'I Was in Tears': What It's Really Like to Experience Hollywood Sexism

The Oscars may be more representative this year, but men still dominate 80 percent of non-acting nominations. Four women in the movie business tell us why industry prejudice remains so insidious.

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Feb 26 2017, 3:05pm

Photo by Aleksandar Novoselski via Stocksy

The film awards season is back, along with its annual headlines about gender inequality and lack of representation. Women have barely been recognized at this year's Oscars, with 80 percent of the nominations in non-acting categories going to men. But behind the statistics lie the personal stories of women who are frustrated by the lack of progress in their industry, and many of them now feel compelled to take action and speak out.

Action movie actress Yancy Butler, Artemis Women In Action Film Festival co-founder Melanie Wise, director and spearhead of the American Civil Liberties Union's investigation into Hollywood's discrimination Maria Giese, and Orange Is the New Black star Alysia Reiner, have all had wildly different experiences throughout their careers. However, their encounters share much in common.

Since the 2014 Sony email hack revealed that Jennifer Lawrence was being paid less than her American Hustle co-stars Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper, the subject of gender inequality often focuses on the abyss in pay. But this conversation still remains taboo within the industry. "People don't talk about their salaries, and I don't know why it's such a shameful thing," Yancy Butler says.

The actress' filmography is dominated by action roles where she's performed her own stunts. Since the start of Butler's career in the 90s, she has fought, parachuted, and somersaulted alongside Wesley Snipes, Jean Claude Van Damme, and more recently in both Kick-Ass movies. "In one particular instance I happened to work with a guy several times and I just straight up asked, 'I'm very curious what they're paying you?' It was double the amount they were paying me for something he was doing less work on. It was disheartening."

Read more: How Sweden Conquered Film Industry Sexism

"The excuses are always 'oh, it was a time constraint,' or 'we really needed this person at the last minute and that's what he would take,'" she says. "I don't understand that at all."

Butler has also become accustomed to wearing teeny costumes with dubious safety credentials, despite whatever stunts she might be performing that day. "It's very hard to put padding on when a network note says you have to be walking around with your midriff showing. I've had to wear skimpy clothes while doing stunts, and have absolutely felt more vulnerable. I certainly feel more in danger when I've had to run in high heels and kick somebody's ass in stilettos."

Maria Giese is part of the legal investigation into Hollywood discrimination. Photo by Danny Liao, courtesy of subject

But she says this doesn't hold a candle to some of her worst encounters with discrimination. "I remember a horrifying experience where I was falsely accused of speaking out against somebody, along with a man. But what they didn't do to the man was corner him in a parking lot with his back up against a trailer."

Although it wasn't a physical attack, she says that she found the experience of being surrounded by three men extremely threatening. "I'm getting chills right now," she remembers. "It was a very schoolyard bully situation. It was something dumb like we were being overworked, which was true but I'd never complained about that any more than the 18 other cast members."

"Basically I [stood at] 12 o' clock, somebody else was at three o' clock, another at six o' clock and another at nine o'clock, so I couldn't get out of the situation. They said, 'If you wanna complain, we'll give you something to complain about.' I was in tears and said, 'Please stop screaming at me.'"

"I have absolutely no doubt that if I were a man it would never have happened."

Hollywood functions almost 100 percent based on personal relationships, so all you have to do is piss somebody off and you'll get on some kind of a little blacklist.

Last year, Butler was honoured with an award for her many action hero turns at the Artemis Women In Action Film Festival. Melanie Wise started this event in 2015 to showcase the diverse range of women in action roles, from stuntwomen to the true stories of female airforce pilots in WW2. "There has never been a film festival dedicated to women in action. We've had action heroines on screen for more than 30 years and nobody celebrates them," Wise explains.

There is a shocking lack of movies with a woman in the leading role. "When a film with a woman in the lead does well, it's kind of seen as a fluke in the box office world. Films that star men, when they fail they go, 'Ah!' and they just go on and make another one. They've never really given women that opportunity to have a failure. Once one of those failures occurs, like when Charlize Theron did Aeon Flux, they said women in action were box office poison. They're not. That movie sadly just didn't stand up."

Wise found a classic example with Crawl or Die, "a micro-budgeted horror film with a female lead, totally badass. From start to finish she is the centre of the story. [The filmmakers] established an audience, they did an amazing job with an extraordinarily small amount of resources and the earnings they were able to generate were incredible. After it aired on the BBC pretty much every studio in town hunted them down to strike a deal."


