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Industry Leaders Tackle Gender Inequality in Media

Geena Davis offers keynote for the inaugural ArcLight Presents Women in Entertainment Summit on Thursday. (Photo by Julie Marsh)
Geena Davis offers keynote for the inaugural ArcLight Presents Women in Entertainment Summit on Thursday. (Photo by Julie Marsh)

By Julie Marsh

ArcLight Cinerama Dome Theatre, Hollywood, CA (The Hollywood Times) 11/07/2015- Women from all corners of the entertainment business gathered inside the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood Thursday for the inaugural ArcLight Presents Women in Entertainment Summit.

“The goal that we set for today was that it was going to be positive. It was going to be solution based,” said Gretchen McCourt in her closing remarks. McCourt is the Founder of the event and the Executive Vice President of Cinema Programming at Pacific Theaters Entertainment. She was inspired to create the event after programming films like Wild and Selma for ArcLight Cinemas in 2014 that featured strong female characters and notable women filmmakers.

The event celebrated female professionals in front of and behind the camera at a time when studios are re-booting high profile franchises like Ghostbusters and Oceans 11 with all female casts. The speakers and panels were punctuated by original short subject video profiles of successful and inspiring women and young pioneers in media, business and education.

“If you just paint it pink, that doesn’t make it female driven stories. We are telling stories that are layered,” pointed out Writer/Producer Lindsey Rosen (Cruel Intentions: The Musical).

Keynote speakers for the event included Academy Award Winning Actress and advocate Geena Davis, who founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, and Cathy Schulman, Head of Production at STX Entertainment and President of Women in Film. Nearly 40 leading professionals and innovators in the entertainment business, including filmmakers, journalists, producers, documentarians, digital media artists, tech experts and executives were on hand as moderators and panelists for a dozen conversations in the Dome.

Davis pointed out that when she co-starred in Ridley Scott’s iconic film Thelma & Louise in the early 1990’s, she believed that gender representation in media was finally making a real shift, yet Davis finds the same problems persist today.

FullSizeRender_1According to Journalist Allison Yarrow, who is writing a book entitled 90’s B*tch, what followed the phenomenal success of Thelma & Louise throughout the 90’s was what she calls a “bitch-ification” of women. “Be it in politics or culture or entertainment, women were really stepping out into the public and having a voice for the first time, but you didn’t realize it because they were being called ‘bitches.’ They were being maligned,” said Yarrow. Examples she cited included Anita Hill, Tanya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, and the female prosecutors in the OJ Simpson trial, along with women in music and other industries. “The more I dig, the more I find.”

The disparity between the number of male and female film directors has received considerable attention in recent years. Vulture.com created a sensation last week when it published their list of “100 Women Directors Hollywood should be Hiring.” Journalist Stacey Wilson Hunt cited the positive response that the list has gotten. She went on to say, “Everyone’s worried for their jobs. Everyone’s worried how they’re perceived,” referring to the fear women have of attracting the “B-word” label. “The women who are leaders in the community are reluctant to become too Che Gueverra-ish. Robin Wright said a few months ago that we need a Che Guevarra leading the charge for women in Hollywood. Has anyone stepped up? No. No one has stepped up.”

Female actors have long lamented the dearth of quality film projects for leading women, but the divide also extends dramatically to news reporting. “Male bylines dominate in journalism across the board,” said 20-year veteran consumer tech Journalist Jennifer Jolly. She described the stereotyping and sexual harassment she experienced and the need as a “blond white women” to prove herself each time she had a new male boss. “It was bashing my head every step of the way.” This, despite the fact that women are more active online then men, Jolly said, with 92% of purchasing decisions now made by women.

Davis’ keynote revealed dramatic statistics from her institute’s research about gender imbalance on screen in films targeted at younger viewers. In Family Films, male characters outnumber female characters 3 to 1, and, she said dramatically, this ratio has remained unchanged since 1946. Females make up 17% of the faces in crowd scenes. Females are also four times more likely than men in family films to appear in sexy attire, she related.

“Girls who are 9, 10, 11 years old. They all have their hands up. And then at 6th, 7th grade, there are no questions. They’re retreating into themselves,“ Katherine Twells, AVP of Consumer Marketing for Western U.S. The Coca-Cola Company said. “I think media has a huge role in that, as the messages sink in.”

