW Did the questions encourage you to explore discrimination on grounds not covered by Title VII – age, disability or even voice or size? (I was amazed when an American woman director told me that adequate height was a real issue for all directors in the United States!)
MG That's funny. I've never head of that. However, I believe we must break women away from terms like 'diversity' and 'minority'. Ivana Massetti, the Italian director/producer who launched Women Occupy Hollywood, has been pushing on this issue very convincingly. Sexuality, disability, ethnicity, etc. may be defined by terms like 'diversity' and 'minority', but not women. If 'men' cannot be defined by these terms, then neither can women.
Of course, that said, women of color, with disabilities, and varying sexual identities are all women. We must fight for gender equality. That's all. All women – whoever you are – must strive for 50-50 equal voice in American media.
WW Is it true that diversity programs tend to benefit men more than women?
MG It is true that 'diversity' programs between the DGA and studios benefit ethnic minority males. That is because of sex bias. If male ethnic minorities are combined with women of any ethnicity, the men will benefit. Men of EVERY ethnicity always come before women of ANY ethnicity. That is proven throughout history. We all know that American men of color received the right to vote a full 50 years before women.
WW Was there discussion of the role of motherhood in women directors' lives and if so, what were your thoughts on that issue?
MG No, that was not ever brought up, though as a mother of two young children, I believe that is an essential conversation going forward. As Jane Campion said, women give birth to the whole world. And women are often primary in bringing up children. That experience should be part of our world’s narrative stories.
WW Did the EEOC questions encourage you to explore whether the ‘different’ content of your work/script may have compounded the factors leading to discrimination?
MG That's an interesting question. We will not know if a unique perspective will proliferate through the inclusion of female voices and visions in film and television until women are provided an equal playing field on which to compete. I would love to see something new, but I suspect women will be able to tell extraordinary 'male' stories just as men have shown they can tell extraordinary 'female' stories.
WW Do you feel that you said all you wanted to say, were taken seriously and were heard?
MG Yes. This is such an important opportunity for all of us to embrace and endorse.
WW During the interview and afterwards, did anything feel different from your ACLU participation?
MG Well, of course, the ACLU is not a government organization – it's independent and can move with alacrity. It’s more interactive. The EEOC is a government agency. It's more bureaucratic, but it’s also extremely powerful and very important. You know that if you can make your case successfully through the Department of Justice, it could go on to the Supreme Court. You can change things at the highest levels of government in our nation. That’s pretty exciting.
WW Is there anything you wish had been differently done, that you would have found helpful?
MG At the time of the interview I was sort of wishing that our federal government would launch a kind of Manhattan Project to solve the problem. But now I understand that the people who work at the EEOC cannot come in with an intent. They cannot be biased. They have to start out with a clean slate, just to investigate. They must come into the industry and learn about the problem from a place of impartiality. If these investigative teams were comprised of slick Hollywood lawyers who already knew the industry and understood the problem, they would not be impartial and objective.
The EEOC isn't doing this to attack Hollywood, it's doing it to make an honest assessment of the problem. Maybe they will discover there is no problem. Maybe women should not be directors. Or maybe they will discover that extraordinary civil rights violations are taking place (which, of course, they are). But that's their job, to come in like a tabula rasa – clean – and decide what to do. Maybe they need to mediate, or maybe they need to sue. That's what they will discover from this investigation.
WW What were your feelings and thoughts after the EEOC interview?
MG I was exhausted, relieved, and apprehensive – all three. I gave all of the prime of my life striving for a career as a director. I'm pretty competitive and very tenacious. I tried everything I could possibly do, and I failed. When I look back on my life, that's what I have to say: 'I failed'. And why? In the end, I truly believe that I could not have succeeded. Not through honest efforts. And to me that means the directing profession for American women does not reflect meritocracy. That’s very unfortunate.
