I was recently introduced to a very rare and beautiful creature – a woman who works within the top echelons of an almost exclusively male below-the-line craft in both film and television. There’s no question that she is well-respected; her filmography bears that out. Because so much often depends on her, she must assemble the best possible crew for each situation and therein lies the tale. It so happened that on one occasion that crew happened to be almost entirely female. In this particular case, they were the best “men” for the job. No one on set or in the production office batted an eye – the proof would be in the filming and as the leader, she would rise or fall with those choices. She hadn’t failed yet and they were confident in her decisions. Where it did attract notice, however, was at the network, triggering a visit from one of the executives who arrived with a mandate. “You may not hire any more women.”
You may not hire any more women? You may not hire any more women? Do people actually say that out loud? Apparently yes.
This brings to mind all those sexual harassment seminars that are presented to cast and crew (and everyone else in corporate America). The lawyer leading the seminar invariably cites an instance where a man (it’s not impossible that it’s a woman, but statistics are heavily weighted toward the Y chromosome) tells a female subordinate, “Sleep with me and I’ll promote you.” The classic quid pro quo. We, in the audience, always laugh because, the thinking goes, no one is that stupid. Alas and alack, people are that stupid and every human resources department in the entertainment industry is full of examples with the names of the perpetrators redacted to protect the guilty along with the payouts to victims. Studios continue to work with such recidivist talent because the cost of paying for their mistakes is less than the money that will be raked in from the tentpoles they act in or direct.
But… You can’t hire any more women? That’s infinitely more insidious. It recalls professional basketball in the late 60s and early 70s when team owners would dictate how many African American players could appear on court at one time, lest the fans boycott the games or the television viewing public turn off their sets in revulsion.
Clearly tokenism is okay when it comes to hiring minorities or women but it’s not okay when the token is a white male. To her credit, our heroine held her ground and snapped back to the executive, “Have you ever told someone that they couldn’t hire more men?” She got her crew, at the emotional cost of having her judgment questioned on such an insulting level, and the production thrived.
Sadly, these situations will continue as long as knee jerk tokenism is the name of the game. There are below-the-line crafts in which woman have cracked the ceiling as production designers, editors, set decorators, hair and make-up artists, craft service, casting, location managers and, too a certain extent, even as teamsters. But few inroads have been made in construction, grip, electric, camera and sound. At first glance, one might say that physical strength and stamina are prerequisites, and that would be correct. What isn’t correct is the assumption that the women interested in those jobs don’t have the strength and stamina to perform the tasks. What they don’t have is an inroad because these jobs, in classic union tradition, are often handed down from father to son or to friend of the family. Nepotism in a closed shop is pretty hard to combat (especially when the guilds maintain that it is no longer allowed), but there has to be a way. Some change may occur naturally when fathers begin to pass down these positions to their daughters. But the overall change has to come with an awareness and more transparency when it comes to guild apprenticeship programs. An affirmative approach is not just demanded, it’s necessary. In most of these guilds there are virtually no women or people of color. As one prominent writer recently said of her own experience with affirmative action, it wasn’t a case of hiring someone less qualified, it was a case of not excluding someone who was qualified.
Understandably, times are tough and apprenticeship programs have all but disappeared in some cases. For networks and studios who give lip service to supporting the underrepresented, it’s time to step up. Most sponsor above-the-line programs for minority writers and directors. It’s time to reinvigorate and reinstitute paid apprenticeships for below-the-line positions and open up some opportunities so no one, ever again, has the temerity to say “You may not hire any more women.”
Neely Swanson - Formerly Senior Vice President of Development for David E. Kelley Productions, Neely is presently an adjunct professor at the USC School of Cinematic Arts in the writing division teaching “The Entertainment Industry Seminar.” Neely also writes a blog about writers and wonderful scripts they’ve written that have never made it to the big or little screen. Check out her blog at www.nomeanerplace.com
Cross Posted with permission. Originally posted at Baseline Intelligence