Film Forward

Sexism In Hollywood Is Still Pervasive. Here’s What’s Changing And What Still Needs Work.

“Nobody says, ‘This is abusive. This is awful. This is toxic. This is dark. Let’s shake it out. Let’s confront what's raw.’ ”

If 2017 has proved anything so far, it's that sexism in film and TV doesn't always show up on screen. Sexual harassment, misconduct, abuse, and assault are all facets of sexism in the film industry — on top of the ever-present issues of the quantity and quality of female representation in movies and television shows. 


The sexism stories, examples, and statistics below show how long these problems have gone unaddressed, how hard women are working to expose and solve them, and how much further we have to go.

Women are underrepresented on screen

As for sexism in movies, In the 100 top-grossing releases of 2016, only 29 percent of protagonists are female, the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film found.

Women are underrepresented behind the scenes, too

Secondly, women account for 52 percent of moviegoers, according to the Motion Picture Association of America; but out of the 100 top-grossing films of 2016, women represented only 4 percent of directors and 11 percent of writers.

That's the situation for women in film, but it isn't much better for women on TV. Women represent only 27 percent of the creators, directors, writers, producers, editors, and directors of photography for broadcast TV shows in the 2015-2016 season.

Women aren’t equitably celebrated at award shows

Third, only four women have ever been nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards — Lina Wertmüller, Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola, and Kathryn Bigelow — and of that list, only Bigelow has won. This sexism in movies is an indication of a lack of opportunities and a lack of acknowledgment.

Men are often celebrated, even if they’re accused of sexual misconduct

"Let's [talk about] the Oscars and that whole institution of film festivals," producer Mara Brock Akil told The Hollywood Reporter in a roundtable discussion with other female industry forces

"Think about it: Powerful, rich men get to go to the most glamorous spots around the world to have beautiful ingenues, bejeweled and adorned in the finest of wares … 'I'm making deals in the day and raping women at night and then I go get this award.' And we keep giving it to pedophiles and other rapists."

Sexism is insidious in Hollywood, and not just at award shows

Fifth, sexism in Hollywood courses through the entire creation process, rearing its ugly head at the writers' room and at at the negotiation table.

"It's very commonplace in a writers room for someone to say, 'Let's gangbang this bitch,' " Akil said. "What they mean is, 'Let's all work together to write a script.' "

In a separate THR roundtable with actresses talking about sexism, Jessica Chastain pointed out how her agents only send the names of male writers to production company because men are paid more and the agents get a cut of the profit.

Before now, people hardly talked openly about the problem

"I remember casting a pilot at ABC, when Steve McPherson was the president, and [having] open conversations about 'fuckability,' " Grey's Anatomy showrunner Krista Vernoff said on the topic of sexism in film and TV.

"Nobody says, 'This is not OK.' Nobody says, 'Hey, let's take a break. This is abusive. This is awful. This is toxic. This is dark. Let's shake it out. Let's confront what's raw.' "

Women still have the burden of the work

"Oftentimes women, not only do we have to suffer the trauma, we have to deal with the trauma, unpack the trauma, therapize the trauma, work through the trauma," Akil said.

Meanwhile, Chastain related a prescient anecdote she heard from Aaron Sorkin, the writer-director of her movie Molly's Game, who told his daughter to fight back against sexually abusive men: "And she turned to him and said, 'Dad, why are you teaching me to defend myself and not teaching those guys not to be creeps?' 

"The onus is on others not to abuse their power," the actress concluded.

Men need to get involved, too

"[Men are] going to be the best people to talk to, to talk the language, to understand the code, to understand what's going to get other men to do the right thing," Akil said in the roundtable about sexism in Hollywood.

"In the minds of the aggrieved male population, the word feminism sometimes qualifies as something for them to be defensive about, and I feel that men should be on the side of advancing half the human race," actress Meryl Streep says in the book The Female Lead: Women Who Shape Our World, per Refinery29.

"It's not just a women's issue — it's an issue for everyone."

Now that the problem of sexism in Hollywood is exposed, women are hopeful

"The really disappointing thing about all this is that [journalists and others in Hollywood] had all of this shit on all of these men and women … It's just been swept under the carpet," actress Saoirse Ronan told THR.

"Our most powerful women stood up and said, 'Not here, not anymore, enough of this,' and that monster came tumbling down, and I am so optimistic that this is the beginning of really turning over that ornate, beautiful carpet and cleaning out that mold that's making us all sick," Vernoff said in her roundtable.

"I believe that things will change because this is making other women say, 'Me too,' 'Me too,' 'Me too' " added singer Mary J. Blige, star of the movie Mudbound. "People are tired of sitting around with that secret that holds them prisoner."

Organizations are confronting sexism in film and TV, too, through thought and technology

"I'm proud to be a part of ReFrame. It was founded a couple of years ago, and we brought together 50 men and women in the industry to brainstorm because we all know what we want, but how do we get there?" producer Stephanie Allain told THR.

"We came up with a three-pronged approach which is: change the culture, make sure the pipeline of women and people of color is there, and make the business case."

Meanwhile, actress Geena Davis continues exposing gender inequity in on-screen representation through the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which uses an analytic technology called the GD-IQ.

"The GD-IQ is a tool that gives us the power to uncover unconscious gender bias with depth that has never been possible before," Davis said at this year's Women in Entertainment conference, per People's World. "Our hope is that we can use this technology to push the boundaries of how we identify the representation imbalance in media."

"We can address unconscious bias from the beginning," the Oscar winner continued. "The default in the industry is always male, but it doesn't have to be. Media can be the cure for the problem it's helped to create."

Cover photo via Sam McGhee | Unsplash

The ways we watch TV and movies have evolved, and it's time for the talent in front of and behind the camera to do the same. Film Forward speaks on the initiatives to diversify the film industry and the stories it tells. New articles premiere every second Thursday of — and throughout — the month.


Subscribe to our newsletter and get the latest news and exclusive updates.