Sexism in Post: Sometimes It’s What You Think, Sometimes Not
Sometimes sexism is exactly what you think it is.
So picture this: last day of NAB 2014. I’m wandering around killing time before I needed to head to the airport. I have a horrible cold. I am over it. I sit down at Quantel’s booth (on squishy red squares) where a sharply dressed woman who was probably around my age (maybe, I’m bad at age guessing) was giving a very extensive demonstration of Pablo Rio, a highly specialized tool. I mean, there aren’t even that many female editors in the world. Female Pablo demo artists? She MAY be the only one.
Across from Quantel’s booth is RED’s vast space, dramatically lit and crowded to the brim even in the final hours of the show. And just like they had all week, every hour on the hour (or so, I wasn’t really sure), a dozen young women in teeny bikinis prance onto RED’s stage to the pounding bass line of Lorde’s “Royals”, attracting a crowd of (mostly) guys armed with cameras. I suppose RED had some way to justify this in the context of cameras and skin tones or something, but having seen the runway models do their thing a few times, I never really figured it out the way I could figure out any other vendor’s message while quickly walking by the booth.
“AND WE’LL NEVER BE ROYALS (ROYALS) / IT DON’T RUN IN OUR BLOOD…”
I guess Quantel’s demo artist never really got it either. After what I’m sure were several days of suddenly being overtaken by blasting pop music and hollers to half-naked women, she paused and allowed herself to sigh at the sight of the show before picking back up and expertly finishing off the demonstration.
“BABY I’LL RULE I’LL RULE I’LL RULE I’LL RULE / LET ME LIVE THAT FANTASY.”
Kind of an interesting song choice for such an occasion.
I asked both men and women at the show what they thought of RED’s presentation. Many thought it was over the top. Most, even. But infrequently, from all genders and sexes: who cares, it’s just a bit of fun, the women are willing participants, it’s just a marketing thing, boys will be boys.
This is the kind of sexism that is exactly what you think it is. Despite the fact that it’s obviously so wrong to so many people, it persists in our industry: booth babes, advertisements featuring white men in charge and women as artistic objects, naked women as marketing tools. This is Mad Men levels of smack a girl on the bum and ask her to your room sexual harassment. It’s easy to spot and illustrate. It’s prevalent in film and television and video games. Not only do I think a lot of people reading this would roll their eyes at such escapades, I’ve read many such criticisms of all forms of media that continue to objectify women like it’s 1962.
Another trade show misstep by Blackmagic Design from later in the year was particularly appalling because the company is otherwise known for being professional and inclusive. An ad that continues to be available as a downloadable press image for the URSA camera depicts a scene where a group of standard looking guys are shooting a couple other standard looking guys.
And in the background, for some reason, we see a bikini-clad woman floating in water, pressed against the glass. She’s not participating in the action. She’s just there. It’s like a sexy ficus plant shoved in the background for set dressing. And it’s disappointing because when I think of “gratuitous,” Blackmagic Design and their great people would never come to mind. They’ve not treated women as anything close to subhuman, rather as equals in front of a Resolve or in other production situations like on the front page of their website. It goes to show that it’s not just companies with a certain reputation who are making these blatantly sexist mistakes.
As eye-rolling and icky as this stuff is, this is not the kind of sexism I think is hurting our industry the most, from my experience. Because sometimes sexism isn’t what you think it is. It’s systemic. It’s passive. It’s cultural. Everyone participates in it every day.
A woman told me a story about a visit around the exhibit hall at NAB this year. While walking with a male colleague, she was repeatedly treated like his personal assistant, given brochures and packets to look after for the man she was with. “A harmless mistake” some might say. A harmless mistake by multiple vendors, or an assumption based on internalized sexism? I’ve asked many women over the last year if they’ve ever experienced any kind of sexist behavior, and almost everyone says no as quickly as they can, as though admitting you’ve been harassed is admitting weakness. If I tell them this anecdote, they pause and think for a long time. “Now that you mention it…”
Women tend to go along with all levels of sexist stuff in our industry in order to be “one of the boys.” I’ve been told a number of times they considered it a part of their induction into the industry, to “prove themselves” as worthwhile editors who “aren’t like the other girls” and now happily enjoy the respect of their male counterparts. Not only is that not right at all, but every time you tell a group of male editors you “aren’t like the other girls”, you are collectively throwing your gender under the bus. To put it more in post-production terms: say you take a job for a quarter of the rate everyone else. What does this do for the whole of freelance editors? It devalues their work. In the same way, you’re devaluing the work women are doing to achieve equality in post production when you take part in oppressive behaviors.
