Women in Film – Lifting Hollywood’s Act

Image by Mariam Rizvi

“It’s not rocket science darling. We’re just asking you to be thin and curvy, sexy and innocent!”

The would-be director Catherine Tate yells as she looks to cast her female lead in LEADING LADY PARTS – the first in a series of short films that will centre on gender inequality in the workplace. It’s a clever and funny skit, which in seven minutes covers female objectification, sexism, ageism and racism in the arts. As women front the audition room for the Leading Lady Part – a “thin, sexy hooker virgin with boobs and hips, but not big ones” – they are asked to smile more, act with more makeup and fewer clothes, and to read it again, “but more white”.

The timing of the skit’s release is excellent. It has been almost a year since #MeToo spread virally across social media, and the setbacks faced by women in acting are more in the open now than they have ever been.

This has been a fantastic year for quality roles and on-screen diversity. We’ve had Ruth Bader-Ginsberg’s biographical drama On the Basis of Sex, the all-female heist of Ocean’s 8, and the new comedy Crazy Rich Asians is the first major studio movie in 25 years to feature a predominantly Asian-American and Asian cast.

As a young woman, I’ve been particularly impressed with the recent quality of teen movies. Watching Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird at the beginning of this year, I was moved by the smallest of details, like the undisguised acne dotting the skin of the titular character. It was a small way of revealing a hint of truth about the teenage experience, and it says a lot about the traditional portrayal of young women on screen that this makeup choice – or lack thereof – made headlines.

In the same genre, it’s clear that Netflix is also deliberately trying to diversify the stories and actresses it showcases. Aside from the way To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before manages to pull off just about every romantic trope in the book, it’s impressive for turning away from the blindingly white casts of most teen movies by revolving around a Korean-American heroine. It’s being followed up with Sierra Burgess is a Loser, which stars Stranger Things’ Shannon Purser as a teenage girl struggling with college applications, falling in love, and the impossibility of living up to modern beauty standards.

The actresses starring in these roles are aware of how important they are, and the impact they can have on changing the expectations society holds for women. The latest photo on Purser’s Instagram is an untouched ad for the lingerie and swimwear brand, Aerie. She captions it, “So yeah. I don’t have an airbrushed body. I have stretch marks and cellulite and curves. And I’m beautiful.” To All The Boys’ lead, Lana Condor, has commented on the effects of a lack of on-screen diversity. “I just thought it was normal,” she said.  “My whole reason for doing this is so girls who look like me feel seen.”

That said, Netflix’s fat-shaming series, Insatiable, has been panned by critics with a backlash that apparently caught its lead by surprise, so the streaming giant isn’t doing everything right.  The setbacks and misrepresentation of women across the acting profession are by no means disappearing.

Last week, over 3,000 people signed an open letter calling for the end of Hollywood’s “egregious” pay gap. The petition is supported by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the American Association of University Women, and Women in Hollywood. While it is pay discrepancies between leading male and female actors that have been the attention of public outcry, the pay gap covers every aspect of the acting industry. A study commissioned by Local 871 found those in production fields commonly populated by women receive less pay than those in similar but male-heavy fields like assistant directors and location managers.

Time’s Up has brought huge attention to the difficulties faced by survivors of sexual assault and harassment in the workplace and aims to provide those survivors with support in pursuing their claims. It’s difficult, however, to foresee those difficulties fading any time soon.

#MeToo in Hollywood has demonstrated time and time again how power dynamics dominate the entertainment industry. Women who simply want to pursue a career are manipulated and silenced.

“Me too” are the final words in Leading Lady Parts – it’s fitting for the Time’s Up inspired work. It can only be hoped that the next workplaces depicted in the series are depicted with just as much hard-hitting hilarity.