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The Vicious Cycle Holding Female Directors Back

Revue du web

“Where are the women? ... We're here.”

The day her 1988 short film was nominated for an Oscar was the same day Matia Karrell found out her brother Roy had been diagnosed with HIV. The revelations were jarring — almost like something from a movie. The Academy Award nod helped in getting her an agent, and Karrell started directing episodic television, helming episodes of The Wonder Years and Doogie Howser, M.D. When Roy took a turn for the worse in 1989, she moved in with him and his boyfriend, and tried to keep working.

It was fine, for a while. But one day working on set after another all-nighter in the emergency room, she fell apart. “I realized then, I can't do both,” she recalled to BuzzFeed News calmly earlier this year. “I can't take care of these people and work.” She stopped directing and cared for her brother until his death in the summer of 1993.

In the years that followed, she worked as an assistant director as she toiled over a film based on Roy’s life; the small indie feature, Behind the Red Door, finally came out in 2003, but didn’t open new doors. A few years later, unable to land other directing opportunities, she spent months working to get into a TV director shadowing program. Out of that opportunity, she directed one 2006 episode of The West Wing. She then directed episodes of a soap opera, and then entered another shadowing program, where she observed men working a job she already knew how to do.


 
Courtesy of Matia Karrell

Matia Karrell

“It was almost like, if you're gonna work here, you have to shadow first,” she said. “I went through the ABC program. And I went in therewith a West Wing.” When she applied to the ABC program, she said she didn’t mention her Oscar nomination or the hours of television she’d directed in the 1990s because she worried people would see the credits as too old. The other two participants in the 2008 ABC program — both men — had directed 11-minute shorts; she’d directed a full-length Kiefer Sutherland movie. But, still, no one would hire her.

She’s not alone. Experienced women directors are penalized first for their gender, and then for the toll that bias takes on their careers; then they're penalized again if a child or a sick relative interrupts, and then they're forgotten. Karrell is part of a lost generation of women — middle-aged and accomplished directors like Zeinabu irene Davis, a Sundance 2000 alumna who pursued documentary work because there are fewer barriers to entry; or Patricia Cardoso, who was the toast of Hollywood with 2002's Real Women Have Curves; or Lynne Littman, a four-time Emmy winner whose short documentary won an Oscar in 1977. They’re women who have the experience to deliver great work but aren’t given the chance to continue to do so.

It happens in both television and film: A 2017 study from the University of Southern California's Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative found that female directors who made one film were significantly less likely to direct a second film than their male peers in a 10-year span. Supporting those numbers are stories from hotshot directors like Karyn Kusama andCatherine Hardwicke, who reaffirm that, even with critical buzz and box office chops, women face more obstacles than men in getting to — and staying in — the director’s chair.

And as experienced female directors languish, industry leaders have repeatedly said they’re committed to hiring more women. For instance, a full 36 years ago, the New York Timesreported that “studio heads … wanted to put themselves on record for supporting the women's aims.” In 2013, the head of Sony was interested in hiring women to direct films — or at the very least Kathryn Bigelow. In December, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy said she had “every intention” of hiring a woman to helm a Star Wars film.

Best intentions aside, there’s been virtually no improvement in hiring year over year. Only 17% of television episodes were directed by women in the 2015–2016 season, barely up from 16% the year before, according to the Directors Guild of America. The guild and several academic institutions have reported that women direct less than 8% of films. As these dismally low numbers get more and more embarrassing, one might expect executives to return to the female directors who, often for very gendered reasons, were shut out of careers.

“The challenges are still the same as if you were starting all over again.”
 

But current hiring practices do little to approach these invisible directors. Jeanne Mau, vice president of CBS’s Diversity Initiative, ruefully explained to BuzzFeed News that producers tend to look at a candidate’s most recent credits, and so for women who have had a lull in their career, “The challenges are still the same as if you were starting all over again.”

Furthermore, BuzzFeed News cross-checked the guild’s diversity report with IMDB. The site can be unreliable, but this review suggested that, of more than 700 episodes of TV directed by women in the 2015–2016 season, two-thirds were distributed among the same 59 women — which is to say that a small pool of female directors accounts for a huge amount of gender “diversity.” A DGA spokesperson could not confirm the number, but pointed to their study from the 2013–2014 season, which shows a similar pattern. The DGA found that in the 2015–2016 season 77% of first-time directors were men, a percentage that is almost identical to the previous six seasons. These hiring patterns will never bring about gender parity.

 

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