Assertive women are “bossy.” Women who wear makeup care too much. Skinny women need to eat a sandwich. Who wears high heels in the edit suite? She should stick to cutting documentaries since she’s got a woman’s touch. These tiny little passive thoughts and actions are more damaging to gender equality in our industry than any trade show programming could ever be. Since they are not overt, it makes it easy to keep living this systemic brand of sexism, reinforcing gender stereotypes and keeping women in their place: as objects to be evaluated and protected like porcelain dolls. Worst of all, many of them seem positive but actually continue to push women into stereotypical roles of the gentler care-taking sex that needs to be protected by men: women are better editors, you’ll make a great mother, behind every great man is a woman in charge. The sexist bubble of the trade show is an obvious criticism of much larger problem: internalized gender bias that affects every person in the industry, but most are not quick to acknowledge.
So the bikini-Quantel-Red anecdote I told you about illustrates something very important about sexism: if sexism and harassment don’t meet a careful narrative more apt for an human resources video than real life, it’s scarcely considered sexism and harassment at all. Look at rape cases. Not that many follow the cinematic method of assault with a dark alley and an armed intruder and a hospital and police. Most often, women and men are raped by people they know. And these cases are commonly rejected as valid by so many people because the it isn’t black and white. She was asking for it, dressed like that. Men don’t get raped, what a wimp. She didn’t say yes, but she also didn’t say no. In these cases, people are quick to criticize the victim, asking them what they did to bring this onto themselves. Maybe she changed her mind or he shouldn’t have gotten so drunk.
Most of the sexism in our industry is passive. The little thoughts and comments that go unsaid or unchecked but internalized. The jokes at a woman’s expense that alienate her from her peers (because if she doesn’t laugh, she’s an overly sensitive prude.) Everyone does it, and it makes for a hostile work environment not where women are afraid they’ll be touched the wrong way, but where women must decide if they want to have a child and risk career advancement or freeze their eggs and risk genetic problems; where women must work extra hard for historically less pay and are subject to higher scrutiny for the same jobs; or where women feel like they cannot break out of gender norms without looking like some kind of anomaly. And worst of all, women come to expect this as normal. It’s just how it is, and to want it any different is to be treated differently and we can’t have that.
When you look closely at a trade show like NAB or IBC, you can start to get a pretty accurate picture of our industry – one where women become mostly invisible when they work in the industry. One woman told me that her trade show experiences at IBC, NAB, and BVE left her feeling like she didn’t exist, except for the parts where she was objectified: approaching vendors for information only to be ignored in favor of a man seeking similar information, while the only women working the booth served as decoration. She even had a presenter hit on her and ask for her number during a demo, making her gender the butt of a joke in front of a very large group of people that were supposed to be her peers.
According to various instructors in university-level media production programs across the US, classes that lead to careers in production and post are somewhere around 30-50% women. But the number of women actually working in Hollywood as directors, executive producers, editors and cinematographers has been less than 18% for over ten years according to a report by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University – a pretty massive gap unaccounted for anywhere. There are more women in these jobs who aren’t working in Hollywood who aren’t being counted (like me) by anyone. How many? An event like NAB would lead me to believe a huge gap between career-seekers and career-havers continues to exist. And why wouldn’t it? The hostile environment of a trade show floor is the accurate representation of our industry that people don’t want to admit. It’s just turned up a couple notches from the subtle every day kinds of sexist thoughts and actions that account for not seeking out women or assuming women would rather have other jobs. It’s a place where women are invisible unless they’re objectified, and they’re blamed for their own invisibility. Those who aren’t willing to play sexist games are drowned out by pop music and cat calls.
