At a time when feminism is at the forefront of global conversation, gender inequality in Hollywood is of particular focus in the international media landscape. Many prominent women are revealing the systemic bias in the industry, and advocating for change. However, it is interesting and also significant, to investigate how such women have succeeded in the face of sexism and institutional challenges, to get where they are today. One such woman, Lena Dunham, is an anomaly in the global entertainment industry, and provides insight into the issues, as well as some of the solutions, for gender inequality in television.
At the age of 29, Lena is the creator, writer, producer, director, as well as an actress in her very own television series on HBO, Girls; the author of a bestselling memoir book Not That Kind of Girl; the co-creator of Lenny Letter, an online feminist newsletter; and the co-creator of A Casual Romance, a production company for both film and television. Lena is also the winner of two Golden Globe Awards, and the first female recipient of the Director’s Guild of America Award for Best TV Comedy Director. To be such a successful artist at such a young age, Lena is practically a unicorn in the world of television, and in the international media landscape.
Her success in the American television industry is founded in her talent and her commitment to work, however it is was also facilitated by her opportunities with HBO early in her career, and the power of social media to build an audience. While Lena has been very fortunate in her career she has also experienced the effect of white male privilege in the industry, as well as some of the stereotypical and sexist attitudes towards women. Lena has very strong feminist values, and campaigns for equality and women’s rights in both her personal life, and her creative work, encouraging other women to work together to change the industry: “The statistics are pretty abysmal. It’s our job as women who have been given a certain amount of success and visibility to pull other women along with us” (Variety Magazine).
Reading Between the Numbers
Women in the Television Industry
The American television industry, much like the creative and media industries at large, is heavily criticised for it’s gender inequality and lack of diversity. While many women work in the area, only a select few have reached the top of their field.
In an annual review by the Centre for the Study of Women in Film and Television, it was reported that women represent 25% of key behind-the-scenes roles across broadcast networks, cable channels and Netflix. Women account for 38% of producers, 25% of writers, 23% of executive producers, 22% of creators, 20% of editors and 12% of directors. While there has been a gradual increase in female involvement since the study began in 1997, in recent years there has been no consistent improvement, and more often a decline in the employment of women in key roles.
Another study by the Director’s Guild of America, investigated the diversity among TV directors in U.S., and found that HBO was among the worst for gendered and racial variation. Although the network has recently progressed to include non-white female directors, the percentage of women decreased by 3% from the 2012-13 season to 2014-15.
It is important, here, to consider the relativity of such results. While men of colour directed only 8% of HBO’s TV episodes in the 2014-15 period, this should be considered with reference to their percentage of the population, which is around 18%. Comparatively, female directors (both white and coloured) accounted for just 15% of the episodes, when they make up more than half of the American population (Variety Magazine).
Interestingly, the report by the Centre for the Study of Women in Film and Television also discovered that the presence of just one woman in leading roles (i.e. executive producers or creators) increased the number of female characters, writers, directors and editors involved in a television program by at least 8%.
Sexism in a male dominated workplace is an ongoing struggle endured by many women, especially in the television industry. Gender inequality is both produced and reiterated by female stereotypes and expectations that challenge the authority of women. Sexist ideas about leadership, emotional stability, and age are prominent issues faced by women at the start of their careers, and even once they have achieved success.
