Lights, Camera, Sexism? by A.J. Sørensen


One night in 1936, Rita Hayworth decided to stand up to her then-husband, Eddie Judson. Ever since their elopement, the 18-year-old future starlet had been obediently following the instructions of her much older spouse, which included sleeping with studio executives who might improve her chances of becoming a famous film star with a bank account to match. She later said of Judson, “I married him for love, but he married me for an investment.”

And surely, if Judson could convince Rita to sleep with Harry Cohn, the Head of Columbia Studios, they both stood to profit. But on this night, Rita said no, and became the prize Cohn never won, which made him all the more determined to get even with her for refusing him. After all, everyone on the studio lot knew that her husband had been pimping her out to anyone who could help her career, and Cohn was furious that he’d been passed over.  As a result, he harassed her relentlessly as his spies watched her every move, causing Rita to resent both Hollywood and Cohn’s influence.

But Cohn’s behavior was not unusual. Studio executives often preyed on their starlets, and fed their ravenous egos on the desperation of young hopefuls, such as Norma Jeane Mortenson.

Ten years after Rita got her start, a young Norma Jeane was hanging out on the Hollywood party circuit, where young actresses would entertain studio executives in the hopes of getting cast in a major motion picture. The girls would fix the men drinks, light their cigarettes, and frequently have sex with them towards the end of the night.

Almost every young actress during this time worked the circuit and tried to get on the casting couch, which had become famous for helping young girls become full-fledged movie stars. So it was commonplace for a girl to sleep with an executive if it meant that she landed the role, and many girls did so willingly – setting a very dangerous precedent that exists today.

Norma Jeane knew this and played her role accordingly – except for the time when four executives held the 5’5” actress down and attempted to rape her. She barely escaped the room, but never could quite escape the very same executives, who happened to be major players in the industry. She’d have to work with those men for the rest of her life. And it didn’t matter that she was now Marilyn Monroe, the most famous woman in the world. To them, she was simply the girl from the party circuit, who was becoming too big for her britches.

Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why no one took her seriously when she began her film production company in 1955. Similar to Rita Hayworth and other starlets before her, Marilyn felt confined by the roles she was assigned and wanted to make different films to show her range. She also wanted to take a step behind the camera for once and help other actors branch out; however, no one considered Marilyn Monroe Productions as a legitimate studio due to the founder’s on-screen persona and sexual history – even though Twentieth Century Fox kept it doors open through her box office draw.

So even with an IQ of 168, Marilyn could never escape her breakthrough role as not only a “dumb blonde,” but also as the centerpiece of a nude calendar. When she talked business, executives saw plump flesh and plush velvet – not an artist with a voice and a vision. Besides, no one was willing to place an expensive motion picture in the hands of a woman they’d fantasized about in the shower.

And the sad thing is, this isn’t ancient history. Sure, we would prefer if blatant sexism had stayed in the 50’s and 60’s, but even today, women in film have to fight similar battles, with sexism being one of the leading causes of women being underrepresented in the film industry today.

Take for example the role of the actress. According to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, the majority of women on screen are in their twenties and thirties. Consequently, the majority of stories being told through studio productions revolve around this very narrow demographic of women, with actresses oftentimes being used as elevated props in a bromance comedy or sadistic thriller.

This is even more discouraging when you discover that women only represent roughly 30% of all speaking characters in film. And with so few roles available to actresses, many of them are forced to resort to performing only on the Red Carpet, where they must pretend to enjoy talking about fashion with Giuliana Rancic. This arrangement only makes the situation worse, for when women are limited to discussions focused on fashion, diet and style, people begin to believe that’s all these women have to say.

Subsequently, male characters are more likely to be identified with intelligent roles, such as powerful business executives or doctors, more often than women in these same types of films. Therefore, American cinema often leaves out generations of women who wish to see stories that are more substantial, with strong female characters who can age and still be valued for what they have to say. As it stands now, the majority of older actresses are pushed out of the spotlight once they reach their Hollywood expiration date. As Kristin Scott Thomas put it, “We older women in Europe are lucky not to be shoved away in a drawer.”

But it’s not just actresses who are being shoved away in Hollywood. The same study found that between 2009 and 2013, women directed only 4.7% of all studio films and 10% of independent films, in spite of the fact that the ratio of men to women in film school for directing is about 50/50. And studies have shown that if male and female directors are given equal budgets for their films, they often gross similar figures at the box office. So why are roughly 95% of all Hollywood films being directed by men?

