These are the women challenging creative inequality
The series of allegations against movie producer, Harvey Weinstein ignited protest movements across the world against sexual harassment and assault within the film industry. But such incidents are not just confined to Hollywood. For women in creative fields, both misogyny and abuse are not uncommon. In a predominantly male industry, a lack of mentors and a gender imbalance is making it harder for women to get ahead.
When news of the Harvey Weinstein scandal first broke in October 2017, women across the world reacted in horror as the extent of the Hollywood mogul’s suspected exploitations were revealed. In the months to come, more than 80 women would come forward claiming they were either sexually harassed or assaulted at the hands of Weinstein. But as a shocking a tale as it was, women in the industry weren’t surprised. When countless women both in the US and abroad began sharing their own stories online of bullying and harassment under the hashtag #MeToo, it was clear this wasn’t an isolated case — nor was it exclusive to the film industry in the United States. For many women in the creative industries, sexual harassment is just the tip of the iceberg in a sea of glaciers. In a largely male-dominated industry, females in film, music and literature often find themselves having to contend with bullying and discrimination, with some suggesting the male gaze has permeated the industry at the expense of their careers. In the midst of the Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo movement, a handful of Kiwi women are now working towards a more inclusive and safe industry for women. By speaking out about their own experiences, promoting female talent and providing a platform for their voices to be heard, these are the women hoping to change the face of New Zealand’s creative industries for the better.
As a female film producer in New Zealand, Emma Slade understands the challenges women in the industry can face. She’s the head of Firefly Films, a New Zealand production company and the newly appointed spokesperson for the recently launched SWAG (Screen Women’s Action Group). Launched in response to the #MeToo movement, SWAG is the result of an online discussion amongst local women in the industry concerned about sexual harassment in the workplace. “We knew there were discussions going on in our various guilds and governing bodies about how to respond to the #MeToo movement but there was no direct consultation with the screen workers,” explains Slade. ”So we decided to form a group to do this work ourselves, and feed ideas and concerns from the grassroots back to our representatives.” While Slade says it’s difficult to pinpoint the prevalence of sexual harassment in the New Zealand film industry due to a lack of data, research in the United States paints a clear picture of the harassment problem in Hollywood. In a survey of 850 women in the industry, 94 percent of those questioned said they had experienced sexual assault or harassment. The survey, which was conducted by USA Today in conjunction with the Creative Coalition, Women in Film and Television, and the National Sexual Violence Resource Centre, also suggests along with other research, that women do not report their experiences. Only one in four surveyed confirmed they made a complaint and of those who did complain, just 28 percent said their situation improved as a result. The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission also estimates up to 94 percent victims do not lodge complaints, with women reluctant to come forward for various reasons. While some women fear reprisals and others simply feel ashamed, both victims and experts agree the reality is most do not feel it is worth speaking up. In a comprehensive 2016 report on harassment at work, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported 75 percent of employees who spoke out against workplace mistreatment also fell victim to some form of retaliation.
In the case of Harvey Weinstein’s victims, the aftermath of the scandal has exposed the harsh reality many women face after speaking out about their experiences. As reports began to surface in the media that many celebrities were aware of Weinstein’s behaviour for decades, some speculated how much Hollywood cared about the attacks and harassment experienced by young actresses. Others questioned why the victims themselves did not come forward sooner. But Slade says it is pivotal that women support one another, and for both men and women to cease victim-blaming. “People do the best they can and we can’t judge women for not complaining or learning to be thick-skinned, that’s just survival in a hostile environment. I think most women know what that’s like,” she says. “Some women might excuse that behaviour, or even perpetuate it but I guess we can’t expect all women to be onside. It’s important not to fall into a ‘women versus men’-type of thinking. Plenty of men have experienced sexual harassment and plenty of men are totally onside with us.”