Young women in America, American girls, cannot reasonably dream of entering this profession and succeeding through talent and hard work. That is anathema to the American dream. The numbers show that women feature directors are merely exceptions. I'm glad that rich women and celebrities are directing, but it doesn't mean that women as a group are not shut out from the directing profession. It just means that in America if you are super rich you can jump over terrible states of injustice. Still, the injustice exists, and your jumping over it doesn’t make it right. And it's pretty telling how those women don't say a word. They like to be 'exceptions' in a Boys’ Club, but I would say their refusal to speak out merely reveals how unexceptional they truly are.
WW Has the process been transformative?
MG I am completely transformed as a person by my experience spearheading this battle. I understand Gandhi's words now: 'Live as if you were to die tomorrow'. Some principles are worth sacrificing everything for. I think directing is awfully fun, but now I understand that fomenting change for social good is far more significant and honorable. Of course, as directors of the right projects we can influence people toward social good. I guess that was always what I wanted to do anyway. I applied to UCLA film school, after all, aiming toward becoming a socio-political documentarian.
WW What outcome do you hope for? How is this different than your hopes for the ACLU project?
MG I hope for a future of equal voice for women directors in my country. I hope the next generation of women will have an even playing field on which to compete for jobs. Even though I deeply hope that our industry will embrace the investigation and join in a cooperative effort to make this change happen immediately, I know from history that people only change when they have to change. That usually mean legal action is required.
I know the ACLU will continue with their commitment to this issue. They are going to encourage the investigation, advocate for women directors, and continue a media campaign to keep this fresh in the minds of Americans and industry players.
WW Do you hope for more than a report like the report the EEOC made in the 1980s?
MG This investigation represents the fourth effort the EEOC has made to advance the interests of women directors. The previous three (in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s) all failed women. This time they must succeed. I think it will succeed. I hope it will.
We have media support, government support, and the support of the American people on both sides of the political spectrum. Every one is sick of hypocrisy and corruption in America, and in Hollywood. I think the EEOC will do more this time than prepare an empty report. That said, this is not just the responsibility of the EEOC. It's the responsibility of all Americans to uphold our important civil rights laws that were so hard fought for – and won – decades ago. The EEOC is just a group of civil servants intent on helping solve problems that prevent lawful adherence of these laws.
WW Are you hoping, eventually, for a financial settlement like the one TV writers received when they sued in federal court, on the grounds of age discrimination? Or are other things more important?
MG I just want the problem solved going forward. I have to hold myself as accountable as anyone for not standing up sooner. We are all responsible for this problem. Americans are too self-involved as a people, we must be more concerned about collectivity. We cannot hope to be leaders in this world if we cannot even obey our own laws. It's time for us each to stand as examples, and to demonstrate with our actions, with honor and integrity.
WW So many and diverse women spoke out in Maureen Dowd's article in the New York Times last week. At last. Why do you think that happened, at that time, in that publication? Has the fear that women have had for so long now gone?
MG That happened because the mainstream media has broken down the wall of shame associated with the very concept of women being directors and wanting work and feeling shut out. When we started this work, many people – even women directors themselves – did not want us to make an 'issue' out of it. They thought it would be embarrassing and 'negative'.
Even when I broke the news of the EEOC investigation, some women directors were angry. They said working women would be stigmatized by it. They wanted to hide behind a veil of secrecy, to pretend the investigation wasn’t going on.
Instead, thanks to our grassroots writing in social media, and the ACLU's media campaign, and immense support from American media, it's becoming fashionable to speak out. Catherine Hardwicke's bold voice endorsing the EEOC investigation has helped, too. She gave credibility and even glamour to testifying. That was heroic, I think.
So Maureen Dowd's piece came on the heels of that. Every woman director wants her name in the paper because we have been 'disappeared' – we want visibility. Maureen called all these women and invited them to be photographed and publicized. Of course everyone wanted that. I wondered why she seemed almost assiduous in her avoidance of the very women directors who made this whole movement happen, but I suppose that is par for the course.
In the 1980s The Original Six, who used legal action and risked their careers to send female director employment skyrocketing, weren't the ones who benefitted most. The ones who got the new jobs were the women who had stood on the sidelines. And no one looked back to thank The Original Six until we did in 2014 – thirty-five years later.
