Have Things Really Gotten Better For Women In Hollywood? Melissa Silverstein Weighs In

Photo: Courtesy of Melissa Silverstein.
There's been a lot of talk in recent days about the situation of women in Hollywood. The allegations of harassment and sexual assault against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, and his subsequent firing from the Weinstein Company, the veritable Oscar factory he helped found, have brought certain issues to the fore, and it seems like this might mark a shift in an industry that still turns a blind eye to sexism and misogyny despite its liberal-leaning values.
But this conversation isn't a new one, and it has its roots in deeper injustice, namely the fact that women hold a precarious position in the film industry, which is still largely controlled by men.
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In 2007, Melissa Silverstein looked around her and realized that she couldn't name a single movie that spoke to her experience as a woman. And rather than pay lip service and move on, she decided to do something about it. The site she founded, Women and Hollywood, is now celebrating its 10th anniversary.
Over the last decade, Silverstein has been working to educate and agitate for gender diversity in Hollywood and the film industry at large. The mission is simple; the site's tagline reads: "Hollywood is broken. Especially for women. We’re working to fix that."
According to San Diego's State's Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, women made up only 7% of directors on the top 250 films of 2016, which was actually a 2% decline from 2015. The same study found that while women made up higher percentages of other fields in the industry — 24% of producers, or 17% of editors, for example — they only accounted for 17% of the workforce of all the jobs surveyed. And that too, was a 2% decline from the year before.
“Women working in key behind-the-camera roles have yet to benefit from the current dialogue regarding diversity and inclusion in the film industry," Dr. Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, told The Hollywood Reporter in January, when the report was released.
Silverstein's site highlights achievements of women in film, while calling out injustices where they live. Whether it's reporting on casting news favorable to female actors, or highlighting important achievements by female directors and producers, Women and Hollywood has definitely created a space for conversation around the disparities women still face — both in Hollywood and beyond.
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To mark the anniversary, Silverstein — who is also the Artistic Director and co-­founder of the Athena Film Festival, which will screen at Barnard College for its eighth year in February — suggested holding a contest for first-time female filmmakers. The rules for entry were simple. "It needed to be under 15 minutes, you needed to self-identify as a female, no male co-directors, and then you needed to not have made any money before as a director in film, TV, or commercials," she explained in a phone call to Refinery29. The call went out, and over 1,000 entries poured in. A screening committee has decided on a winner and runner-up for each city — New York, Los Angeles, and London — and their films will be screened at events held on October 17, October 25, and November 27, respectively. (You can buy tickets here and here.)
Refinery29 asked Silverstein about the changes she's seen take place over the last 10 years, what women can do to further the cause of gender parity, and what she hopes to celebrate in another decade.
Refinery29: Why did you start Women and Hollywood back in 2007?
"Women and Hollywood started as one of these moments where I was seeing movies that were just kind of awful, and didn’t speak to me. I was curious as to whether other people were feeling that way, and I had discovered blogs, and I realized no one was blogging about women’s issues and Hollywood. So I just started doing it, and the first iteration was really bad. It took a while, but I found my voice."
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What are some of the concrete trend shifts you’ve seen over the past 10 years? We hear a lot about how Hollywood is evolving in the right way — is that actually the case?
"I don’t think that we have enough of a change in the numbers. I think the evolution has really been in the conversation. When I started writing about women and Hollywood there was no conversation. There was no language to create a conversation, there was no beat. You wouldn’t have written about this stuff because there was no one focusing on the disparity in Hollywood. So I think that one of the contributions of Women and Hollywood is the creation of this cultural conversation, this focus on the fact that women are half the world, we should have half the stories, we should have half the jobs, all that kind of stuff."
What kind of pushback did you get when you started Women and Hollywood? Were people critical of what you were doing?
"There was a lot of indifference. I felt like I was talking to a void for a very long time. And that was frustrating. But I always kind of knew that you had to keep going, keep going, as much as you could."
What would you say are the most pressing issues that need to be addressed in terms of gender disparity in Hollywood today?
"Well, there’s issues related to toxic masculinity, which makes it very difficult for women to thrive and create careers. There’s layers and layers of sexism in Hollywood. I think what we need to do, really, is don’t ask for permission, and you also need to understand that how Hollywood has been set up is to deny that the stories of women and people of color are integral to the story of our culture. So, what is happening now is that women and people of color are fighting, pecking into this layer that exists over our whole culture, and pulling it back. The way the world looks like now, the way stories are told, the people who are telling them, the way everything operates is not good, is not right, is not relevant, is not who we are. There’s a fundamental shift in how women’s stories are embraced in the culture as stories that can drive the narrative."
