Guest Post by Maria Giese
On March 31, 2017, 114 women gathered in Provincetown, Massachusetts for the inaugural Women’s Media Summit, a three-day think-tank forum designed to solve gender inequity in U.S. entertainment media. The event was produced by veteran film producer Christine Walker, and was co-chaired by Dr. Caroline Heldman (Occidental professor and principal researcher at the Geena Davis Institute for Gender in Media) and myself.
The concept of Summit was based on a core belief that the stories and images that emerge from our media help define our national ethos and contribute to the voice of our civilization. The exclusion of women as contributors to our nation’s cultural narrative is a deeply entrenched problem. Women’s creative expressions and concerns are filtered through a mostly male lens, denying women of freedom and equality.
In May 2015, the Aclu called on our federal government to investigate discrimination against women directors in Hollywood. The intent of the Summit was to remedy this persistent and staggering problem that has been in the media spotlight for nearly two years. Today the Eeoc is reportedly in settlement talks with all six major Hollywood studios, but that is no guarantee of success. In order to keep the momentum going and maintain control over our future, we decided to assemble as a group to brainstorm strategies that we ourselves can put into action going forward.
The Summit included three panels and a legal presentation that were designed to ignite dynamic, out of the box thinking for fresh and imaginative solutions. We sought to provide a foundation of knowledge for the whole assembly, and then to encourage exploration beyond our established assumptions, value systems, and methods of getting things done. We were not looking for a single solution, but rather a wide array of remedies that could include grassroots and media campaigns, programs, and incentives inside the industry, as well as state and federal legislative reform.
On the first day we gathered to meet each other and offered two talks to help inform our participants. Constitutional Law expert Dr. David Adler discussed the landmark and unanimous Supreme Court decision on Reed v. Reed (1971), which was the first time in American history a statute was struck down on the grounds that gender discrimination violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. This ruling opened what Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg characterized as the “floodgates” for all of the subsequent decisions that have upheld women’s rights to equal protection under the law.
After that, America’s great experimental feature film director and Cal Arts professor Nina Menkes presented “Gender and Power in Shot Design: Traditional Cinema and Beyond,” a detailed analysis of film clips from a variety of popular movies showing both the obvious and subtle ways that women are often disempowered in blockbuster films directed by men. By way of extreme contrast, Menkes also shared and discussed clips from her own work.
In the evening, I introduced Victoria Hochberg, one of “The Original Six,” whose activism and research led to the groundbreaking 1983–1985 class action lawsuit against several Hollywood studios filed by the Directors Guild of America on behalf of women and minority directors. That lawsuit moved the percentage of female director hires from half of one percent to 16 percent in just 10 years from 1985 to 1995. Hochberg spoke about the struggle women have faced throughout American history and expressed the importance of our continued battle.
The following morning we began the day with three panels inspired by a Barack Obama quote: “Show up. Dig in. Stay at it.” The first panel was entitled “Women Storytellers Missing in American Cinema” and was moderated by Dr. David Adler (President, Alturas Institute). Attorney Dr. Kathleen A. Tarr (Stanford) and I served as panelists. We provided an overview of the many barriers that keep women directors shut out of the profession, including the failure of Title VII enforcement in an industry that blacklists people who speak out.
Panel two was entitled “Women Storytellers Missing on the Small Screen” and described the landscape of women in key storytelling positions in TV, commercials, and new media. This panel was moderated by producer/director Jody Hassett-Sanchez (CNN, ABC) and included panelists Kirsten Schaffer (Women In Film La) and Maria Agui Carter (Producer-In-Residence, Emerson College). They discussed how increased attention on women in Hollywood has resulted in the proliferation of wide-scale efforts to remedy the problem inside the industry. Women In Film has been integral to a multitude of cooperative efforts with many indie and studio programs intent in solving the problem from the inside, including ReFrame. Others, like Dr. Martha Lauzen (Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film), suggest external (government) pressure is required.
