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The Oscar Goes To…Civil Rights

Since the 2015 Oscar ceremony took place with its powerful speeches about womens’ rights and the ensuing #OscarSoWhite backlash, anticipation over who-will-wear-what has been rivalled by expectations of how politicised that year’s event will be.

Last night at its 90th edition, Hollywood laid bare its misogyny, from Jimmy Kimmel’s opening monologue including gags about Mel Gibson (“here’s how clueless Hollywood is about women. We made a movie called “What Women Want” and it starred Mel Gibson”) to best actress winner Frances McDormand’s call for an inclusion rider (a clause actors can put in their contracts  insisting on at least 50% diversity in the film’s cast and crew) to a segment promoting the #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns presented by actresses Ashley Judd, Salma Hayek and Annabella Sciorra, who have each accused film producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment.

Both these campaigns gained momentum after Weinstein’s history of sexual harrasment came to light in 2017. That he was able to lead three decades of unfettered abusive behaviour and alleged rape of co-workers and actresses speaks volumes of how Hollywood treats women. The root of the problem, says filmmaker Maria Giese, is in violations of employment rights.

In 2013 Giese went to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission armed with the facts and statistics that became the basis of a 2015 federal investigation into the discrimination of women in the film industry. She was spurred on by her own experience – while making films in Europe she didn’t encounter any prejudice, however the situation was completely different in Hollywood.

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This is because the US film industry is led by businesses who don’t feel obliged to hire women, totally disregarding Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, that forbids discrimination against employees on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion.

When Giese began her investigation she faced downright hostility from her own union, the Director’s Guild of America, who have a majority membership of white men (“if more women are getting directing jobs, that means fewer directing jobs for their male members, who are bringing in the most amount of money for the Guild” she explains). She took the case to the EEOC, before it progressed on to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), her aim being that gender inequality, the pay gap, and all associated forms of discrimination be recognised as civil rights issues.

Sexual harrassment will be the subject of a panel at the upcoming Women’s Media Summit in April, a yearly event that gathers filmmakers, lawmakers and academics to work on tackling gender inequality in media. “We want the discussion to lead toward defining sexual harassment in Hollywood as one of many symptoms of the central disease of unlawful Title VII violations and other systemic forms of gender employment inequality” Giese says.

“A panel on sexual harassment is essential to our 2018 summit, not just because in the past four months this topic has exploded into the public forum resulting in movements and organizations like #MeToo and #TimesUp, but also because it has always existed as critical smoking-gun evidence of how hiring functions in Hollywood, often based on reciprocity— quid pro quo arrangements intrinsic to business relationships characterized by power imbalances.”

Giese believes that the current feminist movements have partly been triggered by protest to the 2016 election of President Trump, but have also been gaining momentum since the federal investigation. “It is unlikely the movement would have caught hold in the final months of 2017 if the groundwork for widespread public sentiment supporting gender equal hiring and speaking out against employment abuses had not already been laid by the ACLU media campaign for women directors in Hollywood in the previous years.”

The major six studios are reportedly in settlement talks; meanwhile the movements continue to grow with more and more women coming forward to defend the basic tenet decreed over five decades ago that seems to have fallen by the way: the right to work without suffering any form of discrimination or abuse because of gender.

 

Leila Hawkins

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