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Commentary: Frozen in a niche?

by on March 07, 2014 10:20 AM

As the statuesque Cate Blanchett clutched her statuette, she sent an acid air kiss Sandra Bullock’s way. The “Blue Jasmine” star told her vanquished rival, who was gamely smiling after losing for “Gravity,” “Sandra, I could watch that performance to the end of time, and I sort of felt like I had.”

But then Blanchett turned all feminist, doing a Nobody-puts-Baby-in-a-niche smackdown. She chided industry colleagues “who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films with women at the center are niche experiences,” adding, “The world is round, people.”

Of course, as Sam Wasson, a chronicler of a Hollywood obsessed with how many adolescent boys show up for opening weekends of comic-book movies, notes: “Everything is a niche film except for tent-pole movies. So women are one of many niches that don’t get honored the way they used to when grown-ups went to the movies.”

Although the Oscars seemed like a pantheon of diversity for women, gays, blacks and transgenders, Hollywood is disintegrating faster than it is transitioning to modernity. As films lose cultural hegemony to TV, Oscar voters and industry top brass are still overwhelmingly white, male and middle-aged.

The percentage of women directing, writing, producing, editing and shooting films has declined since 1998, according to an analysis of the top 250 grossing films of 2013 domestically by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. (The anticipated halo effect from Kathryn Bigelow becoming the first woman to win a directing Oscar for 2009’s “The Hurt Locker” never happened.)

The center’s latest report had some stunning stats: Women accounted for 6 percent of directors, 10 percent of writers, 15 percent of executive producers, 17 percent of editors and 3 percent of cinematographers. And women are still more likely to be working on romantic comedies, dramas or documentaries than the top-grossing, teenage-boy-luring animated, sci-fi and horror movies.

“There’s a great deal of gender inertia going on in Hollywood, both off-screen and on,” said Martha Lauzen, a professor who has conducted the study for the last 16 years. “If you have all white males working behind the scenes in the film industry, you’re going to get a whole lot of white males up on screen.

“Every time that a female-driven film like ‘Bridesmaids’ makes boatloads of money at the box office, it is considered a fluke, a one-off. Women comprise 52 percent of all moviegoers. Yet there’s still an assumption that men will not go to see a woman’s movie, but that women will go to see anything, so they just get the women for free.”

Next week, Lauzen is publishing a new study showing that women made up only 15 percent of protagonists and 30 percent of speaking characters in the top 100 grossing domestic films of 2013.

“The people in the community do not want to be called racist. That embarrasses them,” she said. “But they don’t really mind being called sexist. For some of them, it’s a badge of honor.”

Some women have boldly broken the silence about the imbalance. Meryl Streep denounced the perversity of icing women out of a business that makes a fortune on films aimed at women.

“Why? Why? Why?” she asked. “Don’t they want the money?”

Jodie Foster told The Los Angeles Times that when men hire directors, they say to themselves, “I’m gonna hand over $60 million to somebody I don’t know. I hope they look like me.” She also criticized “risk-averse” female studio executives who regard female directors as too much of a risk. In Vogue, Claire Danes said she stopped working for two years before she got “Homeland” because she didn’t want to play “the girl.”

The bluntest remarks came from co-chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment Amy Pascal in Forbes. She talked about the “paltry” amount women make in Hollywood compared to men, about the “unconscious mountain” of rejection against female directors and how “the whole system is geared for them to fail.”

When Pascal greenlit Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers rom-coms, some male executives sniffed “So what’s next?” Adam Sandler, Will Smith, the “Spider-Man” franchise, “The Social Network,” and this year’s “American Hustle” and “Captain Phillips” impressed the guys in the boardroom. Pascal says, given this year’s crop of female protagonists, she feels more sanguine. “Between ‘Gravity,’ ‘Hunger Games,’ ‘Frozen,’ ‘The Heat,’ and others, that’s $4 billion,” she told me. “That’s a gigantic change.”

Pascal said she learned from Geena Davis, who runs an institute in Los Angeles on gender in media, that “the most important thing is having female protagonists. It doesn’t matter if they’re a villain or a hero. It just matters that their actions have consequences.”

She thinks that Hollywood men are no longer reluctant to work with women, saying “any problems are completely unconscious. It’s obvious that women understand how to make money. You can’t have a year like last year and not see something different. Women have to help each other more. It’s our duty.”



Maureen Dowd writes a column for the New York Times.
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