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The Battle for Women’s Voices In Entertainment Media | Maria Giese | TEDxProvincetown


Translator: Ian Edwards
Reviewer: Rhonda Jacobs I’m a filmmaker, and I’m going to pitch you a story
that could change the world. It starts in the past
and it ends in the future, but how it’s going to turn out
is going to be up to you. Are you ready for it? (Audience) Yes! When I was just one year old,
President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act
of 1964 – Title VII – into law. Equal employment opportunity for women
was now guaranteed. It was revolutionary. It was the biggest legal step
forward for American women since we won the right
to vote in 1920. It meant my generation of women
could dream of pursuing careers Or, could we? Turns out for many of us, Title VII was and still is
just an illusion, especially in Hollywood,
the land of illusions, where I went to be a film director, but ended up making
my mark as a “troublemaker.” I’m the one who instigated
the biggest industry-wide investigation into discrimination against women
directors in Hollywood history. I exposed the legal infractions that stand at the heart
of the current gender problem in America’s dream machine – infractions that are
the killers of dreams. When I was a little girl,
my favorite thing to do was dream. Growing up near the rainforest
in Puerto Rico and the dunes of Cape Cod, I had vivid dreams. Watching my first films in movie
theaters felt a lot like dreaming. At age 14, I saw Swept Away –
a movie directed by a woman named Lina Wertmüller, and that’s what green lit my dream
to become a film director. By my 20s, I was relentlessly pursuing
that dream in Hollywood, starting as a student
in a five-year directing program at UCLA’s graduate film school. Thanks to another law, Title IX,
half my class was men and half my class was women. Still, I should have seen trouble ahead. Almost 100% of the films
we studied were directed by men, and virtually all our professors were men. Nevertheless, I was confident
that with hard work and determination, I would soon join the pantheon
of film directors I admired so much. At graduation, the legendary
Francis Ford Coppola handed me my Master of Fine Arts diploma. He shook my hand,
and he said, “Good luck.” (Laughter) I really, really didn’t think I’d need it. I was graduating at the top of my class carrying an armful
of writing and directing awards. I was handed $2 million to direct
my first feature film in England with A-list actors and a top British crew. My film, When Saturday Comes, screened
at Cannes and got theatrical distribution. I signed with the William Morris Agency in LA and was attached to direct several films. It was one of the best years of my life. It was 1995, and I was ready to launch. Well, who could have guessed
that 1995 would be the year the number of female director
hires hit its all-time peak. For the next 15 years, that number and my career
would go into steady decline. I would never work again
as a paid feature film director. I’d never direct a prime time TV show,
and I was dropped by my agency. I watched as men
who hadn’t directed a feature film and at a half of my training, became
wealthy and sought-after TV directors. I watched as my male classmates and peers
became the cinematic voices of our time. Believe me, I know the directing
profession is fiercely competitive – for guys, too. But as Manohla Dargis wrote
in The New York Times: “While individual men
struggle in the industry, women struggle as a group.” I became part of a lost generation of female voices in American
cinema and television. Marginalized as a group,
yet isolated from each other, we blamed ourselves
for our individual failures. But deep down, we wondered, could it be
the industry that was betraying us? Failing us? Cut to: 2011. I turned my director’s
chair toward activism. Here are the statistics
that fueled my anger. In 2012, women directed
only 13% of TV shows, just 4% of studio features, and a staggering 1% of the most
lucrative category of directing: top commercials. Men were directing almost
100% of our entertainment media. Women didn’t have a chance
for equal opportunity or fair competition. And women directors of color? Not even on the map. Turns out that Hollywood was, and still is, the worst violator of Title VII
of any industry in the United States – even the coal mining industry does better. It was time to become a troublemaker.
I had to blow the whistle. My fight was not just about me or the few thousand other
women directors missing out on jobs, it was my realization that the absence
of women directors in Hollywood was tantamount to the censoring
and silencing of female voices everywhere. Entertainment media is our nation’s
most culturally influential global export. It impacts the way people think
and treat each other all around the world. Without equal participation
of women’s voices in our storytelling, the world is getting
a skewed perspective of reality, leaving a two-class society
cleaved by gender. What about our nation’s founding
ideals of equality and justice? What about the promises
of our Constitution? I decided to make the personal political. Let me just give you a picture
of how Hollywood works. With my first feature film under my belt,
I spent hundreds of hours on set preparing to direct
the TV show Law & Order. But the executive producer
gave my hoped-for episode to his stepson instead. I asked him why he thought so few
women directors were getting hired and how to fix it. And he said, “It’s a real conundrum.
We just don’t know what to do about it.” And I thought, “A conundrum?
Why don’t you just start by hiring me?” The problem seemed so simple to solve: Hire more women. And what the heck was going on
with Title VII anyway? I decided to make the personal political. I headed to the courthouse in downtown LA to search for legal precedent
to challenge Hollywood. And I learned about
six courageous women directors who 30 years before had used Title VII to launch a class action lawsuit
against several major studios. The work of the Original Six
and the pressure of that legal action sent the number of female director hires
soaring from one half of one percent to 16 percent in just 10 years – from 1985 to 1995 –
the very year I graduated. So the uptick in numbers
didn’t last long enough to help me, but it indicated a real industry
vulnerability to legal action. Unfortunately, the law moves slowly,
