Uphill Battles: Ending the Gender Divide in Books and Film

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It hasn’t been a stellar week for women in the arts. Let me be more specific: It’s been a lousy week for female writers and women in the film industry.

Notwithstanding the Oscar that Meryl Streep earned for her depiction of England’s first female prime minister — a standout, bravura performance from the gold standard of acting, as I was bemoaning on Twitter about the dismally boring Oscar show, I was also keeping tabs on tweets from the Women’s Media Center.

Their stream of tweets reminded me, as I admired the beautiful gowns the women were wearing, of just how cruddy the state of the film industry is for women right now.

When the organization looked at the list of Oscar nominees in non-gender specific categories they discovered:

  • There were six categories in which not a single woman was nominated (directing, cinematography, documentary feature, original score, sound editing and visual effects).
  • There were five categories with only ONE female nominee (adapted screenplay, sound mixing, animated feature film, foreign language film and original song).
  • Categories where women outnumbered men (costume design, short subject documentary and art direction).

As each category was featured on the Oscar broadcast, the Women’s Media Center published a tweet reporting the grim Academy Awards stats. By the time The Artist was named best picture at the end of the show, a total of only three women had walked away with Oscars in non-gender specific categories (for art direction, documentary short and live action short film).

I suppose this shouldn’t have been surprising in light of the expose that the Los Angeles Times published just before the Academy Awards in which they’d uncovered some interesting demographic info about the 5,765 “voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences,” a voter list that’s, apparently, kept secret. The Times discovered that the voters are 94 percent white, 77 percent male and have an average age of 62. “People younger than 50 constitute just 14 percent of the membership,” the paper said. Men control “90 percent of five branches [of the organization’s 15 branches]” and “women make up 19 percent of the academy’s screenwriting branch,” 18 percent of the producers and 9 percent of the directors.

A couple days later, I read a tweet from bestselling author Jennifer Weiner reacting to a new study by a group called Vida which promotes women in literature. Vida learned that when it comes to women of letters, they’re just as overlooked as women in the film industry. Vida examined several marquee publications which review books and broke down what those organizations published in 2011 by way of reviews and author/book mentions. The gender disparity, particularly in publications well known for their political liberalism, was astonishing. Among the stats:

  • In 2011, the New York Review of Books published 133 articles about books written by men, 19 about books written by women. When you look at the reviewers, 201 of them were male and 53 were female.

 

  • At the New Yorker, 459 works by men received coverage as compared to 165 by women.

 

  • In the pages of The Nation, 293 books by men merited articles while 118 books by women were covered in articles.

 

  • The New Republic dedicated 198 articles to male authors and 50 to female authors.

 

  • Harper’s Magazine published 65 articles about books written by men and 13 articles about books by women authors.

 

  • One hundred and eighty-four books by men netted articles in The Atlantic while 64 by women were the subjects of articles.

 

This is an atmosphere where, in a recent review of a book about the Obamas’ marriage and Michelle Obama’s experience in the White House — written by New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor — the bestseller was marginalized by a male reviewer, historian David Brinkley, as “chick nonfiction.” Oh yes. It was.

All of this collective sludge enraged pop culture writer Melissa Silverstein, who frequently chronicles gender disparities in the movie and television industries. Writing on her Women & Hollywood web site, Silverstein lamented: “No matter how many times people try and convince me that things are better for women, every time I see new stats they just prove the opposite. Women’s progress has plateaued. You’ve seen the stats on women in the entertainment business. You see how few women there are running corporations. You see how few women are making it in politics. It’s like there is one giant conspiracy — intentional or not — that says you girls have gotten far enough, be happy with what you’ve got, now shut up and leave us alone to go and pilfer another country and start another war.”

Full disclosure: I’m in the process of trying to find a literary agent to represent my unpublished novel and when I take a gander at all these numbers it’s extremely dispiriting. It makes me wonder if I should seriously consider scrubbing my first name from my proposal. But as I look at my sporty, girl-power, 13-year-old daughter – who recently asked me why there are “women’s fiction” and “chick lit” categories yet no male equivalent genres – I want to make a good choice that makes her proud, that might help make things easier for her peers who might enter the world of film or letters in the future, but these realities are pretty stark. And depressing.

Had publishers marketed J.K. Rowling’s first book as by “Joanne Rowling” would “Harry Potter” be a household name?

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