Ava DuVernay on the set of Selma. The studio reportedly went through five male directors for the film before David Oyelwo (left) strongly argued to offer DuVernay the gig.
Sexism is so deeply ingrained in Hollywood that it can feel impossible to solve. It’s just what we’ve come to expect in the film industry. But today, the ACLU of Southern California and the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project officially requested that state and federal officials investigate the industry’s “systemic failure to hire women directors.”
The ACLU’s 15-page letter to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission cites damning statistics for the industry: In 2013-2014, only 1.9 percent of top-grossing American-made films were directed by women; on network, cable, and Netflix TV shows, women only made up 13 percent of directors. Women of color fare even worse in the industry, the ACLU notes, directing only two percent of TV episodes during that year.
Study after study has confirmed similarly depressing numbers. Despite lots of discussion about the need to support women in film, the numbers haven’t been getting better. In the most recent “Celluloid Ceiling” report from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, San Diego State University, in 2014, women comprised 17 percent of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top-grossing American-made films. This is the same percentage of women working in these roles in 1998. In calling for an investigation, the ACLU points out the systemic pattern against hiring women behind the camera isn’t a boy’s club we should accept—it’s a violation of this law. The ACLU’s letter cites Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which states that discrimination based on race, religion, national origin, or sex is illegal.
In addition to citing studies of the media, the ACLU’s 15-page letter requesting an investigation of gender bias in the industry collected stories from 50 female directors who identified clear barriers to getting hired. The directors cited “overt sexism” as a main factor in keeping them out of director’s chairs—directors gave examples of being explicitly told by industry bigwigs that they “don’t hire women directors,” or being steered toward projects that are specifically women-oriented. This pigeonholing limits the number of jobs that are available to female directors and reinforces gender stereotypes of what women are capable of directing. Though it’s not cited in the letter, the Tumblr Shit People Say to Women Directors & Other Women in Film is another source of outrage if you’re looking to see all of the daily micro- and not-so-micro-aggressions that women face on a daily basis on the set.
Melissa Goodman, director of the LGBT, Gender, and Reproductive Justice Project at the ACLU of Southern California, spoke to the New York Times and said, “Gender discrimination is illegal. And, really, Hollywood doesn’t get this free pass when it comes to civil rights and gender discrimination.” The women who shared their stories with the ACLU said that within the industry, “hiring women directors is viewed as more ‘risky’ than hiring men; even men with less experience.” The success of films directed by Ava Duvernay and Kathryn Bigelow are testaments to how women’s voices are assets to filmmaking—hiring a female director shouldn’t been seen as a risk.
Related Reading: For Every Woman Working in the Film Industry, There Are Five Men.
Amy Lam is Bitch Media’s associate editor.