Closer to home, the limited research available suggests the number of sexual harassment and assault cases in the industry are relatively high. “Do we have a Harvey Weinstein? We don’t know but as part of our campaign, we’ve been running a survey across the screen sector and from around 450 responses, the stats show that one in three respondents (all genders) have experienced sexual harassment in the last ten years, and two in three have either witnessed or experienced it. That’s pretty alarming.” While New Zealand may not have a Weinstein of its own, the issue of harassment and how to manage it is something SWAG hopes to bring forward to key industry figures and organisations. One suggested method is to provide the right support for both victims and perpetrators. “If a perpetrator has been caught and convicted, that gives some resolution but it’s also important that perpetrators understand and own the effects of their behaviour,” she explains. “One of the areas SWAG wants to work on is requiring education for perpetrators, so there is a pathway to meaningful rehabilitation before they re-enter the workplace.” The action group is also working towards presenting industry figures with a range of suggested preventative measures, such as education and a code of conduct. Moreover, SWAG believes a more effective complaints structure needs to be in place and safety plans devised for at-risk areas in the industry. As Slade elaborates, there are certain risk factors for women in film that leave them vulnerable to harassment and assault. “We’ve identified three key ‘at risk’ environments – where there is a disproportionate imbalance of power, where there is physical isolation and where there is an extreme gender imbalance,” says the producer and spokesperson. These factors, combined with the prolific use of drugs and alcohol within the industry and an often informal work environment, are thought to be the largest risk factors for women.
Indeed, many women in entertainment believe harassment is a symptom of the underlying misogyny within the creative industries. The overall lack of women working in creative fields is thought to be one of the main contributing factors. “Women’s portrayal on screen and who writes the stories, and who chooses the stories is another whole issue but of course, it folds directly into this one. Until we commonly hear and see women in our culture holding 50 percent of the power, we’ll be battling against the norm that men are in the ones in charge and women must be compliant to their needs in order to get ahead.” Looking at statistics, there is no question the industry is predominantly comprised of men in certain sectors. In an annual report on gender representation in film by the Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, female actors were revealed to account for 24 percent of lead roles out of the 100 highest-grossing films for 2017. While in New Zealand, just 26 percent of films funded by the Film Commission in 2016 were directed by women. Unfortunately, it’s not just areas of the film industry struggling to keep numbers of female creatives up. Within the music industry, the problem has become so glaringly obvious, fans are Photoshopping out male acts from festival posters to point out just how few female musicians are performing. In January this year, a Twitter post about Wireless Music Festival in London went viral when a Photoshopped poster revealed just three acts were female in a lineup of over 40 performers. One exception to the rule in general, however, is publishing. Women are said to account for 78 percent of the publishing industry in the USA, according to 2016 research by multicultural children’s publisher, Lee & Low, which surveyed staff at 34 American publishers, including big names like Penguin Random House and Hachette. However, research by the likes of the Australian National University, Monash University and acclaimed author, Nicola Griffith show male authors are still more likely than their female counterparts to have work featured in published reviews and win awards.
Whether or not the gender divide is the result of sexism is, of course, up for debate for some. But to combat the issue, women are now forming their own creative circles. Broods singer, Georgia Nott, is one such woman. Like many female creatives, Nott was tired of feeling like a minority — so she decided to release an album solely created by women. From the album’s illustrator, Ashley Lukashevsky to the project’s manager, Sherry Elbehe, the singer’s first solo album, The Venus Project, is entirely female made. “To be honest, I thought, ‘Why hasn’t this been done before? And I was like, ‘I’ll just do it,” explains the Kiwi alternative artist, who says working on the album made her realise just how few women there are in the industry. “I don’t even feel like that’s an assumption or a lie. Like you look at the statistics, and it’s pretty dire; the amount of female producers that are making a name for themselves in mainstream music. Or you listen to alternative radio here in The States, and it’s very rarely that you hear a female voice even. And look at the Grammy’s — I looked through the list of the main winners, and I was like ‘Wow, that’s a bit sad.’”
Not the first local female artist to notice the gender divide, the Broods musician is joined by singer-songwriter, Gin Wigmore, who has also just released a project celebrating creative women. For her latest album, the musician joined forces with five other artistic females to create original pieces of art inspired by five tracks from her newest release, Ivory. From collaborations with San Diego tattooist, Briana Sargent to New York City cartoonist, Liana Finck, the #GIRLGANG project is a celebration of female talent. But as Wigmore explains in an interview with Radio NZ earlier this year, it was also inspired by the challenges involved with being a woman working in the arts. The musician wants to encourage women to work together, rather than to view one another as competition in an already tough industry. “This project was a way to bring us together, celebrate women, realise and show the world that there is room for everyone. That there is room for all of us. There are ways to make and create art joyously rather than competitively.”
