Yesterday at Deadline, Pete Hammond reported that Jane Campion, who is serving as the president of the jury at the Cannes Film Festival, had acknowledged the obvious: that her industry is not a model of gender equality. Apparently, of the 1,800 films submitted to the festival this year, just 7 percent of the contenders were directed by women.
“Time and time again we don’t get our share of representation,” Campion said. “It’s not that I resent the male-directed films but there is something women are thinking of doing we don’t get to know enough about.”
It is hugely refreshing to hear Campion, Shonda Rhimes or Amy Poehler drop knowledge about the state of their industries. And as nice as it is to see their remarks get respectful write-ups in big publications, Hammond’s story also illustrates a trap for outspoken feminists — and anyone else who wants to change the face of any part of the media industry.
Given that Campion is the only woman to ever win the top prize at Cannes, Hammond suggests that “naturally there’s speculation that Campion and others on the jury might want to use the Palme d’Or to make a statement.” But if Campion steered — or was perceived as steering — her majority-female jury to the conclusion that they had to pick a woman, it is hard to believe that the recipient of the Palme she presided over would be viewed the same way as her predecessors. As infuriating as it may be, the people who see problems of representation most clearly in any given industry may have the least credibility in correcting those wrongs, their very necessary insights discrediting their hiring and awards decisions.
The need to overcompensate to avoid appearing as if you are acting on the issues you, in fact, care deeply about, is maddening.
If you try to correct for a gender imbalance in hiring and promotions that your predecessors have treated as if it was not a problem, you risk accusations of favoritism. You look biased and the candidates you advanced seem less qualified. If you pay more attention to stories that have historically gone untold, or been deemed unworthy of an A1 slot or a position in a film competition, someone might suggest that you are “overplaying stories about women’s issues.” (Insert “people of color,” or “gay people,” or “poor people” as you wish.) If you give a festival award to a film by someone who has been underrepresented in the industry, the accolade risks being accompanied by an asterisk.
Meritocracy is absolutely an appealing ideal. But it can be maddening when some insist that meritocracy, and our conceptions of what constitute artistic quality or mastery, are somehow apolitical, defined by impartial deities rather than shaped over time by humans with variable preferences. People like Campion (or former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson) who challenge the status quo have no quibble with the idea of meritocracy, just with the idea that its definitions and determinations are unbiased.
In film, sometimes it has been easier for men to embrace the cause of women’s representation, and to challenge the notion that merit is objective, because they do not face charges of self-interest. Paul Feig, who directed women-led comedies “Bridesmaids” and “The Heat” and is currently working on “Spy,” a kind of gender-swapped James Bond action movie, has joked and jabbed at his own gender, suggesting that “the male species’ sense of humor seldom rises above the enjoyment of watching one of their own take a swift shot to the testicles.” Movie-making partners Adam McKay and Will Ferrell have used their past successes to launch Gloria Sanchez Productions, an off-shoot of their other companies that will focus on making movies and television shows about women.
Campion obviously recognizes the potential danger here, for her and for her jury. “We are coming from different points of view but we can vote with our hearts and conscience for what we love the most,” she said in Cannes. “Maybe there will be a consensus or maybe we will have to discover a consensus. But we are not obliged to do anything. I think that would be a really ugly situation.”
She is right. But it is even uglier that the people who see sexism and other historic ills in media are put in a position where it is tremendously difficult for them to take badly needed action when they get the chance to do it.