At the Toronto International Film Festival, hundreds of entertainment lovers gathered on a chilly Saturday morning for yet another demonstration calling for gender equality in Hollywood.
Amma Asante, the director of the upcoming World War II drama “Where Hands Touch,” admitted she didn’t really want to be there.
“Oh, to live in a world where any black woman creator, any woman artist, did not have to stand on a platform,” she said onstage at the Share Her Journey rally.
More than 22,000 people participated in the festival’s rally, either in person or online, because the fight for representation in the entertainment industry isn’t just about creating more female characters or telling more female stories. It’s also not just about hiring more female directors, writers, cinematographers, executives and crew members (though that’s important too).
It’s the fact that, because film and television are America’s major cultural exports, the way women are treated in this space spills over into countless other industries and areas of life. If movies and shows are how we tell stories to ourselves and others, what we’re saying about the value and potential of women is abysmal at best.
This fact-based phenomenon is outlined in “This Changes Everything,” a documentary that debuted at TIFF after the rally. Using data compiled by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, the movie offers a bird’s-eye view of how Hollywood’s unconscious gender bias affects everything, from the lack of equal representation on and offscreen, to the ubiquitous self-hatred and early sexualization that women experience.
Davis founded her nonprofit research organization in reaction to watching children’s programming with her daughter. She noticed a glaring omission of female characters, and the few who are onscreen don’t really have much to do.
“It’s like a bad restaurant: not only is the food so bad, but the portions are so small,” Davis, an executive producer of “This Changes Everything,” says.
Likewise, the crafting of female characters with jobs in male-dominated fields has considerable real-life effects: Grey’s Anatomy spurred more women to pursue medical careers, The X-Files funneled females into STEM professions, and the forensic science field welcomed an influx of women who grew up watching Marg Helgenberger in “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and Emily Deschanel in “Bones.”
Such representation can really help break the glass ceilings — self-imposed or otherwise: in the documentary, Tiffany Haddish recounts the moment she saw Diahann Carroll going toe-to-toe with Joan Collins in Dynasty: “This is the first time I see a black woman with money, wearing diamonds, she’s having conversations with white women like she not even black … That’s when I started thinking, ‘Oh, I can be anything.’”
The documentary, which is eyeing a release later this year, serves as a comprehensive and effective introduction to the multi-pronged issue. By interspersing headshaking anecdotes from beloved actresses — Taraji P. Henson, Cate Blanchett, Sandra Oh, Chloe Grace Moretz, Tracee Ellis Ross, Marisa Tomei and Meryl Streep, to name just a few — with standout clips from top-grossing movies, the audience can’t help but see their media diet differently, questioning what it is that they’ve always been fed.
Davis says that skepticism should be practiced prevalently, regardless of age. “When I watch something with my kids, I serve as their media literacy coach and ask, ‘Did you notice there’s only boys in that scene? Can girls do what those boys are doing? If she’s gonna rescue somebody, why do you think she’s wearing that?’” she says.
Director Tom Donahue adds that viewers should consume content carefully, since money talks loudest in this business. “Otherwise, you’re giving money to a studio that’s making that product, and they’ll just keep making products like that one.”
“This Changes Everything” includes the ACLU-supported observation that gender discrimination in the entertainment industry is directly linked to the equity and parity issues women face in every other work sector (but is not enforceable under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act) and also applauds Shonda Rhimes, Reese Witherspoon, Jessica Chastain, Natalie Portman, Rashida Jones, The Original Six and more for combating the industry’s gender inequality in their own ways. And yet, one has to wonder: why is this documentary directed by a man?
Donahue, who also helmed a doc on the military’s failed mental health policies and the rise of PTSD-related suicides, says that he’s not trying to take a directing gig away from a woman, but aims to act as an ally. “This is not a male-female issue; this is a social justice issue that affects everybody in the world, and we all need to come together in solidarity to solve it,” says Donahue.