When she was starting out, Lena experienced firsthand the patriarchy of the entertainment industry, with various older men offering her guidance, but simultaneously expressing their influence and power. In an essay for Lenny Letter, Lena writes about the early, uncertain days of her career, and some of the men she encountered:
“I’ve received, and resented, the advances of older men who think they have something to teach me. I’ve written of men leaning too far into the passenger seat to kiss me goodnight, men who remind me of an aged uncle at a bar mitzvah. I’ve noted unwelcome back rubs, invasive questions, nearly imperceptible but utterly humiliating disrespect for personal boundaries.“
The following is a section from her book Not That Kind of Girl that further highlights her experiences with certain male characters from the Hollywood community (pp. 197-200):
I didn’t fuck them but they yelled at me. This is the name of the memoir I’m going to write when I’m eighty... It will be a look back at an era when women in Hollywood were treated like the paper thingies that protect glasses in hotel bathrooms - necessary but infinitely disposable... I’ll tell everyone about what the men I met in Hollywood said to me in that first whirlwind year:
... And I’ll describe the email [an old-filmmaker] wrote me after I said I couldn’t work on his film because I was making my own show. “How could you dismiss this opportunity to be a small part of a film that will be taught in colleges for years to come in exchange for the utter ephemera of a ‘TV Pilot”.
The attitudes displayed by such men are grounded in out-dated gender ideology, where masculinity (i.e. power, status, confidence) is valued and respected over femininity. Part of the problem of gender equality is that men often succeed because their egotism and aggression in the workplace is seen as ambition. Women, on the other hand, suffer a confidence gap and often underestimate their abilities and qualifications.
As the creator of Girls, Lena holds an influential position, and other artists who work with her say that she encourages them to share their opinions and speak up. But even with her success and authority regarding her own television show, she is not always confident and feels pressure to please others: “I have so much trouble saying no and I feel so consistently afraid to disappoint people, like my success has been an accident and if I don’t placate people, then somehow it’s going to go away. And I think that saying “no” is actually a really powerful tool... and it doesn’t make you a bad person” (Paper Magazine).
Women also cannot afford to look emotional in the workplace at the risk of placing their leadership in jeopardy. In an interview for Lena Dunham’s very own Lenny Letter, feminist and journalist Gloria Steinem voiced her opinion on the topic:
“We try to stay in control too long and then burst out. Instead of saying what we’re angry about in a reasonable way, suddenly we just explode. A woman who was an executive told me once that she got angry in work situations where she needed to get angry, cried, and just kept talking through it. She had mostly men working for her, so it wasn’t so easy to be understood. And she would just say to them, “I am crying because I’m angry. You may think I’m sad. I am not sad. This is the way I get angry.” And I’ve always wanted to do that. It’s still my goal.”
Tina Fey, another successful female face in the television industry, has addressed the sexism that women face in her memoir Bossypants. In the very first page she writes: “If you are a woman and you bought this book for practical tips on how to make it in a male-dominated workplace, here they are. No pigtails, no tube tops. Cry Sparingly. (Some people say, “Never let them see you cry”. I say, if you’re so mad you could just cry, then cry. It terrifies everyone.)” (Bossypants, p. 3).
Women also experience much more judgement regarding their appearance in comparison to men. To be successful on-screen in the television industry, it is often expected for women to be beautiful and have slim figures, and this severely limits the range of female bodies portrayed in the media. While Lena shatters some of the sexist ideas surrounding female body image and beauty in her series Girls, people still scrutinise her for choosing to reveal her ‘imperfect body’: “[A] frequently asked question is how I am “brave” enough to reveal my body on-screen. The subtext there is definitely how am I brave enough to reveal my imperfect body, since I doubt Blake Lively would be subject to the same line of inquiry” (Not That Kind of Girl, p. 105).
In addition, roles for women significantly decline as they get older, and Tina Fey mentions how women are labelled as “crazy” after a certain age. This is likely a result of their changing bodies and faces, which are subject to intense scrutiny by men in the business as well as the wider public. She asserts that the remedy to this situation, and the inequality throughout the industry, is for more women to become producers and hire a diverse range of women. She admits: “that is why I feel obligated to stay in the business and try hard to get to a place where I can create opportunities for others” (Bossypants, p. 272). This reflects the above statistics showing that the presence of women in key roles is vital to improving the wider involvement of women in the industry.
