“It’s mostly dudes in charge, who are deciding,” Room star Brie Larson said to Jennifer Lawrence during The Hollywood Reporter‘s (all-white) actress roundtable, which was released in full today. Larson was responding to Lawrence’s remark that “men can play the sexy lead for 20 years longer than we can,” as well as her activism on the pervasive pay gap. The moment, small though it was, reminded me of a famous conversation from Jane Austen’s Persuasion: “Song and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men,” says Captain Harville to Anne Elliot, during a conversation about the relative merits of the two sexes. “Perhaps I shall,” she responds. “Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story.”
In many ways, the contemporary discussion of sexism and racism in Hollywood boils down to a discussion about who has the advantage of telling their own story. This is an arena so retrograde that, in a broader sense, it has far more in common with Austen’s time than it ought to — because women and their stories are still told mostly by men, or simply ignored. In the roundtable, after Larson’s comment, the conversation pivots away hastily. But, tellingly, not a single actress objects to her words.
Listening to and watching these A-list actresses — including Helen Mirren, Cate Blanchett, and Jane Fonda — talk about discrimination and gender in their industry feels like witnessing a multi-person tightrope walk. There’s so much self-control in the room, and a clear desire among these women, some of the luckiest in the industry, to move the discussion back to “the craft” and not seem too angry. But their conversation also demonstrates a clear awareness and honesty about certain immutable aspects of Hollywood sexism: the pay gap, the lack of good roles, and the way actors are pigeonholed into “types,” which affects women disproportionately. It’s Larson’s words that resonate the most, though — men are still in charge.
The numbers bear out the reality the actresses describe. It felt like more than a coincidence that on the same day as The Hollywood Reporter uploaded the video of this conversation, San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Film and Television released its annual “Celluloid Ceiling” report, which takes a detailed look at the actual gender breakdown in the film industry.
What were the results in a year that saw sexism dominate the conversation around Hollywood in the mainstream media? Well, this year, less than one in ten of the top 250 grossing films in Hollywood were directed by women; the figure was 9%. This may seem dismal — and it is — but it was, in fact, a small uptick compared to last year, bringing things back to the level they were at during that previous high point of equality, the 1990s (1998 to be precise). Yet this was a year that includes some very big films directed by women, like Pitch Perfect 2 (helmed by Elizabeth Banks) and Fifty Shades of Grey (Sam-Taylor Johnson). There’s no guarantee that the trajectory will keep climbing upward without such guaranteed hits in the next few years, and Taylor-Johnson is leaving the Fifty Shades franchise, which should be good for three more sequels at least.
Other numbers ranged from mildly better to even worse: 6% of cinematographers were women. Women executive producers were 20% of the pack, as well as 26% of producers, 11% of writers , and 22% of editors. In total, women made up just 19% of behind-the-scenes staff. I cannot even begin to imagine how much worse the numbers are for people of color, and women of color specifically.
To change such a blatant imbalance, there needs to be more than occasional thought about hiring women for projects. Industry insiders agree that multi-pronged, concerted efforts are needed, from mentorship programs to diversity awareness to quotas. Audience activism, like this pledge to see 52 films by women in 2016, is also a way of adding pressure. This discrepancy was very much on the minds of at least some of the high-profile women at the Hollywood Reporter roundtable. Carol star Cate Blanchett made one of the more perceptive comments about the female-director dearth, questioning the very structure and schedule of filmmaking and whether it’s accommodating to women who might have family obligations:
I wonder if we take for granted that there is a certain way to make a film. You start on day one, and you finish on day 30 or whatever. But I wonder if you did shoot a bit, rethink and go back, if there’d be more female directors. With preproduction, the shooting, the postproduction — that’s two years of your life. And a lot of women, particularly with families, think, “How am I going to manage this?”
Jane Fonda seemed the most willing to bring a power analysis to the table. She brought up the idea that women should run studios or production companies and take charge of the narratives from those perches, but the others were quick to say — as several women noted in a previous Times Magazine cover story — that women in leadership roles are often uninterested in standing up on behalf of sisterhood. This is certainly true, and yet the numbers from “The Celluloid Ceiling” indicate that when a woman director is hired, more women are hired across the board. And with more women behind the scenes, the complaints actresses have about being pigeonholed into “types” or denied better roles as they get older might be a little less acute. It takes a village — or in this case, an entire industry.