As exits go, it’s a comparatively gentle one. But Pascal’s decision to step down sets a rotten standard. And as wins for political progressives go, it’s a decidedly mixed victory.
Whatever the content of Pascal’s e-mails, her departure sets a risky precedent. Maybe it’s precious to be concerned about the privacy of people with immense power in business and in public life. And working in a creative industry doesn’t give anyone a free pass to be a bigot or a discriminatory employee. But given how common doxxing has become and the utter lack of established norms about who deserves to have the whole weight of the Internet come down upon them and under what circumstances, the line between Pascal and private citizens is a difficult one to hold.
The set of e-mails that attracted the most controversy was an exchange in which Pascal and producer Scott Rudin joked about President Obama’s tastes in film, suggesting he probably prefers films with black leads, like “Django Unchained,” “The Butler,” the romantic comedy “Think Like A Man” and “12 Years A Slave.” To me, the e-mails seemed more targeted at the prevalent assumption that African American audiences only turn out for movies with black leads than an expression of anything Rudin and Pascal actually thought about Obama.
But I understand how the e-mails could leave a more disturbing impression. “It is, perhaps, the worst nightmare for those of us constantly trying to get a white-dominated Hollywood to widen its doors of opportunity for people of color: All those executives who say the right things in public and give to the right causes, just might think something much less admirable about diversity behind closed doors,” as NPR television critic Eric Deggans wrote back in December.
Deggans suggested that “The best way big shots like Pascal and Rudin can prove they aren’t the people depicted in these emails is to challenge the status quo and insist on results. Break down any rule or practice that hinders bringing more diversity to executive suites, producing and directing ranks, and casting offices.” And so even if you think Pascal showed racial animus rather than making fun of her fellow executives, her departure from the executive suite at Sony Pictures ought to feel like a loss.
If Pascal had reupped her contract at Sony Pictures, she would be under enormous scrutiny and pressure going forward. But she also would have retained enormous influence over the huge slate of projects that falls under her purview. That confluence of factors, especially at a time when breakout television hits like “Empire” and “Black-ish” are providing incontrovertible evidence of the market power of black viewers, might have produced an amazing pop culture opportunity. I think Pascal will still feel an obligation to prioritize diversity in the movies she’s producing. But throwing a whole studio behind that effort would have been a remarkable thing.
As Sony Pictures picks Pascal’s replacement, I hope they’ll be courageous rather than conservative. And I hope that Pascal’s departure serves as a reminder that getting someone fired isn’t the only way for us to get the diversity we want in our pop culture. Sometimes, it’s better to have someone you can pressure than a clean slate with someone who doesn’t feel like they owe you at all.