Lena’s early success raises questions about the nature of HBO, and whether the network positively facilitates the success of women in the industry. While the statistics shown above clearly contradict this theory, HBO has made public statements about the lack of diversity and the company’s priority for change: “The number of diverse directors on our episodes is of course not where we want them to be… we have great multicultural representation in the director’s chair in our other areas of original programming like films and specials, but series must and will improve” (Variety Magazine). In the past two years, HBO have launched two fellowships, one for writers and one for directors. They aim to encourage greater inclusion of women and people of colour in the industry, and indicate that maybe there is hope for institutional change.
Despite the lack of diversity at the moment, the network is particularly supportive of Lena as a creative individual. She was purposefully selected to create a television program that would ‘speak to her generation’, and her all of the new projects with her production company are set up at HBO. Michael Lombardo, president of programming at the network, says “She will be an important voice for years to come”.
Lena personally believes that TV is more supportive industry (compared to film), in helping women to tell their original stories and share their own experiences: “It was only when I started talking to television executives and talking to the people at HBO that I felt there was actually a place for the kind of work that I make. We started making Girls five years ago and there were some amazing female-driven shows [then], but [so much has] sprung up in the time that we have been working” (Paper Magazine).
In the age of social media, it is interesting to consider how platforms such as Instagram and Twitter can act as empowering feminist tools, and help female artists to gain attention and support in a male-dominated industry such as television. Social media allows for people within the media industries to control their image, and manage their relationships with audiences, production and distribution (See references: Constructing Social Media’s Indie Auteurs).
With 2.6 million followers on Instagram, Lena has built up a community of supporters and uses the platform to portray her private life and political beliefs, and to cross-promote her creative work. Social media relies considerably on individualism and authenticity, and through her honesty and openness, Lena has developed a strong online presence that frequently gains media attention. She also creates a cohesive sense of identity because her work very often aligns with her personal values and self-representation.
However, despite the opportunities that arise from social media, such interactive platforms also create more issues for women in the entertainment industries. Just like in the industry, women are often subject to horrific discrimination online and face ongoing judgement. Lena stepped away in from Twitter in late 2015, after the harassment became unbearable: “I found that the hostility, particularly the hostility towards women and the expressions of violence were too much”. While her account is still active, Lena has a social media manager who runs the page so that she does not have to deal with the hate.
Social media can also allow for ‘the personal to become political’, and women can confront and communicate their gendered struggle to success. Lena frequently voices feminist opinions about women’s rights in the wider society, but she has additionally made reference to some of the challenges that women face in the workplace. In the following Instagram post, she shares her experiences with endometriosis and expresses her gratitude for the ability to take time off work... a privilege that many women are not granted.
By exploring the successes and challenges of prominent women in the television industry, we can further understand the problem of gender inequality and look to possible improvements and solutions. Lena’s experiences highlight the sexism, stereotypes and expectations that women face in the television industry, but she also shows that it is possible to beat the odds and succeed in a man’s world.
But the real question is, why does gender equality matter?
Apart from fulfilling basic feminist ideals, it matters because we need more diverse stories made by people who know them, and are invested in them. And perhaps this is why Lena has been so successful with Girls… because it is a story about young women, created by young women.
Lena is a fearless and tireless trailblazer for women in television. At a ‘Women in Entertainment’ event, she gave a speech on the importance of helping each other and sharing diverse stories in the industry. “It’s our job, now that we are in this room, to take the next step and support each other, to support the younger generations… As women on a ‘power list’ it is our duty, and also our privilege, to transfer that power onto marginalised people with stories to tell” (The Hollywood Reporter, 2015).
By exposing the inherent sexism in the workplace and supporting each other, women both behind-the scenes and on-screen will place pressure on the entertainment industry to enforce diversity and prioritise equality. Furthermore, an increased number of women in influential positions will help to change attitudes towards women and alleviate some of the systemic barriers present in television, and the media landscape at large.
While change will take time, the feminist movement in Hollywood is gaining momentum and will hopefully wash away the age-old patriarchy that still affects the industry today. As Lena says, women need to empower each other during this time, because ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’.
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