Surely you’ve heard about that million dollar lawsuit against Amazon filed by an anonymous actress who claims that Internet Movie Database (which is owned by Amazon) damaged her ability to get work because it published her age. According to the Daily Dot, the lawsuit claimed:
“If one is perceived to be ‘over-the-hill,’ i.e., approaching 40, it is nearly impossible for an up-and-coming actress, such as the plaintiff, to get work as she is thought to have less of an ‘upside,’ therefore, casting directors, producers, directors, agents-manager, etc. do not give her the same opportunities, regardless of her appearance or talent…”
I know nothing about the woman, other than that she is an Asian from Texas who claims to look young for her age. I know nothing about her resume. I have no idea whether she has talent. I don’t know whether it’s a legitimate lawsuit or she’s just out to make a quick buck. I don’t even know how old she is.
But what I do know is this. Put a man of a certain age up on the big screen and he’s not only viable as an actor, but might generate some fantasies: George Clooney is 50. Richard Gere is 62. Pierce Brosnan: 58. Sean Connery was named the sexiest man of the year by people magazine back in 1999 when he was, I believe, 68. Viggo Mortensen is 58. Colin Firth and Hugh Grant: Both 50. And Jeremy Irons? You may not find him especially sexy, but as Pope Alexander VI in the TV series The Borgias, he gets more than his share of action. He is 62.
Now let’s turn the tables: Who are the leading ladies of the same age, with the same kind of currency, the same box office draw? Can’t think of many, can you? Not necessarily because they aren’t equally talented as actors, or equally sexy, but because they just don’t get the parts.
There could be any number of reasons for this, none of them especially pleasant to contemplate, but what we want to focus on today is just one of them: the gender make-up of Hollywood itself.
For years we have decried the fact that the old guy always gets the cute girl in the movies. We have for years ranted: about the schlubby guys on TV who have the slim trim wives; about the loser guys who end up with, you know, Katherine Heigl; about the sweet young things who are wooed by the guys old enough to be their grandpas.
You have to ask yourself: who writes this stuff? And the answer, as we discovered when we researched our book, is this: predominantly men. Back in 2009, the Hollywood Writers Report found that women and minorities had not made any significant hiring gains since 2005, with women writers making up roughly one-quarter of the field: 28 percent of TV writers and 18 percent of film writers.Their salaries also showed a discrepancy: White men $98,875, versus women $57,151—for a whopping wage gap of $41,724.40.
When we checked in with the their latest report, released a few months ago, we found that women’s share had actually declined:
The present report shows that women writers remain stuck at 28 percent of television employment, while their share of film employment actually declined a percentage point since the last report to 17 percent. Although the minority share of television employment increased a percentage point to 10 percent (matching the shares evident in years immediately prior to the 2007 nadir), the group’s share of film employment declined to just 5 percent – the lowest figure in at least ten years.
Another study, this one by the Center for the Study of Women in Film and Television found that:
In 2010, women comprised 16% of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films. This represents a decline of 1 percentage point from 1998 and is even with 2009 figures.
Women accounted for 7% of directors in 2010, the same percentage as in 2009. This figure represents a decline of two percentage points from 1998.
Likewise, a 2011 study by USC’s Annenberg Center found that when it came to creative positions in general, including directing or producing, women were again grossly outnumbered. In a piece on the study for the Women’s Media Center, the researchers for that study, Stacy L. Smith and Marc Choueiti, wrote:
Turning to behind-the-camera employees, the gender gap is far more problematic. For every one working female director, writer, or producer, there are 4.9 working males in the same above-the-line gate-keeping positions. Stated in another way, only 8 percent of directors, 13.6 percent of writers, and 19.1 percent of producers were female across the 100 top-grossing films in 2008. These numbers are unsettling, as one way to diversify images on screen may be to vary the personnel responsible for making the content. In fact, this is exactly what our results showed. When one or more females are involved directing, writing, or producing, the number of females on screen increases substantially (see Figure 1). In the case of screenwriters, the presence of at least one female on the writing team was associated with a 14.3 percent increase in the percentage of female characters on screen.
All of this has an impact — three words for you: The Playboy Club, which fortunately just met its timely demise — as the reseachers noted, not the least of which is the fact that when there’s no diversity behind the camera, the women we see in front of it are not only showing a lot of skin, but often unrealistically young. (Backstage reports that women over 40 account for a mere 8 percent of characters in the 2010-11 and 2011-12 TV seasons to date).
That impact goes far beyond the silver screen, as Jennifer Seibel Newsom, producer of Miss Representation points out:
And really what our culture is communicating to us is vis-a-vis the media, which is this pedagogical force of communication in our culture, is that a woman’s value lies in her youth, her beauty, and her sexuality and not in her capacity to lead…
Back in 2010 when Meryl Streep — the exception who proves the rule? — made news by starring as a sexual being in “It’s Complicated”, she was the subject of a cover story in Vanity Fair, which dug into the stereotypical way in which the media treat women of a certain age:
Any inhibitions notwithstanding, a vibrant sexuality has remained a crucial aspect of Streep’s appeal, despite her advancing years and the limitations that others might try to impose in response. When Clint Eastwood cast her to star opposite him in The Bridges of Madison County, which won Streep an Oscar nomination for best actress, in 1996, his reason was simple: “She’s the greatest actress in the world,” he said with a shrug.
That said, Streep reports, “There was a big fight over how I was too old to play the part, even though Clint was nearly 20 years older than me. The part was for a 45-year-old woman, and Clint said, ‘This is a 45-year-old woman.’”
Old news, perhaps. But have things changed in the past 15 years? Probably not, which brings us back to that Amazon lawsuit. Frivolous or not, it makes you wonder about the biggest question of all: Does Hollywood reflect our reality — or determine it?