It’s easy to see where the inspiration for both Georgia Nott and Gin Wigmore’s albums came from. In a gender gap rivalling only that of Hollywood, a recent survey conducted by the University of Southern California looking at the US Billboard Hot 100 and the Grammy Awards show women make up less than a quarter of artists. They also only account for only one in eight songwriters. Why numbers are so low is unclear. However, some leading industry figures and female artists suggest exclusion and intimidation prevent many women from achieving a career within the industry. Guitarist and singer-songwriter, Laura Marling, discusses the reasons why women are less successful in music than their male counterparts in her podcast, Reversal of the Muse. “If you prevent women from seeing any examples of them achieving, then it prevents them from believing they can achieve it,” she explains. “In my experience, there are surface visible things, like touring on my own and then realising that all the people I perform with are men. Or that I wasn’t encouraged as much to play the guitar as men,” says Marling. “For women to achieve, they have to go around that bump; they have to be as good, if not better, than their male counterparts.”
It’s a struggle Nott is all too familiar with. At times, the 23-year-old musician found herself questioning why she was so lucky to be successful in music when so many others haven’t. For a period, the singer found herself downplaying her talent because of this. “For four years, I was putting myself down,” says Nott, who explains how evaluating her thinking process helped to snap her out of it. “Why do I keep telling people that I think I’m average, when I know deep down that I think I’m brilliant at what I do? And why am I pretending that I’m worth less because I’m a 23-year-old woman amongst a lot of older men that have been in this industry longer than me?” Eventually, this self doubt would become the inspiration behind the Broods singer’s debut album. “I like to believe that women are incredible at music, and women are amazing artists. I don’t want young women to grow up thinking that there’s no place for them here, because there is,” she explains. “And I think, that essentially, is the reason why I was doing this — to say that and to show that there is a place. And I hope that people grasp onto that message; to stop apologising for being confident in themselves and confident in their abilities.”
Unfortunately for some successful female musicians, getting to the top also means conquering abuse and harassment like their acting peers. In 2014, it was reported popstar Kesha sued her songwriter-producer Dr Luke (Lukasz Gottwald) claiming he had ‘sexually, physically, verbally and emotionally abused’ her ‘to the point where she nearly lost her life.’ The aim of the court case was to cease the contract binding Kesha to Dr Luke’s label. But when the producer countersued her for defamation, strenuously denying her claims, and the court ruled Kesha had to remain in her contract with Dr Luke, an outpouring of women took over the internet with the hashtag #FreeKesha. Fellow female musicians like Lady Gaga, Lily Allen, Kelly Clarkson and Lorde publicly offered support and donations, with Lady Gaga confirming she too was sexually assaulted by an unnamed musician at age 19. The lawsuit also shone a spotlight on another seedy underbelly of the industry — the pressure faced by young female artists to maintain a commercially appealing image by losing weight and wearing sexy clothing. In a particularly disturbing testimony, Kesha alleges Dr Luke continually ‘bombarded’ her with insults about her weight to the point where she developed an eating disorder. Sadly, tales of body shaming are rampant within both the music and film industries. Following the Harvey Weinstein revelations, actress Jennifer Lawrence revealed she faced a similar situation early in her career. Speaking at Elle’s Women in Hollywood event last year, The Hunger Games star said she was made to stand in a nude line-up for a role and told to lose weight by film producers. She was then supposedly told by the producer to use the naked photos of herself as inspiration for a diet. Describing the experience as both degrading and humiliating, Lawrence believes it is only now that she has fame that she is protected from assault.
