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Jewish World Review May 10, 2002/ 28 Iyar, 5762

Larry Elder

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Sexism in Hollywood? | Does sexism explain the "under-representation" of women in Hollywood?

"If you look at the number of women working behind the scenes," said Martha Lauzen, a San Diego State University professor, "they're dramatically under-represented [emphasis added]." Does sexism account for this "under-representation"? "Of course, it does," said an off-the-record major Hollywood film executive, "What else could it be?"

Callie Khouri, who won an Oscar for "Thelma & Louise," complains about the hardship of women in Hollywood. "I've been asked," said Khouri, "'As a woman, what was it like?' And my answer always is, 'As opposed to what? Reality?' It's shameful how few women and blacks are working in Hollywood."

Studios released 145 films from May 2001 to April 2002, with women directing "only" 6.2 percent. And of the actors working on prime-time television in 2001, women performed "only" 28 percent of the roles. For the year 2000, women performed "only" 38 percent of the Screen Actors Guild roles, with a dramatic decline in female actors working after they reach the age of 40.

Is sexism the culprit?

Does sexism explain how Martha Coolidge recently became president of the Directors Guild of America, an organization that represents 12,000 directors? Does sexism explain Vicki Riskin, the first female president of the Writers Guild of America, West, representing 8,500 writers? Does sexism explain the election of Melissa Gilbert, formerly of "Little House on the Prairie," as president of the Screen Actors Guild? Gilbert became the third woman to head the organization, which represents 98,000 actors.

Does sexism explain the females who now run Hollywood studios? Stacy Snider is chairman of Universal Pictures, Sherry Lansing is chairman and CEO of Paramount Pictures, and Amy Pascal is chairman of Columbia Pictures' Motion Picture Group. A woman, Kathleen Kennedy, runs the Producers Guild of America. At the Motion Picture Editors Guild, Lisa Zeno Churgin serves as president.

Women dominate the television entertainment divisions. At ABC, Susan Lyne is executive vice-president of movies and miniseries; at CBS, Nancy Tellem is at the helm; at Fox, Gail Berman is president of entertainment; and Dawn Tarnofsky-Ostroff is president of UPN Entertainment.

Sexism? But critics still maintain that a sexist Hollywood shuts out women.

Not necessarily. New Line Cinema's president of production, Toby Emmerich, offered this real-world explanation. "I'm actually surprised that those percentages don't look any better," he said. "I don't think I've ever heard anybody say that they would favor a writer or director because of gender. On chick flicks, like "The First Wives Club," you tend to think, 'Let's get a woman director.' And I suppose there's kind of a big testosterone action picture where you tend to hire 'shooters,' and the 'shooters' tend to be men that come from the worlds of video and commercials and tough, cool stuff. Outside of those genres, I've never paid attention to whether the person is a man or a woman."

Even liberal activist and Oscar award-winner Jane Fonda does not blame sexism for the lack of working over-40 female actresses! "On a big screen, seeing wrinkled lips kissing wrinkled lips, it's not as appealing," said Fonda. "We older, wrinkled-lip people have other things to do. Like being wise."

So what to do about this "under-representation"?

Coolidge, the head of the Directors Guild, promises to "pressure, embarrass, prepare, and educate our members and the employers." But with women already in high positions of authority, with the power to hire and fire, the "pressure" already exists - to make money, that is.

In 1997, Fortune magazine ran a cover story on successful business executive Darla Moore, titled "The Toughest Babe in Business." Fortune received complaints from women upset that the magazine, in their title, used the term "babe." In response, Moore wrote, "I have this to say to the women who find the use of the word 'babe' inappropriate or even horrifying: I seriously doubt, as long as you retain this attitude, that you will ever appear on the cover of Fortune - or that you will ever accomplish enough in business to merit this distinction. True sensitivity means not getting all wound up in a bundle every time you think you hear an insult. Anyone who wants to play in the big leagues of business has to learn to focus on what's important - and not be thrown off by smaller things. You also have to accept, as a woman, that men are never going to treat you like another guy, because - guess what - you aren't another guy."

Certainly women in Hollywood face special challenges, but so does everybody attempting to enter a highly competitive, bottom-line oriented business where failures dramatically exceed successes. As actor Morgan Freeman put it, "I think Hollywood lives and dies on greed."

But that is probably an "underrepresented" point of view.

JWR contributor Larry Elder is the author of the newly released, The Ten Things You Can't Say in America. (Proceeds from sales help fund JWR) Let him know what you think of his column by clicking here.

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© 2002, Creators Syndicate