Because female directors have a far more difficult task of convincing the gatekeepers of Hollywood to finance their films. And the majority of studio heads are older, white businessmen who are allowing cultural differences to dictate the entertainment we see today. And even though there are growing numbers of open-minded men who are willing to work with female directors, there are still many executives who would prefer to maintain the status quo of the boy’s club and continue to be surrounded by the non-threatening, beautiful women begging for their attention, which is part of the appeal of the film industry.

After all, these businessmen could have pursued careers in finance if they simply wanted to make money. Instead they chose to work in Hollywood, which has been male-dominated since sound came into moving pictures. But you can’t really blame these men for pursuing a life surrounded by models and slim actresses willing to do anything to get their careers started. Who wouldn’t want to be worshipped? Especially in an industry where you can be on top of the world one minute, and out on the streets the next. So why should they take a risk on a female director who might threaten their standing in such a community?

After all, Hollywood is big business and the stakes are extremely high. For studio productions, there’s much more money at stake than there is on the independent scene, where women are currently gaining a stronger foothold thanks to the initiatives taken by both men and women through the Sundance Institute, Women in Film and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in the Media.

However, the larger studios that control the majority of commercial films are still arguing that women can’t handle it, that they lack the necessary stamina for big budget filming schedules and that motherhood prevents them from directing blockbuster films. Yet, director Jamie Babbit, who began directing a film three days after giving birth – with infant, breast pump and nanny in tow – is one of several female directors who have proven that motherhood will not get in the way of women who truly want to make films.

But even with such powerful examples, the majority of Hollywood executives claim that they do not trust that women can bring in the return on investment that male directors supposedly accomplish. This is in spite of audiences begging for more diversified roles with stronger female characters and female centric stories. And since female directors tend to work on projects with more female characters than their male counterparts, it would only make sense that studio executives would want to hire more women.

But Hollywood runs on fear and studio executives are averse to risk, which is why they recycle material constantly. They want to stick with what they know, and men have controlled the director’s chair for quite some time. It’s part of the reason why even a seasoned female director has to fight for studio projects. Executives only trust someone with a proven track record with big budget films, and female directors are rarely even given the opportunity to prove themselves at that level.

And with so many women graduating from film schools, it’s easy for studio executives to revert to the behaviors of their 1950s counterparts. After all, the culture of Hollywood portrays a world where anti-discrimination laws simply don’t apply; therefore, women are often discriminated against without much recourse.

Female directors often complain that their ideas aren’t respected, unless presented by a man. And since females make up such a small percentage of the film workforce, it’s easy for a director to be mistaken as a personal assistant, or talked down to by their crew. But other women have dealt with much worse.

For instance, the director of Wayne’s World, Penelope Spheeris once met with a studio executive who began to rip off her clothes during the meeting. When she screamed in protest, he said, “Do you want to make this music video or not?”

Then there’s Martha Coolidge, the director of the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers, who recalled sending a female director to meet with an executive about a directing job. After the interview, the executive called Martha’s office and said, “Never send anyone again who I wouldn’t want to fuck.”

And it’s difficult to win in these situations because if these women do nothing, the studios label them as weak and unable to handle directing a major motion picture. However, if they do stand up for themselves, the studios label them as difficult to work with – as they did in the case of Marilyn Monroe, who said that “Hollywood is a place where they’ll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and fifty cents for your soul.”

And even in 2015, women are still forced to deal with these standards. After all, for the 2015 Oscars, not one woman was nominated for Best Director, even though Ava DuVerney’s film “Selma” did garner a nomination for Best Picture. In fact, in the 87 years that Oscars have been awarded, only five women have been nominated for Best Director, and only Kathryn Bigelow, who directed the 2007 film “The Hurt Locker,” has won a gold statue. This is not surprising since 77% of voters in the Oscar race are white men.

So is there a solution? Many women have chosen to simply ignore the status quo and follow their calling. As Kathryn Bigelow said, “If there’s specific resistance to women making movies, I just choose to ignore that as an obstacle for two reasons: I can’t change my gender, and I refuse to stop making movies.” And maybe that’s all women can do.

But if Hollywood refuses to make opportunities for female filmmakers, these women will simply have to storm the gates and make opportunities for themselves, because Hollywood can’t ignore talent forever. It’s far too expensive.


A.J. Sørensen is an actor, playwright and writer. She is the co-founder of Words by Sørensen and lives in Logan Square with her partner in crime. Sadly, they do not have a corgi.