Commentary Human Rights

Women of Color in Hollywood Need Equal Work Opportunities Too

Tanya Steele

Actors and their supporters alike have launched a variety of campaigns over the past few months issuing calls to action around the gender pay gap in Hollywood. Let's continue fighting not just for the few in the limelight who have made it, but also for the many who haven’t.

Recently, Hollywood has been abuzz. Not just about another box office mega flick, but about women—gender inequity, to be precise. Actors and their supporters alike have launched a variety of campaigns over the past few months issuing calls to action around the gender pay gap in Hollywood. Just last week, for example, I saw a petition centered on the salary divide between Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin and their co-stars Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston on the Netflix series Grace and Frankie. Both Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin star in and are executive producers of the show; however, their male counterparts receive a higher salary than they do.

While I commend such efforts, I also want to encourage anyone in the industry, or anyone involved in the consumption of film and television, to continue fighting not just for the few in the limelight who have made it, but also for the many who haven’t—particularly Black women filmmakers and creatives, who are often overlooked or shut out from these conversations and opportunities.

Indeed, many in the entertainment industry have been railing about the lack of economic opportunities afforded women in Hollywood for a long time. It wasn’t until the Sony email leak last year, which released private messages among studio executives, that the problem was pushed back into public debate.

In a Women in the World interview with Tina Brown, Sony Pictures Entertainment Chairperson Amy Pascal, who was fired after the email leak, attempted to explain why studios, including her studio, would pay women less than men. “Here’s the problem: I run a business. People want to work for less money, I’ll pay them less money. I don’t call them up and go, ‘Can I give you some more?’ ‘Cause that’s not what you do when you run a business. The truth is, what women have to do is not work for less money. They have to walk away. People shouldn’t be so grateful for jobs. … People should know what they’re worth, and say no.”

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In Pascal’s opinion, not enough women ask for what they’re worth. While that might be true, this argument completely ignores the fact that studio heads should simply pay women what they’re worth. 

Her comments also disturbed many because Pascal, a woman who had one of the most coveted positions in Hollywood, appeared to lack any sense of responsibility for changing this common practice of paying women less than their male counterparts. For example, in emails leaked around Jennifer Lawrence’s compensation for her work in the film American Hustle, Pascal had little to say around The Hunger Games star making less than her male colleagues. As news sites reported following the leak, “Pascal’s email response to the news of Lawrence making less than her male colleagues—despite the fact that she’s far and away the biggest star of the picture, since Hustle was green-lit after The Hunger Games—was: ‘there is truth here.’”

And since sexism and racism are often bedfellows, it came as no surprise that there were other emails by Pascal that focused on President Obama. The evidence of these emails helped many people who were experiencing the racial marginalization in Hollywood, put words to something they had known for years. While the media attempted to tiptoe around the truth, it was simply confirmation of a racist culture that exists in Hollywood. Shonda Rhimes took to Twitter and encapsulated the outrage around the media’s tiptoeing best: “Calling Sony comments “racially insensitive remarks” instead of “racist”? U can put a cherry on a pile of sh*t but it don’t make it a sundae.”

Still, the focus largely remained on the unequal treatment of women. The leak, Pascal’s response, the counter to Pascal from women in Hollywood, and years of blatant gender inequity then moved the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to address the inequity in Hollywood. On May 12 the New York Times reported that “the American Civil Liberties Union asked state and federal agencies to investigate the hiring practices of major Hollywood studios, networks and talent agencies for what the organization described as rampant and intentional gender discrimination in recruiting and hiring female directors.” This letter prepared by the ACLU is a detailed and scathing document that includes testimonials from women directors. “One successful woman director with nearly 60 television credits summed it up to us this way,” the document states:

“If I go onto a series, there will be one job for a woman, and they’ll feel like, oh, we filled our quota. One job out of 13 or 22. And I’ll be the one woman. And you’re competing for this one slot that they feel they have to offer. Yet, with the guys, I hear, ‘oh, they’re never prepared.’ The crew says: ‘It’s such a relief to have you here.’ You turn around next season, and the guys will be doing three episodes and you won’t be asked back. And that’s what you live with all the time.”

Will the ACLU’s efforts result in a huge step forward for an industry that has no affirmative action policy in place? Will it bring pay equity, employment opportunities, and a leveling of the playing field for women? All women? Or, will this current wave of activism, which includes independent actions taken by filmmakers and actors alike, bring equity to white women and erase women of color in the same way that Patricia Arquette did at the 2015 Academy Awards when she said:

“It’s time for all the women in America and all the men that love women, and all the gay people, and all the people of color that we’ve fought for to fight for us now.”

Arquette’s comments were the Freudian slip heard ‘round the world. And they were problematic to many people because they completely erased women of color from the equation. So, while many feminists were cheering her “progressive” statements, others, mainly Black women, were looking at her comments in an historical context, in which they didn’t represent progress at all.

