Seven Lessons About Hollywood From the Original Six - Pacific Standard

Seven Lessons About Hollywood From the Original Six

Takeaways from an unexpectedly controversial Reddit AMA.
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(Photos, clockwise from top left: Joelle Dobrow, Nell Cox, Lynne Littman, Joelle Dobrow)

(Photos, clockwise from top left: Joelle Dobrow, Nell Cox, Lynne Littman, Joelle Dobrow)

Here at Pacific Standard, we really love Reddit Ask Me Anythings (AMAs). In the last few years, we've organized AMAs with social scientists, a criminologist, and a mirror-touch synesthete, on two different forums (r/science and r/IAmA). It hasn't always been easy to convince hosts to answer questions posed to them by anonymous commenters. Nevertheless, to our eyes, the results have always outweighed the risk. Reddit users ask fresh, spontaneous, and occasionally tough questions of our writers and sources; they bring their personal experiences to bear; and they remind us that a story is never over once it's published. We've always found Reddit to be a forum that's welcoming to stories that matter no matter how niche or heavy the topic, even though we have, of course, met our share of trolls along the way.

Last Thursday, we met quite a few more than usual. For about the first hour and a half of our AMA with the "Original Six"—the group of female directors who built a pioneering case alleging gender discrimination in Hollywood starting in 1979—we heard primarily from people familiar with the entertainment industry and users who had created Reddit accounts just to ask questions. Our four hosts—including Nell Cox, Joelle Dobrow, Victoria Hochberg, and Lynn Littman—had a lot to say to these users, even more than was included in Rachel Syme's detailed Pacific Standard profile of the group, which was, in itself, over 5,000 words.

Some time in, however, the tone of the forum changed. Some Reddit users began accusing others, those who had created new accounts, of being "sock-puppets" organized by the OP (the "original poster") to ask "softball questions." Some questioned the legitimacy of advocating for "gender equality" and flung gender-specific insults at hosts. One poster asked if our posters planned on suing the construction industry because it is primarily male; another asked whether our hosts thought it was "ok to force someone to hire someone based on their genitalia and not credentials." Usernames referred primarily to male body parts (CockFaggington, Obi_Wan-can_blow_me?) or seemed designed to sound ominous or mischievous (Polarfuchs, Resident Sociopath, Jackal King). On Twitter, we heard from readers identifying these posters as members of the MRA (men's rights activist community); and while it's out of our power to confirm that, they, intentionally or not, worked in unison to discredit the forum. These users raised concerns that others were seeding questions; they upvoted insults and downvoted legitimate questions and answers. The ultimate consequence was that the Original Six's responses were, for the most part, buried at the bottom of the thread, the female hosts effectively silenced.

We heard from some who said that this assault-like response was to be expected. Reddit doesn't have the best reputation for being an entirely welcoming forum for women's issues, as we have written about previously, and women receive creepy messages on the platform with surprising normalcy (something we've also written about). Should this ugly underside scare women away from speaking out on Reddit, or publications like ours away from bringing up issues of feminism or equality? It's something our Original Six AMA forced us to consider and, ultimately, reject. Harassment is a hazard on any social media platform when you're a woman. Choosing not to discuss these issues means accepting a status quo that's outdated and unfair; it means not having the hard conversations in the places where they matter most. We're glad we did this AMA, and we can't wait to do more.

In this case, the AMA only magnified the message in Syme's story. Throughout the assault on their responses, and the onslaught of negative questions, the members of the Original Six held their ground, and even engaged with hostile users. Many hosts might have crumpled under the pressure of such an assault—especially those who had never heard been on Reddit (as our hosts had not). These women, true to the determination they've evinced in their story, didn't: And their answers live on, alongside a record of the fact that their activism is still needed.

In the spirit of letting their stories be heard—which was the intent of Syme's original story, and also of our AMA—we've recapped a few core takeaways from the conversation, as we often do, below. Some responses from the AMA have been deleted by moderators since Thursday, so we haven't been able to comb through all the AMA's material. What you'll find below, however, is what we found most important and illuminating. We hope you give the Original Six some of your time and earnest attention. Agree or disagree with the message, that's all these filmmakers, activists, and AMA hosts ask for.