Panel three focused on “Female Representations on the Screen” and was moderated by Dr. Caroline Heldman (Gdigm & Occidental College) with panelists Cristina Escobar (The Representation Project) and Robin Wright (Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity). The purpose of this panel was to identify why women are persistently underrepresented and misrepresented in film, television, and other media domains despite nearly five decades of research and activism on this problem.
Finally, Gillian Thomas (Aclu Women’s Rights Project) and Kalpana Kotagal (Attorney, Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll) gave a presentation to provide a framework for action entitled “Women, the Industry & the Law.” This fascinating overview described prior efforts to address discrimination against women in Hollywood, and the current prospects for reform. The session included a primer on federal and state law, as well as discussion of possible tools for effecting change — including litigation, government tax credits for diverse hiring, and media outreach.
Thomas and Kotagal also explained the origins of the Aclu’s 2015 letter to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission calling for a federal investigation into discrimination against women directors, the current status of that effort, and potential outcomes. This presentation set the stage for possible legal remedies for discrimination, and provided a frame for brainstorming the most effective advocacy strategies during the breakout discussions.
The heart of the Summit was the “Working Group Sessions” in which the whole assembly broke out into nine groups of about 12 participants including a facilitator and a scribe. These sessions were held at various Provincetown inns and venues and lasted approximately three to four hours. Each group was assigned to come up with five or so proposals to create immediately actionable solutions to gender inequity in Hollywood and the proposals could include anything. Massachusetts State Rep. Paul Heroux was on hand for two of the groups, and each group included a lawyer and representatives from a multitude of sectors of society, including law, government, business, tech, non-profit, the arts, news media, entertainment media, and others.
That evening, producer Rachel Watanabe-Batton introduced the 25th Anniversary Restoration of Julie Dash’s 1991 masterpiece film, “Daughters of the Dust,” which was the first feature film directed by an African American woman that went into wide release.
On Sunday morning each working group took the stage at our Summit Headquarters and presented the results of their breakout session. An expert facilitator, Marijean Lauzier, led the entire assembly in a wrapping-up session in which the more than 45 different proposals were pared down to seven resolutions that the Women’s Media Summit will pursue and put into action immediately. The results of all the sessions are to be published in a “white paper” document and presented to the public in June.
The crowning event of the entire Summit was a profoundly moving and transformative Keynote Speech by actor Alysia Reiner (“Equity,” “Orange Is the New Black”). Chief among many other inspiring messages in Reiner’s speech was the lesson that each one of us possesses the ability to create and recreate our own personal narratives. Just as we women as a collective must take possession of our stories that make up our cultural narrative, we must also do that for ourselves, in our own lives, on a daily basis.
On a last note, Summit participants will never forget Victoria Hochberg’s amazing observation that First Lady Abigail Adams’ famous 1776 letter counseling her husband, President John Adams, “do not forget the ladies” as he helped pen the U.S. Constitution shared the very same date as our inaugural Women’s Media Summit opening — March 31! Coincidence? You tell me.
See you next year at the 2018 Annual Women’s Media Summit in Provincetown, Massachusetts. In the meantime, check out these suggested readings. We won’t give up until the problem is solved!
Maria Giese wrote and directed the 1996 feature film “When Saturday Comes,” starring Sean Bean and Pete Postlethwaite, and the award-winning digital feature film “Hunger,” based on the novel by Nobel Prize-winner Knut Hamsun. She has also directed two Cine Gold Eagle winning short films and has written three screenplays which have been produced into feature films.
In 2011 she turned her attention to the underrepresentation of women directors in United States media. She began researching and writing about viable legal strategies to remediate illegal discrimination against women in Hollywood, citing Title VII. Finally, in 2015, after four years of activism in the Directors Guild of America, Giese became the person who instigated the biggest industry-wide federal investigation for women directors in Hollywood history.
Guest Post: A Summary of the Inaugural Women’s Media Summit was originally published in Women and Hollywood on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.