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Soraya Chemaly Headshot

Dear Academy: Why Won't You Nominate Women?

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Dear Academy,

I love the Oscars. Along with millions of other people, I wait for the annual ceremony, yell at the screen when I disagree with winners, pick my favorite dresses and cheer for people whose work I've had the pleasure of enjoying.  Like my parents before me, I fight with my kids about bedtime on a school night.

This year, however, not that it matters to you, I realize, I will boycott the Academy Awards and encourage other to as well, because you managed to nominate exactly NO women for Best Director.

In the entire 85-year history of the Academy Awards you have only nominated four women as directors.  I know that just saying this makes some people think I'm being all victimy.  But, in reality, it's just me, random critic, saying, "It's 2013 and this discrimination needs to stop," in a distinctly unwhiny tone of voice.  Having sat through several encyclopedic "History of Film" sagas with my equally film-buffy husband, I know that there have been at least, say, five qualified women in the history of Hollywood, and that's from the '20s alone -- prior to your award's inception. Your industry may have actually gone BACKWARDS over time from the perspective of women's power.  The early history of Hollywood is filled with pioneering and influential women.

Why would I say this is discrimination? Maybe women's movies just aren't that good? Maybe women just can't direct movies? Maybe they don't like this kind of work -- it's all so hard and technical? I mean, there aren't that many of them, after all.  Maayyybee, women just need to understand the complex and nuanced sociology of overwhelmingly male constructed workplaces that subtly and not so subtly exclude them? In any case, you give the words "boys' club" new depth and meaning.

Hollywood, which you control, both reflects our culture and is disproportionately responsible for shaping it with the stories you tell.  You are the actual crossroads of our chicken and egg problem regarding the invisibility of women in the public imagination. An imagination that informs aspirations and confidence.  As girls and boys become adults they absorb the gradual erasure of women in virtually every aspect of public live, where, thanks in large part to your industry, they most often appear in marginal and sexualized roles.  Any alien intelligence being bombarded in space by our media emanations would think, based on your work, that women are outnumbered eight to one, most are white, do everything half naked, are the cause of male vulnerability, and don't live past the age of 28. I know -- sounds like Entourage to me to. And I loved Entourage. It's so irritating.

Now, I know it's not your job to fix our problems with parity, equity, equality and liberation.  It's your job to make money by entertaining us. And fly your kids to Las Vegas for their 10th birthday parties. And we are, apparently, willing to pay to be entertained to sexist death and pay for the helicopters. You are not alone, of course. In Cannes last year, women directors faced similar problems in terms of the acknowledgement of their work.

As the Los Angeles Times reported last year, "Oscar voters are nearly 94 percent Caucasian and 77 percent male... Blacks are about 2 percent of the academy, and Latinos are less than 2 percent." This just goes to prove that the Guerrilla Girls are right: you are even less diverse and more conservative than Congress and THAT is saying a whole lot given how pathetic Congress is.  They have been pointing this out for WAAAYYY TOOO LOONNGGG.

Statistics from Women and Hollywood, based on studies conducted by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, reveal that in 2011:

  • Women directed 5 percent of the top grossing films.
  • Women wrote 14 percent of the top grossing films.
  • Women comprised 18 percent of all executive producers.
  • Women comprised 25 percent of all producers.
  • 20 percent of all editors were women.
  • 4 percent of all cinematographers were women.

Do these women have equal opportunity? I suppose, technically, yes. Do they have equal access to money, marketing, investments of time, people and resources? Who are you kidding? Of course, as a 2013 media state of the union report released today by the Women's Media Center shows in unrelenting fashion, you aren't unique in your gender imbalances.

There are talented, competent women making films.  But, it is insanely difficult for them to find money and resources, whereas any idiot with XY chromosomes can apparently make a film.

According to additional studies, last year, women made up less than 10 percent of all directors of the top grossing 250 films. This is a 4-percent increase from the year before... but, that's not saying much since that brings us level with 1998. In 2009, the New York Times' Manohla Dargis noted that "Paramount Pictures and Warner Brothers Pictures, meanwhile, did not release a single film directed by a woman. Not one."  Quite frankly, as a lifelong movie fanatic who enjoys going to the movies with kids, I'm hoping against hope that you simply age out. That, and I make sure more than half of our media budget is spent on films that support women's work and stories.  In addition, given the fact that these numbers are so low today, it seems you are also self-selecting for sexist and racist continuity.