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I read something you wrote in The Guardian a couple of years ago when Cafe Society came out. You were calling on women to boycott Woody Allen’s films. He’s screening a new film, Wonder Wheel, now. How do you feel about that?
"I feel that women, big movie stars, shouldn’t work for him. I feel that we as a culture enable this to happen, by giving these people our money. I won’t give him my money. Am I going to give the Weinstein Co. any of my money? I will not. We have to vote with our dollars. Our dollars are the power that we have. And we need to support the work that actually embraces diversity, and that we want to see. It won’t happen unless we embrace it."
So, you think the onus is not just on Hollywood to make changes, but the actual viewing public.
"I do agree with that. Two years ago, nobody knew that female directors weren’t being hired. Nobody cared, nobody paid attention to it. And now, people know Patty Jenkins directed Wonder Woman, and that she’s the first woman to direct a superhero movie. Everybody knows that. That’s because it matters now."
Speaking of Patty Jenkins — she’s now going to be the highest-paid female director ever. Do you think that’s almost counterproductive, in the sense that people who deny there is a Hollywood wage gap can now point to her as a token example?
"When we talk about how there aren’t enough roles for women, people always say ‘Oh, but Meryl Streep is working.’ This is the norm, to say that the one or two people who have gigs, makes it okay. What we need to say is ‘Well, women are half the world, and we deserve half the stories.’ And it’s the same thing with directing. I think that what Patty Jenkins has done is remarkable. She’s not only going to be the highest-paid female director, she’s going to be paid par to the men in her field, which is all women want. To be treated equally."
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What advice do you have for women who want to be filmmakers, and who are coming up in this industry?
"I would say ‘Find your tribe, find people who support you, don’t allow men to set the narrative, trust your vision, and persevere.’”
In terms of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, how is it that so many people knew about this and yet it stayed quiet for so long?
"Because the men have all the power! Because they create this environment where you’re silenced, where you’re shamed if you talk, where you have to sign nondisclosure agreements, and non-disparagement agreements. Every single step that they took was to create a culture of silence, and to create basically rape culture. By having this behavior be every day, it normalized it. This is what we need to say: It’s not okay to normalize rape culture."
What changed that women felt like they could come forward on the record?
“Donald Trump got elected president. I think women have had enough. It’s exhausting, just the assault that is happening to women’s rights, to people of color. Sometimes there’s a big way [ to change things], and it stops the world, and it shakes things up. And these are the things we need to keep seeing over and over and over again."
Who would you say are good examples of people working to make things better for women in Hollywood?
"I would say Nicole Kidman is doing that because she’s working directly with female directors. All these women who have power, they need to hire women. They should be hiring women to write all their movies and direct all their movies. If they have power, they should be doing. And that’s the way things will change — normalizing women having half the jobs. And studio executives need to hire women too. The only way it’s going to change is if we see more women throughout the industry, and our world."
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Do you think television is doing better than film?
"Yes. The numbers are clear. But also the thing about television versus movies is that television is still driven by advertising, and they know that women buy everything. So, they really target women, and they have allowed more female creators into the club because there’s so much more of a need for content. Not that they’re doing enough, and not that they’re doing a good enough job. But the ones that resonate with me are shows by and about women, and those are the ones I look for, and those are the ones I hope will continue, and that we get more and more of."
What are some of the shows you do enjoy?
"I still watch Grey’s Anatomy. I do! I watch Queen Sugar. I watch black-ish. I love Halt and Catch Fire, Madam Secretary. And I love Jessica Jones, I love Transparent. For me, I will go to a show that has the female leads, that have female showrunners, because for so much of my life I wasn’t given this option. I’m not ashamed in saying that, and I don’t think women should be ashamed of saying, ‘We want to watch stories of our own.’ It would take 100 years if men never worked again for women to achieve parity, so we’ve got a lot of work to do toward creating a world where we see me and women as equal."
What do you hope to see in the next 10 years? When you look back at the 20th anniversary, what do you hope will have changed?
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"My hope is that I won’t have to be doing this anymore; that we will have moved on, that we will be on our way to gender equality, to racial equality in film, in television, and there won’t be any need for anyone to do what I do. And I’d be happy to find something else to do."
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