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1. Minority men played a role in the Original Six's lawsuit: The Original Six are best known for their groundbreaking research on women directors, which fueled the Directors Guild of America's 1983 discrimination lawsuit against two major Hollywood studios. But they weren't the only ones itching for judicial action. A group of minority men asked the DGA to wait on the lawsuit until they could gather their own statistics and join the case. "The women agreed to wait until the minority males had caught up, which took another year," Hochberg wrote on Reddit. Unfortunately, by the time they did, the judicial overlords had changed hands. "Reagan was elected and had appointed a judge who threw our case out," she added.

2. Statistics made a difference in convincing men to be allies: Men at the DGA and the National Board of Review were initially "hesitant" to support the activism of the recently formed Women's Steering Committee, Dobrow wrote. But when the WSC presented numbers they had gathered on directing assignments in the industry, everything changed. "I think they were surprised to see an organized group of people who were thoroughly prepared with not only research but substantive responses to their questions. We parried every argument with content," Dobrow wrote. Name-checking Gil Cates, Arthur Hiller, Jack Hailey Jr., Boris Sagal, Mel Brooks, and DGA national executive director Michael Franklin as particular friends to the WSC, she added "They were impressed with us and wanted to get on board with the moment we created."

3. In some cases, the women felt punished for their activism: When one Reddit user asked whether the women experienced "retribution" in the industry after the lawsuit, participating members of the Original Six offered different responses. "I was never punished for my activism, in fact, it made me stronger," Hochberg wrote. Cox concurred: "Not that I know of." Littman and Dobrow weren't so positive about how the lawsuit changed the way they were treated by people in the business. "My regret is that the lawsuit was never tried in court so we couldn't go for 'goals and timetables,'" Littman wrote. Dobrow got more specific. "Yes, I was told by one of (liberal) Norman Lear's show runner that I would never work for their company," she wrote.

4. Hiring opportunities got worse once the industry felt the problem was "solved": The number of women hired on television increased 15.5 percent between 1985 and 1995, fueled by the Original Six's lawsuit—but, after that time, the statistics flatlined. In part, Dobrow wrote, the fact that the DGA's lawsuit was thrown out due to a technicality was to blame. But the complacency of the industry was also responsible. "The attention to the issue dissolved because people thought it was solved," she wrote. "Around 2007 the DGA began its diversity task force which still hasn't solved the problem. So here we are—21 years later ... no change."

5. Outspoken actors can make a difference: When one Reddit user asked how the Original Six felt about actors agitating for better hiring practices in Hollywood, the women voiced their approval in unison. Speaking as a group, they wrote, "The lack of parts for women is a huge problem that reflects the fact that most Hollywood films are written by, for and about mainly white men.... We applaud any demand by actors (both male and female) that Hollywood must reflect the real America."

6. Sometimes, women have to be their own production and distribution companies: How can up-and-coming female filmmakers carry on the Original Six's activism when entry-level jobs are still hard to come by for women in the industry? "Change happens when the haves are forced to share. That is brought about in many different ways: Constant protest, demanding accountability, legal assaults," Hochberg wrote, responding to one curious Reddit user. "Make your own film and be your own Hollywood via your cell phone (camera) and computer (editing and distribution). Just remember—you are supported by all woman of good will."

7. Take Hollywood diversity conversations with a grain of salt: The United Nations Commission on the Status of Women is taking place this week, which prompted one Reddit user to ask whether it might be a viable option to push for an equal representation of women in Hollywood with men by 2020 ("50/50," she wrote). In response, Littman offered some grounded, and characteristically wry, wisdom. Referencing comedian Chris Rock's comments about best documentary short at the Oscars ceremony this year, Littman wrote: "The U.N. Commission should be concerned with saving women's lives, ending honor killings, female mutilation and voting rights." But, she added, "50/50 by 2020 is science fiction."

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