and I wanted to move fast. I needed to trigger a paradigm shift in the way people think
about women directors. I wondered, if I turned the spotlight
on Title VII in Hollywood, could it become the small intervention
that sparks a major social transformation? In the age of high-speed communication
and networking, I thought so. So for the next two years, I articulated
the problem as a civil rights crisis. I started a blog and used social media
to marshal a community of women where there had been none before. I researched and wrote a legal brief. I wrote article after article exposing
the problem from every possible angle, and I reached out to mainstream
journalists to spread the word. Finally, when The New York Times
called my work “a veritable crusade,” I knew I was getting somewhere. By 2013, I was elected the first-ever
Women Directors category representative in my union – the Directors Guild of America. With a small group of brave
women directors, we spoke out. And we produced the biggest summit
for women directors ever held. Little did I know how entrenched
our male-dominated DGA had become. The guild leadership retaliated. They forbade us from taking
photographs at our summit, and they confiscated our contact list. They mandated bylaws to silence us
and shut down our activism. We were blacklisted in the very union
that is supposed to protect our rights. And we were not alone. Across the industry,
women who speak out, are out. Title VII can only work
where speaking out is possible. I mean think about it. If you can’t get a job
because you’re a woman, but invoking the law to defend
yourself means getting blacklisted, well, that means that law doesn’t work. It was time for a radical plot twist
and a new cast of characters. Enter the ACLU. In the spring of 2013, I took my evidence
to the American Civil Liberties Union and their senior attorneys
took the time to listen. They launched a massive two-year campaign
of research, advocacy and media awareness. Then, they sent a 15-page letter to the
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission of the United States
Department of Justice – the EEOC – calling for an industry-wide
federal investigation into systemic discrimination
against women directors. In May 2015, The New York Times
published that letter in full. It was groundbreaking. Five months later,
the EEOC answered the call. The investigation was on. (Cheers) (Applause) It wasn’t just news. It was front-page news.
And it rocked the industry. Agencies and unions
scrambled to cover their tracks. The studios and networks fell silent. By 2016, it was reported
that all six major studios had been officially charged
with rampant Title VII violations and were in settlement talks
with the federal government. That’s the good news. The bad news is, almost three years later,
we still don’t know the outcome. The EEOC functions
in total confidentiality. It’s like a black box. Information can go in,
but it can’t come out. So even though we women
are being represented by our government, once again, we aren’t invited
to the table to help design our future. So I really can’t predict
how this movie will end. But like all good blockbusters,
the plot has thickened. Thanks to the work
of the ACLU and the EEOC, speaking out became safer. In October 2017, almost two years
to the day after the investigation, The New York Times and The New Yorker published the exposés
that would galvanize the #MeToo movement. Harvey Weinstein became the star
of his own greatest horror film ever (Laughter) and the proxy for Hollywood’s
way of doing business. This “boy’s club” industry functions on a system
of personal relationships and reciprocity that keeps women sidelined, paid less, and vulnerable to exploitation –
like trading jobs for sex. Understanding the culture of misogyny and the structures
that keep women shut out makes fighting back possible. Thankfully, people are speaking out.
Their voices need to be heard. Remember the stepson that directed
that Law & Order episode? He turned that break
into a $10 million, 20-year career and was second in line to become
the president of my union, the Directors Guild of America. It all ended in 2016 when he plead guilty
to charges of child pornography. We need to ask ourselves,
“Whose law? Whose order?” Abuses against the vulnerable, sexual
harassment and assault in the workplace are caused by power imbalances that are rooted
in employment discrimination. The way our federal government
stands up to Hollywood now to make sure Title VII
is enforced can change everything. But the stakes are high. Hollywood studios pump hundreds
of millions of dollars each year into the pockets of lobbying
groups in Washington, DC, to represent their interests and avoid
the very government intervention that could shift the status quo. And it’s not just
our government’s problem. It’s not just our government’s job
to fix this broken system. We should all be part
of interrupting Hollywood. I believe that 20 years from now, we will see this as a time
of extraordinary change. The paradigm shift
I hoped for is happening. The signs are everywhere. For example, the world’s largest
advertiser – Procter & Gamble – that spent $7 billion on ads last year, has pledged to have half
of its commercials directed by women by 2023. (Cheers) (Applause) That is real action. And real change requires real action, real distribution of jobs to women and real enforcement of Title VII. Title VII is a revolutionary law. It is the intervention that could spark
a major social transformation. Because equal participation
of women in our cultural narrative means equal participation
of women in our power structure. (Applause) Let’s enforce this existing law
now to open the floodgates to a great new wave of female
voices and creative vision. Let’s use it to move humanity
toward a more just and equitable future through the stories we tell
and the people who tell them. And above all, let’s use it
so that people everywhere can believe that each one of our voices
has the potential to change the world. Because we are the stories we tell. Thank you. (Applause) (Cheers)

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Comments
  • Thank you, Ms. Giese, for adding your voice, blood, sweat and tears to move the dial for all of us. Life doesn't unfold the way we want sometimes but you stayed in when you didn't have to and when it wasn't easy and made the game better not just for yourself but for everyone.

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