I personally was not alarmed by them; I saw her comments as a bellwether of the truth. Hollywood not only serves up gender inequity, it is terribly segregated also. If we are to look at the racial and gender breakdown of the top actors, directors, show creators, and writing staff, across the board we will see inequity. The most integrated writing rooms in television, right now, belong to Black women. For example, Being Mary Jane, with Mara Brock Akil as an executive producer, has employed Black women in front of and behind the camera. You will be hard pressed, however, to find Black women writers and directors on TV programs that are not created by Black women. Orange Is The New Black, for example, is populated with Black female characters, but are Black women as represented on the writing and directing team for the show? Why is this? And, if we look even closer at the racial and ethnic breakdown of Hollywood studios, are Latina, Asian, and Native women represented in front of and behind the camera?

This exclusion of women of color occurs not only in television. If we look at big budget movie shoots, Black women are few and far between. For the film Mad Max: Fury Road, director George Miller invited feminist Eve Ensler to his set to discuss violence against women with the cast. Miller wanted Ensler to bring an “informed” perspective to the set to assist the actors/actresses with character development. However, as we know from experience, bringing a white feminist to the table does not in any way guarantee that the experiences of Black women or other women of color will be part of the conversation. As Nashwa Khan stated in her incisive article that lambasted the “glaring whiteness of post-apocalyptic films” like Mad Max: “A big part of feminism is race, but these self-imposed blinders suggest that as long as a movie appeases white feminists, they will not question in solidarity why we women of color are absent.”

How does this marginalization of Black women and women of color impact actual lives? When talking about statistics and inequality some people, and I would put Pascal in this category, seem to forget we are discussing human beings who have actual lives and responsibilities. Pay inequity and lack of employment opportunities layers the hustle for Black women who, very often, are already marginal in a society where, as UCLA Law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw noted, “The medium net wealth for African-American women head of households is $100.”

And what does the marginalization of women of color from opportunities in the film industry look like in practice?

Award-winning filmmaker Thea St. Omer was a brilliant light, who was always on, bringing a smile and kind word to anyone who entered her orbit. I first met her while attending NYU Graduate Film. Thea’s work centered on, amongst other subjects, race, body issues, and gender identity. And it was provocative: In 2012, Facebook removed a profile page about her film Nigger because it believed the title was too controversial.

Like many filmmakers, Thea was possessed of a fiery, free spirit with a limitless passion for her work. As Syracuse.com reported: “When she wasn’t focusing on art and filmmaking, St. Omer worked a series of jobs to support herself. Besides teaching for a few years at” Syracuse University, a friend, Nancy Keefe Rhodes told the publication, “she worked in the kitchen at the university. More recently St. Omer worked at Walmart.”

Rhodes added, “Anything she [Thea] could get to try to keep making these films. She was extremely talented. She was sure if she just kept at it something would break.”

But at 41, Thea was found deceased, due to “natural causes,” according to reports, in a tea shop she was set to open the morning of her death. Thea died of congestive heart failure. I cannot say whether or not Thea had health insurance. But what I know, from personal experience, is that the struggles to get films made in a white-dominated industry and to find a source of consistent income are real. In an online discussion dedicated to raising awareness about the stressors faced by Black women and girls in the United States, Janine Jackson of FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a media watchdog group, stated: “Though anyone may experience stress, the stress that Black women experience is different. It’s constant, it’s cumulative, it’s often lifelong, and it’s often invisible.” And, at worse, it kills.

There are so many women like Thea: Women of color who love film, are talented beyond words, and went to film school and excelled there often are not given an opportunity to put their skills on display as editors, writers, directors, and cinematographers. And we are being shut out not only by men, but also by women.

How do we make the film industry more inclusive of Black women and women of color? Ava DuVernay has begun #ARRAY and @AFFRM to assist filmmakers of color. But the Selma director cannot shoulder this alone. Women in the film industry, particularly women of color, are in need of more substantive efforts with the same pointed focus. For their part, studiosand even some nonprofits—have created diversity programs for writing and directing fellowships, but such programs have garnered little substantive change in the industry.

We have an unequal and segregated entertainment industry. It is rare to see a Black person in Hollywood and in a strategic position, such as at a talent agency, responsible for bringing the needs of actresses, writers, directors, and others to the discussion. In a recent interview, Russell Simmons was critical of the lack of diversity in most Hollywood talent agencies, noting that he recently moved from Creative Artists Agency to William Morris Endeavor. “I didn’t realize they’re all the same,” he said, adding that both agencies seem to have “the one black agent.” It feels absurd to write these words in 2015.

The entertainment industry must start thinking outside of the box to create substantive opportunities for Black women and women of color in the entertainment industry. As we continue to advocate on behalf of women who demand equal pay for their work in front of the camera, let’s advocate to employ Black women and women of color behind the camera too.

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