We have had two research reports released recently that try to shed some light on aspects of gender representation, and as well diversity, behind and in front of the camera in our television industry. There was the Ryerson study of Canadian Screenwriters and the Women in View on TV Report. Both reports left me wanting more – more detail, more explanation, more context. The Ryerson report was a survey of 266 of the over 2100 Writers Guild of Canada members. That’s just over 12% of the membership who chose to answer the survey. It isn’t a large sample. That being said it highlighted facts which are known to those who work in the industry – it takes time to become a successful screenwriter, they are highly educated, about a third are women and few make a full time living out of screenwriting. It attempts to draw the connection between few women making a lot of money by screenwriting and systemic discrimination. That may be true but I couldn’t follow the logic from the available data.
As for the Women in View on TV Report, it was more statistically significant as it researched staffing in key creative positions on 21 live action drama series with CMF funding. It is a snapshot of a particular time and will not be able to identify trends until this study has been done year after year – which I understand is their hope. We can see that women are not well represented behind the cameras but we cannot tell if this is a long standing problem, one that is getting better or perhaps even worse. Also, by focusing on the statistics it again makes it difficult to extrapolate causes and therefore solutions. It is a very good start but I would like to see the study grow in the future.
Yesterday I attended a panel discussion that Women in View had arranged as part of TIFF’s Higher Learning program to present their research and put it in context and I found what I had been looking for – Dr. Stacy Smith of the USC Annenburg School of Communications. Now, this is not to slight the other panelists (John Doyle, Globe and Mail columnist, Ferne Downey, ACTRA National President, Laura Michalchyshyn Head of Sundance Productions) who had some great things to say (more on that in a minute) but just to say that Dr. Smith’s research on gender representation in the Hollywood film industry had the detail and the context that I was looking for. She has conducted two studies that she presented to us. One was a study of women onscreen and behind the camera in big blockbuster Hollywood films between 2007 and 2012 and the other was of Sundance Festival applicants and accepted films over the last ten years. In addition to the statistics, they also interviewed key creators to ask them the ‘why’ questions. The results were fascinating. You can find more information in the links but the key for me was the reasons given for the low representation of women. It is all about what Hollywood thinks that they need to do to make money. It is ‘common wisdom’ that women will watch a male driven movie but men won’t watch a female driven movie. According to Dr. Smith the statistics that she has gathered from a film distribution study proves that is not true. Men tend to resist writing female-centric stories while vice versa is not true. Female writers tend to write more female characters but Dr. Smith admits that she does not yet know if that is because they are advocates for women or if there is a ‘pink ghetto’.
The Sundance data showed a much higher representation of women in indie film than in the Hollywood blockbusters. For example, 20% of the drama screenwriters are women while only 13.5% of the blockbusters were written by women. There was a definite skew in the doc format as 32% of the docs were written by women. The same trend is visible in the producer category where 29% of the indie dramas were produced by women, 45% of the docs were produced by women but only 20% of the blockbusters were produced by women. Here though the reasons given were different as indie film isn’t as influenced by myths of the distribution world. Reasons included lack of financial resources for women, male dominated networks, stereotyping on set, work/life balance and exclusionary hiring decisions. More research needs to be done to try and identify why there are more women in documentaries (self-selected or funnelled?) and to determine if the size of the budget and risk is the only reason why there are more women in indie film than blockbusters.
I really love that Dr. Smith has done many studies and will continue to do more. As our world in Canadian media is different than Hollywood we need to have our own studies like these. If we can truly identify the causes for lack of representation, then we can try to come up with effective solutions. Yes – evidence-based policies.
The rest of the panel discussion was interesting as it tried to give context and causation to the Women in View research. Laura Michalchyshyn thinks that women have been socialized to be quieter and that does not get us the jobs – we need to grow a pair. We need to encourage women to enter these careers in school and then mentor them along the way. Ferne Downey offered that it isn’t enough to look at numbers but also to look at portrayal – too many female characters are stereotypes. More women writing, producing and directing will mean more realistic portrayals of women. “Orphan Black” was identified as a television show that is proving that men will watch a female-driven show, disproving that myth. More successes like that (i.e. “Continuum”, “Lost Girl”, “Motive”) will breed more opportunities. Finally, John Doyle was as provocative as he can be. He thinks that part of the problem in Canada is that our big broadcasters are all owned by cable companies and as a result their senior executives have less creative vision than traditional broadcast executives. They are less comfortable with risk and stick to formats that work (ahem – cop shows!). I took down the following statement as close to verbatim as I could:
“There is a cabal of guys who look after each other, who won’t admit to blocking women from jobs. They are mostly hacks though some are talented. They get jobs because they are the loudest voices in the room. They network, sit on juries, write blogs, promote themselves and their friends. They hold grudges, organize campaigns against shows they don’t like. You can’t ask women to say they have to also be the loud voices, that’s not fair. Though it is incumbent on women in power to promote the work of other women.”
Personally, I don’t think that there’s a cabal with secret handshakes etc. That sounds way too organized. But what Mr. Doyle is talking about here is the existing network and it is hard for newcomers to break into it or to move up within it. We each have to find our own way – whether it’s growing a pair and getting loud or just figuring out how to network better. I have enjoyed the mentoring and support from some terrific women and I think I’ve turned around and done the same for those who have followed after me. But I’ve been in this business for 25 years and while there has been progress (oh, the stories I sometimes tell to the younger ones), we clearly need to do something more concrete to speed up the pace of change. Until we can say that those who create our stories are representative of our society, we need to keep shining a light on the problem and talking about solutions.
Don’t even get me started on diversity! [actually – I will tackle that but it’ll be the subject of a later post].
The last word today goes to the brilliant (yes – I’m a fan) Joss Whedon, interviewed about his “Much Ado About Nothing”:
Why do you think there’s a lack of female superheroes in film?
Toymakers will tell you they won’t sell enough, and movie people will point to the two terrible superheroine movies that were made and say, ‘You see? It can’t be done’. It’s stupid, and I’m hoping The Hunger Games will lead to a paradigm shift. It’s frustrating to me that I don’t see anybody developing one of these movies. It actually pisses me off. My daughter watched The Avengers and was like, “My favorite characters were the Black Widow and Maria Hill,” and I thought, Yeah, of course they were. I read a beautiful thing Junot Diaz wrote: “If you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.”