Watch: Rose McGowan on Sexism in Hollywood

"Every studio that approached them, their edict was that they had to write in a male character from beginning to end. So here is somebody who went out and made a movie, actually built their own damn audience, and then the studio came and said, 'Oh, women in action don't sell.' Well I'm sorry, but have you not been paying attention in the last two years?"

The filmmakers behind Crawl or Die confirmed this account to Broadly.

The recent Hunger Games and Star Wars series all had strong female leads and performed incredibly at the box office. "Whenever Tom Cruise releases a movie, that's usually the biggest seller of the year. [In 2014] women outsold him. We have anecdotal data that it's a sellable, marketable, profitable genre, and still keep getting excuses. You can only shake your head and say what the fuck?"

Other women—like director Maria Giese—have turned to the justice system to combat widespread prejudice in the industry. "Regardless of how competent you are or how gifted you are, if you're a woman and you want to direct studio features, unless you're a movie star or related to a movie mogul, your chances are zero," the independent filmmaker says.

The truth is most people hire who they know and what they're used to and it's never conscious.

The reason is as simple as it is deplorable. According to Giese, Hollywood doesn't feel obliged to hire women because it's led by big business rather than government regulation. There's no real scrutiny over unfair hiring practices, even if this disregards Title VII, the Civil Rights Act that forbids employment discrimination based on race, age, and gender.

In October 2015, Giese went to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, armed with the facts that would become the basis of a federal investigation. The inquest ended this month, with the result that each one of the main studios were charged with failing to employ female directors. If they're unable to reach a settlement—in other words, start hiring more women—they may have a major lawsuit on their hands.

Giese believes the blacklisting of the McCarthy era is still alive and well. "Hollywood functions almost 100 percent based on personal relationships, so all you have to do is piss somebody off and you'll get on some kind of a little blacklist," she says.

But this didn't deter her. She feels this is the most important project she's ever worked on. "I'm hoping that other young women, girls like my nine-year-old daughter, will be able to pursue careers as directors without feeling that they don't have a chance in hell."

"I wouldn't have done this if I wasn't so passionate about being a director," she says. "Right now I'm fighting for the greater cause. When I've been able to accomplish my goal of demanding that women get a fair shot in this industry then maybe I'll go back at it, and I'll find out how profoundly blacklisted I am.

Alysia Reiner in Orange is the New Black. Photo via Netflix

For Orange is the New Black actress Alysia Reiner, who plays tough-talking assistant prison warden Natalie "Fig" Figueroa, the most worrying thing about the gender inequality in Hollywood is how it operates in total secrecy. "I'm sure I have [suffered discrimination] and I don't even know it," she says. "That's the hardest thing because it's not transparent. I have no idea how much my male counterparts make."

"One of the reasons we have the problems we do is because of the idea of unconscious bias," she adds. "The truth is most people hire who they know and what they're used to and it's never conscious. It's never like, 'Oh, I don't want to hire a woman.' If you asked most men in the business, they would say, 'That's ridiculous, I'd love to hire women,' but they don't much of the time because they see their pal, who looks like them and sounds like them, and happens to be another white guy."

Not a single woman has been nominated for an Oscar for best director or best movie this year, a fact that deeply disappoints her. "It's simply reflective of the opportunities that women have in this business."

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Because of this, more and more actresses are making their own films and setting up production companies. Reiner co-produced, co-wrote and starred in Equity, the first ever film about women in Wall Street. The movie was bought by Sony Pictures Classics, received widespread critical acclaim, and is now on DVD and video on demand—hardly a flop. However, Reiner says of its director Meera Menon, "were she a man she'd have a three-picture deal by now."

Reiner is on the board of We Do It Together (WDIT), a non-profit film production company that also counts Jessica Chastain, Juliette Binoche, Zhang Ziyi and Freida Pinto as members, with the aim of producing films and TV programmes that have empowering roles for women.

"If I was a journalist right now, I'd try not to tell the negative stories," she says. "I'd give examples of how we can make a change. When we talk about WDIT it's a great example. I think that's what it's about, we need affirmative action. That's what's necessary."

For these women and many more, the only way to change the status in Hollywood is to speak out, create their own roles, and ultimately pursue justice.

"If we can get the most powerful leaders in politics and law in the United States to tackle this issue," Giese says, "all the other issues from reproductive rights, pay equity, etc, will become better supported."