There’s been a lot of conversation about the phrase “not all men” this year, even spinning off a #yesallwomen hashtag this summer to show solidarity in these kinds of systemic sexist situations. Because when bad, violent things happen to women, the response (from men AND women) is often “not all men.” Not all men do this. Not even most men do this. What these people mean to say: I don’t do this. I’m a good person.
Whenever I write an article (or have a conversation or a Twitter chat) about women in post production, a significant chunk of the response is this:
“My mentor was a woman.”
“I work with a female editor.”
“Thelma Shoonmaker is arguably the most well known editor.”
“I’ve known a number of female editors over the years, and they’ve all been the best cutters I’ve worked with.”
“Women were the original film editors.”
That’s really great. I’m glad to hear it. But here’s the deal: these are defensive statements. They all start with an implied “but.”
“But my mentor was a woman.”
“But I work with a female editor.”
“But Thelma Shoonmaker is arguably the most well known editor.”
“But I’ve known a number of female editors over the years, and they’ve all been the best cutters I’ve worked with.”
“But women were the original film editors.”
These statements shift the narrative to one’s self. You have this woman telling you that she’s distressed that the number of female editors in Hollywood hit its high point in the 1970s. She wants to start a conversation about how to make editing and other tech fields accessible to women. Your response is “I’ve worked with lots of female editors over the years,” as if to separate yourself from the sexists out there that aren’t hiring girls.
This is the same thing as saying “not all men.” The response it’s supposed to elicit from me: no, of course not. You’ve worked with women. You’ve hired girls. You’re a good guy or lady. In a conversation about systemic sexism and hostile work environments, we’re suddenly patting you on the back for being a decent human being. It’s great that you aren’t like that, and women recognize that yes, “not all men” are like that. But that doesn’t change the fact that ALL women are deeply affected by sexism, whether they acknowledge it or not.
So you might say “well, what the f DO I say to you then?” I’m going to suggest this: ask us what we need from you. How can you help? Who can you mentor? What causes can you support? What kind of latent sexism can you nip out at work? How can you design print campaigns that don’t use women as objects? How can you help young women discover their talents in science, technology, engineering, and math? How can you raise young men to respect women without even thinking about it? How can you help to erase harmful gender stereotypes? How soon can you add more women to your exhibition booths in professional roles? How many women can you hire? Are you actively looking for women to hire? Right now?
Originally, this was to be a simple summary article about NAB. See, in 2013, I wrote a somewhat divisive blog post asking where all the ladies were at NAB. This year I thought to myself, self, it’s time to FIND them and see what they have to say about working toward gender equality in video production. PBS Frontline Post Production Supervisor Megan McGough and I organized a meet-up for women called Expanded Focus, and we met ladies (and some guys) from all over the country in all kinds of post production roles. And what was to be a casual mixer turned into a fiery discussion about how to change the culture of our industry to make it more appealing to younger women.
I asked them what got them into this industry during out meet-up. Passion. But what kept them? People caring. Men and women giving them a chance. Asking and answering questions. Mentors, support systems, friends. Not people who declared themselves not to be sexists, but people who worked against the grain to make things possible for them by giving them advice, guidance, and jobs.
Danilda Martinez, a video producer and director from Florida, said a teacher named Paula awakened her passion for editing and journalism. Her Dominican mother taught her to be relentless. And her mentor gave her truth.
Sian Fever, an editor from the UK, told me her mother changed her internalized perspective on gender roles, opening her career possibilities from being an assistant to anything she could ever want.
Tamara Miller, a musician/songwriter in Austin, was influenced by her mom, who promoted creativity and positivity at an early age.
In a toxic environment of latent sexism, consistency and encouragement for building young women up to be editors or sound engineers or directors is ultimately how our systemic sexism is going to unravel. Getting women in science, technology, engineering and math careers fields is not a fad. Feminism isn’t a marketing movement. It’s the process of unlearning and making individual changes that add up to a whole. By recognizing the ways that all of us contribute to a culture of passive sexism, we can slowly start to change our environment and make it better for the next group of women – of which there will be many many more.
Especially if you start hiring them. Or re-thinking your next trade show – not just by ditching the sexist booth entertainment, but purposely putting the smart, capable, invisible women in your organization into visible spaces.
Because sometimes sexism is exactly what you think it is and you can do better than that.