WASHINGTON — The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements address the sexual harassment and abuse of women by powerful men in Hollywood and elsewhere today. But systemic sexism in the film industry goes back decades, influencing how stories have been told on the silver screen.
Consider the cartoon Pepe Le Pew, about a persistent skunk in relentless pursuit of Penelope Pussycat. When the TV series first appeared, more than half a century ago, it was considered cute and romantic.
Today’s audiences find the skunk’s unwanted advances creepy, and reflect female characters as passive sexual objects, said George Mason University professor Lisa Koch.
Domestic abuse and patronizing behavior of husbands toward their wives were often glorified as passionate relationships, Koch added, such as in the narrative of the 1939 epic drama Gone with the Wind. The character of Rhett Butler, played by Clark Gable, is derisive and controlling toward his on-screen wife, Scarlett O Hara, played by Vivien Leigh. She is scripted as petulant, erratic and manipulative.
Hollywood glamorized and validated the hypermasculine male character who had to rein in the manipulative and childlike female characters, Koch said.
On screen, behind the scenes
Sexism and abuse on screen also reflected the pervasive sexual abuse actresses often endured behind the scenes, said Giovanna Chesler, director of film and video studies at George Mason University.
“You read about how Bertolucci and Marlon Brando had an arrangement for their actress in Last Tango in Paris. They knew that this would be a rape scene they would be filming but she (actress Maria Schneider) did not.” Chesler was referring to Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci as well as U.S. actor Brando.
In her 2016 autobiography, Tippi Hedren: A Memoir, the actress who was Alfred Hitchcock’s main muse and star of his films The Birds and Marnie, writes that when she turned down the filmmaker’s sexual advances, he threatened to destroy her career.
Chesler says this pervasive culture of sexism and blackmail produced men like Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein.
“He was the Oscar maker and he anointed all of these actresses into Oscar-producing roles.” Chesler said. “They thought that once they really broke through, they would get out of being sexualized on screen. How ironic that in order to do so, they had to deal with this predator.”
Dozens of women have accused the disgraced Hollywood studio boss of sexual misconduct that includes harassment and assault. Earlier this year, Weinstein was indicted on sex crimes charges but remains free on bail while he fights the accusations.
Since the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements began, many films have offered more nuanced and textured female characters and are telling more women’s stories.
But activists say more needs to be done to increase women’s equitable treatment in Hollywood. Lisa Koch says there is definitely power in the number of women who are uniting against sexism and sexual abuse from all walks of life.
“It started with 300 women in Hollywood,” she said. “It has expanded dramatically, so 700,000 farm laborers pledged their support and that is just one example across the spectrum. Within the first 60 days, the movement raised $21 million in financial backing.”
Activist and filmmaker Shannon Lee says female producers and behind-the-scenes artists are offering women jobs, equal pay and creative expression, such as film producer Ava DuVernay, who has an artist collective that distributes films and mandates that all the directors be female.
Lee cautions, however, that sexism against women in the workplace is too pervasive to change overnight.
“When there is an imbalance of power, there is an abuse of power. USA Today did a survey that came out in 2017 saying that 94 percent of women in the film industry have had some experience of sexual harassment or sexual assault,” Lee said.
Koch offers another statistic: “Ninety-five percent of Hollywood directors are men, 18 percent of those involved in film production as directors, producers, writers cinematographers, editors, are women.”
Both women say the goal in the industry is 50/50 by 2020.
“Where there is 50 percent male and 50 percent female, you don’t have the opportunity to this gross misconduct,” Lee said.
Sunu Chandy is the legal director of the National Women’s Law Center in Washington. She represents thousands of women who have come forward to seek legal support against sexual harassment and discrimination. She says both the #MeToo movement, where women openly addressed the abuse they suffered at the hands of men, and the #TimesUp movement, where sexual predators like Bill Cosby have been prosecuted and convicted for their crimes, are significant legal steps in establishing gender equity in Hollywood and elsewhere.
“Hiring women into roles that are traditionally male roles is absolutely something that we are pushing for,” Chandy said. “But if someone goes there and is sexually harassed and leaves, it’s continuing the problem. If the Time’s Up fund helps that case to come forward and be publicized and that company takes meaningful steps to create a better workplace, more women will be encouraged to apply there.”
Chandy says that although progress is being made in offering women the legal help and support they deserve, much still has to be done to bring about real change in the workplace, be it a factory, a farm or a Hollywood movie set.