Your gender, age and lack of diversity are marginalizing women and people of color and impairing the ability of young, talented women to envision these careers and succeed in this industry.  And that means, in circular fashion, that we will keep getting self-fulfilling stories primarily about the trials, tribulations and successes of white boys and men. Do you guys even know who Alison Bechdel is?  Because if not, you should meet her. Long ago she came up with some great ideas about what you do. As Anita Sarkeesian points out so eloquently, year after year after year you fail her test for the most basic assessment of fairness in representation.  But, of course, what do you care, people keep buying tickets.  But, again, of course, the investments you make in which movies to spend money on and market aggressively make a huge difference in what people gleefully anticipate and then spend money seeing. This is important, because while women filmmakers are being celebrated for their work at festivals like Sundance, where women had a "breakthrough year" this year, and The Athena Film Festival, which held its third awards ceremony this month, their work does not get the kind of widespread distribution and marketing that it deserves and that we would all benefit from in multi-dimensional ways. This is our fault.

Every time you "take a chance" on movies with female ensembles, or movies with female directors and writers and producers, and they do phenomenally well, you are "surprised." You're like well-groomed fish with seven-second memories.  Hopefully, recent examples of successes involving women are altering your capacity for being repeatedly shocked.   Even you must note the riotous absurdity of the fact that the one movie in which a woman has won for best director -- Katherine Bigelow's  The Hurt Locker -- was a paean to all-male, testosterone-fueled violence and maladaptation.  I mean, really, how many boys' coming of age/quest-for-father/band of brothers stories can you make?  Isn't therapy, albeit expensive, cheaper for you and all of us?

In case you missed them, there were movies made by women last year, some of them about women even, that deserve to be included and considered.

Often, I ask myself, don't these guys have daughters? Are their imaginations so limited that they really cannot understand what it is like for girls, and boys, to grow up with the images and stories they promote in such narrow and unbalanced ways? Boys, of course, don't have to go out of their way to put themselves in girls' shoes, but media portrays are equally limiting for them. For a while there, I thought that maybe Tom Hanks or Steven Spielberg -- whose work I grew up loving in the hero-cross-gender-empathizing way of all girls -- might create a girl-coming-of-age franchise, at least one. But, no. This year, I held out a slim hope that Brave, one of the only girl/woman quest stories I have ever seen, also directed by a woman, would be noted by your Academy. But, no. You just don't get it. This too, will pass.

I imagine, if you do have daughters and granddaughters, you think your success and wealth will make it possible for them to overcome any biases that you yourself perpetuate. That may be somewhat true, but, it is fundamentally wrong and they, too, will live in a less just world because of it. As will our sons and grandsons. You are our storytellers. Epic fail on our part.

As was said in classic film She's the Man,  "Here in Illyria, we don't discriminate. Based. On. Gendah."  Illyria, of course, is a fantasy land. Some say Hollywood is too. But it is not. Hollywood is a very real, very important, money-making, culture-shaping place, and you are discriminating against girls and women every time you make these choices not to include their stories and their work.  

So, for now, I live with the naïve faith idea that you will age out and that younger men of another generation, and with story-telling currency, will assess their own privileges and decide -- as you haven't -- that they would rather live in a more just world where people's work is respected and acknowledged regardless of how they look. Ha! It's even funny to write that last bit, considering the history of photography and film and its pivotal role in the rise of the dumbed-down visual on our culture. I know, I should just go feed my magical unicorn.

I love movies and I spend a disproportionate amount of money consuming them. I admire much of your work and do everything I can to personally and professionally support efforts to change this dynamic. But, I also know that your brilliantly creative and innovative industry relies mostly on conservative, risk-averse and formulaic stories to survive. But really? Can't you do better than this?

In a 2012 New York Times piece called Our Entire Belief System Must Change, film director Martha Coolidge made excellent, tangible suggestions for tackling entrenched sexism in our culture, many of which directly relate to you. You should pay attention.

Sincerely,
Soraya Chemaly

PS - Before you say the words "lean in," consider "leaning out" a bit.