The 15 Page Letter That Could Change Hollywood


Maria Giese
Maria Giese
What do soccer and movies have in common?
What do soccer and movies have in common?

Seasons greetings! For my final blog post of 2015, I thought I would focus on what I think might turn out to be the biggest Hollywood story of the year, and it has to do with one the week’s big news events: the retirement of Abby Wambach, soccer’s all-time leading goal scorer, male or female, a fixture for fifteen years on the US women’s soccer team. You might have thought I was referring to another event this week, one involving light sabers and giant furry space pilots, but I’m maintaining a personal news blackout on that one until I see it next week. But the story I’m talking about, if it turns out to be as significant as it has the potential to be, could have a major impact on that mega-franchise and really every movie and television show made in the United States. So what would Abby Wambach, who great as she is has a modest (though not non-existent) IMDB credit page, have to do with a Hollywood story that could impact events that happen long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away?

ACLU LetterBefore I get to how soccer is like Hollywood, let me get right to my candidate for Hollywood story-of-the-year, and it has do with, of all old-fashioned, analog media, a letter. Specifically, a fifteen-page letter that the American Civil Liberties Union sent to the United States Equal Opportunity Commission on May 12. The letter begins simply and directly: “We write to call to your attention to the widespread exclusion of women directors from employment in directing episodic television and feature films.” The shameful yet enduring gender disparity in movie and television production is one of the main themes of Screen Ages: A Survey of American Cinema as well as this blog, as in this post from last April, “A Step Forward or a Sad Commentary?”

Gil Cates, Nell Cox, Lynne Littman, Susan Bay, and Dolores Ferraro in 1980.
Gil Cates, Nell Cox, Lynne Littman,
Susan Bay, and Dolores Ferraro in 1980.

The letter from the ACLU results from a campaign by Maria Giese, whose own frustration with entrenched patterns of gender discrimination while trying to maintain a career as a filmmaker led her to explore the possibility of government action. There has been precedent for appeals to federal anti-discrimination law. In the 1960s, the government investigated Hollywood for systemic hiring discrimination on the basis of both sex and race, and the result was an agreement between Hollywood and the EEOC to improve hiring practices, an effort that had some initial success but foundered when oversight began to wane in the 1970s. In 1983, the Director’s Guild of America filed a class-action lawsuit against Warner Brothers and Columbia Pictures charging them with gender discrimination. The effort was led by six women directors–Lynne Littman, Susan Bay, Nell Cox, Victoria Hochberg, Joelle Dobrow, and Dolores Ferraro. The case was dismissed on the basis that the Director’s Guild, a trade organization dominated then and now by white male directors, did not have legal standing to represent the “class” of women.

Nevertheless, their efforts did lead to some progress. After the threat of the lawsuit, the percentage of women directing episodic television shows rose from 0.5% to 16% by 1995. Since then, progress has stalled and even gone backwards, and we have the numbers thanks to the important work of scholars like Dr. Stacy L. Smith, the Director of the Media, Diversity, and Social Change Initiative at the University of Southern California, and Dr. Martha Lauzen at San Diego State University, whose Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film produces the influential and startling “Celluloid Ceiling” report every year. The 2014 report sums up the sad story: “Women accounted for 7% of directors, up 1 percentage point from 2013, but down 2 percentage points from 9% in 1998. In 2014, 93% of films had no female directors.”

Over the years, many different solutions have been proposed, and many different explanations/excuses have been offered for persistence of this inequality, from the hope that the example of the success of hit movies directed by women like Twilight (Catherine Hardwicke 2008) or The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow 2008) will “convince” Hollywood of the viability of women movie makers to the difficulty of changing and industry as complex and hyper-competitive as movie and television production. Add to that the human tendency to defend our own righteousness, as in this now-notorious clip from HBO’s Project Greenlight, where show co-creator Matt Damon explains how diversity should work to Effie Brown, the producer of the film project that is the focus of the reality show, who had suggested that the group deciding on the director for the movie might consider the perspectives that demographics might play in telling a story that features a white pimp slapping the only person of color in the script, a black prostitute:

Damon subsequently apologized for his remarks (although with the usual suggestion that his words had been taken out of context), but his assertion of the merit argument—we should just choose the best director, regardless of race or gender—flies in the face of the staggering statistical evidence that the ACLU letter offers to the EEOC:

  • Only 1.9% of directors of the top-grossing 100 films of 2013 and of 2014 were women.5 Of the 1,300 top-grossing films from 2002-2014, only 4.1% of all directors were women.6
  • In 2014, women were only 7% of directors on the top 250 grossing films. This number is 2 percentage points lower than it was in 1998.7 
Women are also excluded from directing episodic television.
  • In an analysis of more than 220 television shows, representing about 3500 total episodes, women were only 14% of directors in 2013-2014.8

As the letter goes on to points out, “[t]hese ‘gross statistical disparities’ are of the magnitude that courts have held “alone may . . . constitute prima facie proof of a pattern or practice of discrimination.”

So what does this all have to do with Abby Wambach? Consider these statistics. In 1972, just seven percent of all high school athletes were women. Just five years ago, that number had risen to 41%; still not equal, but a dramatic change nonetheless, and a change that manifested itself in the rise of the US women’s soccer team, with its three World Cup Titles and its TV-ratings-dominating World Cup finals against China in 1991 and just this past summer against Japan. As many people know, this revolution in women’s participation in school athletics was not the result of a sudden, unexplained jump in interest among girls and young women in sports; it was the result of Title IX, a comprehensive federal law that forbid sex discrimination in all educational institutions that received federal tax dollars, which is just about all of them, public or private. This included sports programs, and with that law millions of girls who had been shut out of school sports began to play.

To put it very simply, the government turned to schools, who had their own long history of explanations and excuses for why sports were mainly just for boys, and told them to stop it. That’s why the ACLU letter could turn out to be so significant. As the result of that letter, the EEOC announced this fall that they would be conducting an investigation into sex discrimination against women directors, an investigation that could possible lead to lawsuits and indictments, or possibly a substantive agreement between Hollywood and the government to make really move the deplorable numbers listed in the “Celluloid Ceiling” report. Is the problem of gender discrimination complex and long-standing? No question. But there’s something to be said for the power of the US government and federal law to say to Hollywood, “stop it and fix it now.”

Will this work? It’s too soon to tell. The investigation is just starting, Hollywood is a complicated place, well practiced in shifting blame and responsibility, and even the 2016 presidential election could have an influence on how aggressively the EEOC continues to pursue its work. We won’t know until next year at this time, or maybe five years from now, or even ten. But the interest of the EEOC is a significant step, and make no mistake, Hollywood is paying attention. So congratulations, Abby Wambach, on an incredible career, happy holidays to everyone out there, and see you at Star Wars: The Force Awakens!