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This is why it’s so hard to fight for gender equality in Hollywood

Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda pose backstage at the 72nd Golden Globe Awards on Jan. 11. (REUTERS/Mike Blake)
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“We all know what we have to do. We have to not be quiet about it, we have to keep talking about it, we have to shame the studios for being so gender-biased,” Jane Fonda said at the Sundance Film Festival yesterday, where she is promoting her new comedy with Netflix with longtime friend Lily Tomlin. It was a battle cry in keeping with the mood of the moment. After last year’s Sony Pictures hack revealed pay inequities between men and women, and in the wake of a group of Oscar nominations that was dominated by white men, there are plenty of people who are eager to lob torches at the appropriate targets, and to spend money to support projects by women.

But while I think there is widespread agreement that this is a moment that invites action and could even prove an important inflection point in the fight for gender and racial equality in Hollywood, my sense is that we’re missing an important part of the argument. When we say that we want Hollywood to avoid gender and racial bias, what do we actually mean by that?

One way to measure equality might be to look at the representation of women in the executive ranks at studios, production companies and television networks. In the entertainment industry, people are often employed on a project-by-project basis, so it might be easier to look at full-time jobs that are relatively stable from year to year. And it’s also revealing to know who has decision-making authority. It doesn’t take much research to see that the top positions at the major movie studios are overwhelmingly filled by men, and the executives who hit the stage twice a year at the Television Critics Association press tour are mostly men, too.

But we ought to be far enough along by now to know that just putting women in positions of leadership doesn’t guarantee that a predictable set of decisions will follow.

CBS Entertainment’s Nina Tassler may be a woman, but her gender didn’t prevent her from green-lighting “Stalker,” a nasty little piece of television that romanticizes a cop who investigates voyeurism and violence against women on the job but indulges his private obsessions in off-hours. Amy Pascal’s Sony Pictures Entertainment makes plenty of movies about guys with guns despite being run by a woman. It’s Paul Lee, the cheerfully eccentric head of ABC Entertainment Group, who has gone into business with Shonda Rhimes, the most powerful woman and most powerful person of color in television, in a huge way. And Megan Ellison’s decision to fund Kathryn Bigelow’s war movie “Zero Dark Thirty” has more to do with her taste in artists of specific vision, including Richard Linklater and Harmony Korine, than with any sort of girl-power solidarity.

Another set of good targets might be the much larger pool of people who are staffed on movie projects and television series. Stacy Smith of the Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism conducts regular censuses of these figures, and the Directors Guild of America and Writers Guild of America also release reports on the demographics of people working in both fields.

The numbers are regularly dismal. Holding large organizations accountable for them can be exceptionally difficult due to Hollywood’s labyrinthine business model in which the people responsible for airing shows or releasing movies aren’t always making the things they market. Network presidents may not know (or care) much about who’s staffed on the shows they’re buying from other studios. And the distribution companies snapping up hot projects at Sundance this week are coming into the process long after the cast and crew of a movie have gone home.

Just because it’s hard to hold people accountable for their staffs doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. But what should the ask be? Should the employees of every show or movie be balanced by gender (and race)? Is it okay for television showrunners who are trying to look at a particular set of experiences to seek writers with specific insight into those circumstances? Or should we be asking for networks and production companies to try to mirror the population of the U.S. across all of their projects?

And how about on-screen representations, which Smith tracks as well, to similar dismaying effect? Who should we be asking to achieve balance in characters and casting? Studios or distributors? The networks that air shows, or the studios that produce them? And what mix of stories that focus on women and gender-balanced ensemble movies might best advance equality of representation? Is it a failure if, after having achieved gender parity, the numbers fluctuate some from year-to-year based on shifting artistic trends and artists’ changing interests? And what quality of representation are we looking for? I love “Sex and the City,” but I don’t think a media environment in which every show or movie about women looks exactly like it would feel much like a victory.

I’ve been writing about diversity and representation in pop culture since starting this blog more than five years ago, and I still believe this is one of the most important subjects that crosses my desk every day. This is not just a matter of politics or fairness. If you care about having a mass culture that is specific, varied and interesting, then you care about diversity. But if those five years have taught me anything, it’s that calls to action like Fonda’s need to be coupled with a real program for change.