BY SUSAN ESTRICH
Like most Americans, I haven’t seen “The Hurt Locker,” but I was still rooting for Kathryn Bigelow to claim the Best Director statue. This is, after all, 2010 – a little late in the day for “first women,” particularly in an industry that depends on women as much as men to buy tickets. If you believe the media accounts, another glass ceiling has now been broken. Were it only so simple.
Of course, it’s important to have “first women” – whether as Best Director or on the ticket or maybe even some day in the Oval Office. But what’s really important is to have second and third and fifth women – to get to the point where it’s just not a big deal. On that score, Hollywood isn’t even close.
The Oscars this year were run by men: two men producing, two men hosting. What else is new? Bigelow made her name doing action and adventure movies, beating the boys at their own game. Nothing wrong with that, except that it’s not a path many women can – or want – to follow. When I ask my pals who the next three Kathryn Bigelows will be, they look at me blankly.
A few weeks ago, the Hollywood studios settled a longstanding suit brought on behalf of older television writers [older is over 40] who, for the most part, can’t get arrested in this town. These are successful writers, with many credits to their names. But gray hair is simply not acceptable in a town obsessed with youth.
Last time I checked, a good many people over 40 were watching television, but they weren’t watching shows written by people their age. The settlement was good news for the lawyers who brought the suit, but as one of my friends [a 40-something woman] explained to me, for writers, it meant that if they filled out an extremely long form, they might get a few thousand dollars. What they won’t get is a job.
Age discrimination combines with sex discrimination to create a particularly bleak picture for women. If you haven’t made it by 40, you don’t. But then, if you haven’t had your kids by 40, you probably don’t do that, either.
It’s not that different in other professions, except that in Hollywood, the rules tend to be harsher, and no one’s even embarrassed by the blatant discrimination. “It’s the audience,” the older white men who run studios and agencies tell me all the time in explaining why no one hires women over 40. That’s what the airlines used to say, too, trying to justify their policies of only hiring young women as flight attendants: Passengers prefer pretty girls.
It’s also what I used to hear from law firms, in the bad old days, when they’d explain to me that there was only one slot for a woman – nothing personal – because most of their clients felt more comfortable with male lawyers. Of course, as it turned out, what passengers really want is to arrive safely; what clients really want is the best lawyer; what viewers really want is good entertainment. Catering to stereotypes and biases is hardly a justification for discrimination.
And then there are the women who suffer from “only woman in the room” syndrome, the women who run shows and could fill their writers’ rooms with whoever they want – and fill them with young white men. I’ve always believed that the point of breaking a glass ceiling is to clear up the shards so other women can get through without being bruised. But I am constantly disappointed by the number of women my age who think they somehow are more “special” if they remain the only woman in the room. Imagine a man thinking that way? Ridiculous.
The real test of Hollywood was not whether Kathryn Bigelow would win on Sunday, but how many women will be nominated next year, and how long it will take to go from “first woman” to “no big deal.” I’m not holding my breath.
– Susan Estrich’s columns appear regularly in The Oklahoma Observer