Research from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media’s website says that between 2006 and 2009, “not one female character was depicted in G-rated family films in the field of medical science, as a business leader, in law, or politics. In these films, 80.5% of all working characters are male and 19.5% are female, which is a contrast to real world statistics.”

Davis has been meeting with studio executives to share her findings over the last couple of years. She said the most common reaction is “surprise.” Davis indicated that every executive she met with believed their company’s content was already gender balanced. “We already fixed that,” they told her. All of the companies she met with were open to making changes once she confronted them with statistics that contradicted their self-assessments. Disney she mentioned specifically as a company that has invited her back over and over to meet with its many different divisions.

FullSizeRenderDavis said she recommends two simple steps for “quick and easy repair of the gender inequality. First, whatever they’re going to make, before they cast it, just go through the script. Do a kind of gender pass and change a bunch of first names to female. Now, you’ve created a lot more female characters and they’re probably more interesting now that they’ve had a gender change because they’re not going to be stereotyped.” She also suggested, “When the script says, ‘a crowd gathers,’ write in the script, ‘comma which is half female comma’ and that will solve that problem.”

“The level of disappointment professional, expert women are feeling in the film and entertainment industry about lack of representation in front of the camera, behind the camera, writing checks, wherever it is, is really profound,” said Journalist Ellen McGirt who moderated the panel “Gender and Equality.”

“Hollywood is leaving money on the table,” declared panelist Susan Cartsonis of Storefront Pictures. “It makes complete sense to be telling female centric stories and female audience driven stories at least half of the time.”

“It doesn’t change unless the generational gap allows it,” said Linda Ong, CEO & Founder of Truth Co. an omni-cultural branding and insights firm. She moderated the panel, “Who Runs the World? Girls.” that covered a wide range of topics from body image and body shaming to gender-sensitive product development to the relationship between Baby Boomer women and Millennial women. Panelists repeatedly made the business case for greater inclusion.

“Diversity is not just race and culture. It is age and body type,” said Producer Dana Michelle Cook of The Empowerment Project.

All day, panelists pointed out examples of shows and content that lead the way but wanted to see more female centric content in the marketplace. “Supergirl is great, but why is there only one television super hero girl?” asked Cook.

“We don’t have to have a cape to be a super hero,” suggested Costumer Mandi Line whose costumes for Pretty Little Liars became iconic fashion among Millennials.

“Girls are digital natives,” explained Halle Stafford of The Henson Company. “We draw our girls to be diverse. We give girls the jetpack.” She pointed out that Hasbro has created a line of toys for girls called Rebelle which capitalize on the emboldened role models for girls popularized by franchises like Brave and The Hunger Games.

Panelist Tish Cirvavolo, President and Founder of Daisy Rock Girls Guitars knows something about creating products for girls. Fifteen years ago, she created what remains the only line of guitars designed and sized specifically for girls. “I had to create a guitar that was better for girls to play.” She sometimes gets flack for the fact that the guitars are pink, explained Ciravovo, but the complaints come mostly from fathers. Ciravovo said she made the guitars pink because that was the color her daughters wanted at the time.

The overarching message from all the speakers and panelists was that it’s up to women to hold themselves and their companies more accountable. “We have to hold our own feet to the fire,” said one panelist. Another said, “As women and as men, we all have to help one another.” Mentoring was repeatedly mentioned by participants as a way to encourage leadership toward better gender balance in all fields. Ong said, “We have to help men help women.”

“Come from a place from abundance. When we’re asked for help, give that help in any way that we can,” suggested Rosen.

“I’ve taken on the responsibility to have a voice,” said Line. When it comes to products and stories that perpetuate gender imbalance, “Don’t buy that. Don’t watch that. The responsibility starts with us. It starts at home. Make sure what I put out there says something.”

In an interview, event organizer McCourt said that the event came together quickly starting in July when Davis and her institute agreed to be part of the summit. McCourt said, “We’re already working on a smaller spring summit follow up, and then another big summit in the fall.” She indicated that future events may feature screenings of films by women filmmakers in conjunction with other female-centered film festivals like Davis’ Bentonville Film Festival which features films made by women and guarantees distribution for festival winners.