No wonder women are reluctant to speak out. History shows that on an individual basis its better to keep your head down, but selfishness has not advanced women as a group at all. And those who hid their heads and then benefitted will always know that of themselves.
Women must think collectively. We must fight for equality for ourselves and we must set the course for the next generation of women filmmakers. Men think about who's next, who will continue their legacy. They reach their hands down to younger men, to the next generation. Women seem rarely to do so. Maybe that can change now.
WW What do you think about The Systemic Change Project? I liked it that 'People who normally spend all day long trying to screw each other were in there together trying to figure out this gender issue', according to Cathy Schulman, head of production at STX Entertainment and president of Women in Film. And I liked it that she said–
This is not a shaming process. We're not saying, 'You're the bad guys.' We're saying, 'This is your situation. We've been doing it the same way for so long. We need to retrain our brains'.This perhaps indicates that the EEOC may be able to mediate rather than to sue?
MG This is so important. You are completely right. Cathy Schulman has been running Women in Film for years while no change has happened. Now I think she is re-energized. Cathy is a remarkable person, and WIF is can be very powerful. They can spearhead this effort and see it through to the end.
WIF is comprised of a powerful group of women who are leaders in this industry. They are perfectly poised to lead this new era of lawful equity. Speaking out in favor of the investigation, and actually hiring women directors, is seen as being risky, but I think this can change. I think they do support the ACLU and I think they can assist the EEOC in this historic effort that could clearly advance their own reason for being: Women in Film!
WW Do you feel supported by WIF?
MG I met with Kirsten Schaffer, the new Executive Director of Women In Film today and I was incredibly heartened. She is very proactive and working hard to understand how WIF might advance the cause for women directors. She and Cathy Schulman seem to have a powerful sense that their contribution to this is a matter of social significance.
They are allied with powerful partners – Sundance, the Geena Davis Institute for Gender in Media, USC Annenberg, and ArcLight – together that union could represent a potentially powerful force. If they take a strong stance now, backed by the current investigation as well as media and popular support for the cause, they can make tremendous strides.
They need to avoid patronizing programs that focus on ‘nurturing,’ ‘teaching’, ‘support groups’, and tiny bits of money for women filmmakers. Women directors need a level playing field and equal access to funding, tools, and distribution as their male counterparts. Women should not be defined as representing 'diverse' voices, nor be treated as children.
The Systemic Change Project can be successful in educating Hollywood executives about unconscious sex bias and encouraging mentorships (though my studies show that mentorships in the DGA resulted in no change in female employment). I don't think putting a label at the end of films that pass certain feminist standards is going to do much more than cause derision, associating women filmmakers to things that could become the butt of jokes, like ‘No women were harmed in the making of this film'.
Every solution should be considered, but it would be best to act on ideas that have real teeth and the potential to be enduring.
We need to be wary of efforts that further stigmatize women and set them apart. Efforts should be bold and sweeping. There should be no baby steps or apologies. Equal employment opportunity is our right by law and Women in Film can be very strong in demanding an immediate shift toward parity, knowing they have the weight of our justice system behind them.
WW Do you feel supported by all the other activism and media attention?
MG We are in a new era. We are all part of the new spearhead. I feel supported by the ACLU and the EEOC. I believe that we are all in this together.
People in our industry sometimes suggest that this investigation is a threat, is adversarial. Some people say these efforts point to enforced socialism, that they will interfere with creative freedom our in a creative industry. But I say, NO!
These efforts usher in a new awakening. With the inclusion of women comes an opening of floodgates of new talent and imagination never known before. We stand at the threshold of a new generation of visual revolution as never experienced before.
Women Directors in Hollywood blog
Women Directors in Hollywood Facebook
Another story about an EEOC interview, from director Lexi Alexander.
HOW TO CONTACT the EEOC or ACLU WITH YOUR STORY re DISCRIMINATION
The EEOC – to set up a time to talk with an agent
Marla Stern-Knowlton – phone: (619) 557-7234
Tell Your Story, or
ACLU’s senior attorney, Melissa Goodman – phone (213)-977-5288