But it’s not just the pressure to conform to a certain image preventing women from moving up the ranks. Even in an industry like publishing, where women do hold the majority of roles and looks shouldn’t be important, many writers and industry experts believe men still hold the power. A 2016 study by Dr Julieanne Lamond from the Australian National University and Dr Melinda Harvey of Monash University, suggests there is bias against women’s work. The study, which is not the first of its kind to produce such results, looked at patterns in leading Australian publications from 1985 to 2013. The researchers found male writers were more likely to be featured in reviews. Interestingly, the research doesn’t seem to coincide with industry sale figures. For an industry in which women make up two-thirds of book sales in countries like Britain, it is unusual that women’s work isn’t more heavily promoted. But for some female writers and experts in literature, it is evidence the male gaze is very much at work — writing by men is simply considered more culturally important. Back in 2011, Nobel prize winner and author, VS Naipaul caused controversy when he expressed this very thought in an interview with Royal Geographic Society. “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me.” The Trinidad author of A House for Mr Biswas, also said he knew this because of women’s “sentimentality” and “narrow view of the world.” He went on to explain “And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too.”
In a response to comments like that of Naipaul’s, Second Wave feminists back in the 1960s began forming their own bookshops to promote women’s writing. Carole Beu is a local pioneer of the feminist bookstore movement. Today her Auckland store, The Women’s Bookshop, is the only one of its kind in left in the country. But the business owner believes it is just as relevant as ever. “Society is still patriarchal. Men are still considered to talk seriously and write seriously, women gossip and what women write is about ‘women’s stuff.’” The belief that women’s writing is simply not taken as seriously as that of their male peers is a common complaint made by women in the industry, who feel this is also reflected in the way female authors are promoted. The term, ‘chick lit’, which is commonly used to describe stories about domestic life, is viewed as dismissive and derogatory because it implies women are only good at writing about ‘women’s subjects.’ As Wellington writer and critic, Anne Else explains in a 2015 interview with Stuff, this comes back down to how women’s roles in society are viewed. “The idea that private life is a great deal less important persists because it’s still possible for men to devote their lives to what they see as important in the wider world, with a bit of private life on the side that they can take or leave when they feel like it.”
Those sharing similar views to Else also believe this attitude is reflected in literary awards. A 2015 analyses of literary prizes found novels featuring a male narratives are more likely to win major literary prizes. The analysis, which looked at six major award winners over the last 15 years, was undertaken by renowned author Nicola Griffith. Inspired by Griffith’s findings, Christchurch novelist Rachael King began examining the New Zealand Book Awards. She found that although the major prize had gone to ten women in the past 15 years, protagonists in the books were still overwhelmingly male. For Carole Beau, findings such as these are unlikely to be a surprise. Since opening her store in 1989, the Aucklander has been working tirelessly to promote what she calls ‘stories by women for women.’ “We’re very consciously promoting women writers. Every year, we do our faves and raves for the year and they’re always women writers. I won’t allow men on there because I think men get enough promotion.” To promote women’s writing, The Women’s Bookshop hosts two ‘Ladie’s Litera-teas’ a year, an afternoon tea event celebrating new releases by Kiwi female authors. The store also holds a nationwide survey every five years, asking readers to share their favourite women.
Despite consciously making an effort to promote women’s creative work, Beau insists she has many men who are customers and also publishes stories by male writers. She admits that the bookshop’s name is perhaps a misnomer but she would never change it due to the large community it has garnered. Evidently, without this community, Beau’s store may have met the fate of the many others, which closed after the Second Wave feminist movement ended. “I found that [community] hugely helpful when I actually started in publishing. A lot of women gave me a huge amount of advice because I didn’t know anything about running a business,” explains Beau. Like Slade and Nott, Beau sees the value in providing safe and supportive creative communities for women. Arguably, it is this very sense of community, which is needed to encourage more women to succeed creatively. While movements like #MeToo have certainly brought the discussion of sexual harassment in film to the mainstream, it is clear more action is needed to end the systematic misogyny at the heart of the entertainment business. Sexualization of artists, a lack of mentors and gender imbalance are just some of the obstacles women continue to face within creative fields. Moreover, as research within the literature field suggests, gender bias is impacting the way women’s work is perceived. In simple terms, it is an issue, which is unlikely to be resolved overnight. But through the continual work of women like Beu, Nott, Wigmore and Slade, there is a good chance this community will grow.