Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Women in Hollywood lead charge for visibility -- March 8, 2018 column


With two words, Frances McDormand proposed a brilliant strategy to bring more women and minorities to the silver screen.

“I have two words to leave with you tonight, ladies and gentlemen: inclusion rider,” McDormand said Sunday as she accepted the Oscar for best actress in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”

And so America learned a clunky legalese phrase that could change movies forever. Google and the Merriam-Webster dictionary site lit up with searches for inclusion and rider.

By putting an inclusion rider in their contracts, A-list actors, directors or producers could ensure women, racial minorities, disabled people and members of the LGBT community are hired for speaking roles and on set. McDormand said she’d heard of the concept only a week earlier.

“You can ask for and/or demand at least 50 percent diversity in not only the casting, but also the crew,” she told reporters backstage after the Oscars ceremony. “The fact that I learned that after 35 years in the film business – we aren’t going back.” 

The pace of change surrounding the #MeToo movement is quickening. As recently as January, actors and others wearing all black at the Golden Globes to protest sexual harassment seemed a bold statement. A symbolic show of solidarity is nice, but . . .  

Now, encouraging signs suggest symbolism may lead to solutions to promote women in the movie business.

Brie Larson, who won best actress for her role in the 2015 film, “Room,” tweeted: “I’m committed to the Inclusion Rider. Who’s with me?”

There is pushback, of course. 

“We’re not so big on doing everything through agreements,” said Netflix CEO Reed Hastings.

The “epidemic of invisibility” of women in films has raged for more than half a century, says Stacy L. Smith, who came up with the inclusion rider concept in 2014.

Smith, director of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at the University of Southern California, has studied gender inequality in more than 900 popular films. She found women still are only about 31 percent of the speaking characters.

A typical feature film has 40 to 45 speaking characters, but only eight to 10 are actually relevant to the story, she said in a 2016 TED talk, adding there’s no reason the remaining characters can’t reflect the world being depicted.

Smith also urges studio executives to adopt the NFL’s Rooney Rule in considering directors. The Rooney Rule -- named for the late Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney -- requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate for each coach and general manager job. It’s become a model for other industries, and while it has its share of critics, it does get members of minorities into the rooms where decisions are made.

Women are woefully behind in other areas of movie-making. In 2017, women were just 18 percent of all the directors, writers, producers, executive producers and cinematographers working on the top 250 domestic grossing films, reports Martha M. Lauzen of Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. That figure was virtually unchanged since 1998.

The more women directors, writers and producers, the more the movies will depict life from a woman’s perspective. That’s important because stories on screen not only entertain us but also help form our view of the world -- often for the worst when it comes to gratuitous violence and mayhem, but that’s a topic for another day.

Sometimes change takes place one on one. Actress Jessica Chastain, nominated for two Academy Awards, is a vocal critic of the pay gap between men and women in Hollywood. She learned from Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer about the chasm in pay between white and black actresses.

Spencer credits Chastain with helping her get a pay raise five times Spencer’s usual salary for the holiday comedy they’re currently making together.

Each of us also has a role to play in promoting the inclusion of unrepresented groups in the movies. We can look for and buy tickets to movies with women stars, directors, writers and diverse casts. We can tell our friends and post on social media.

Who’s with me?

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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