Stephen Clark almost let it slide.
The theater was 2,000 miles away in Austin, and there was no chance he was going to show up there to see a movie anyway. As a gay man who considers himself sensitive to historically disadvantaged groups, there was even a part of him that saw the value of a celebratory, women-only screening of “Wonder Woman.”
But Clark — a law professor at Albany Law School — changed his mind when he looked up Alamo Drafthouse’s Facebook page and began reading the heated exchanges between the theater’s management and the frustrated men calling the venue’s women-only events “discriminatory.”
“There was a vibrant argument happening on Facebook,” Clark, 48, told The Washington Post. “But when the theater responded to complaints, they were pretty snide about it and willing to mock anyone who had a complaint and that really struck me.”
“There is also the fact that what they were doing is illegal,” he added.
Alamo Drafthouse unveiled its women-only screenings of “Wonder Woman” last week, unleashing a torrent of excitement and anger, almost exclusively from men.
The promotion worked, and the screening sold out in a little over two hours, according to the Drafthouse, with female fans rushing to buy tickets to the first major superhero feature film to star a woman since Jennifer Garner in 2005’s “Elektra.”
For many women who flocked to the theater’s website to purchase tickets, the event was much more than a movie.
“This is the only woman superhero, directed by a woman, to hit the theaters EVER,” Dayna Lorilei Pearce wrote on the theater’s Facebook page. “Ever. Let that sink in. Let us have one screening. Just one to relish in that fact.”
Instead of ignoring the theater’s decision, Clark began researching Austin’s city code and decided to file an administrative charge with the city’s Equal Employment and Fair Housing Office.
He alleged that the Drafthouse’s women-only event — as it was described in the theater’s advertising — discriminated against male customers based on their gender. Citing the theater’s promise to staff only women at the events, Clark also alleged that the Drafthouse was illegally engaging in employment discrimination.
“It’s the principle of the thing,” he told The Post. “I’m a gay man, and I’ve studied and taught gay rights for years. Our gay bars have long said that you do not exclude people because they’re gay or straight or transgender — you just can’t do that for any reason.”
“We have to deal with the bachelorette parties that come to the gay bar,” he added. “They’re terribly disruptive, but if you forbid women from coming to a gay bar, you’re starting down a slippery slope. It’s discrimination.”
The theater initially embraced the male-dominated backlash online and promised to expand the women-only screenings across the country, but then appeared to walk back that promise in a statement emailed to The Post Wednesday.
The statement said the women-only screenings may have sparked “confusion.”
“Obviously, Alamo Drafthouse recognizes ‘Wonder Woman’ is a film for all audiences, but our special women-only screenings may have created confusion — we want everybody to see this film,” the statement said.
That confusion may have been due to the explicit nature of the theater’s previous statements barring male customers.
“Apologies, gentlemen, but we’re embracing our girl power and saying ‘No Guys Allowed’ for one special night at the Alamo Ritz. And when we say ‘People Who Identify As Women Only,’ we mean it,” the theater announced Wednesday about the June 6 showing. “Everyone working at this screening — venue staff, projectionist, and culinary team — will be female.”
“So lasso your geeky girlfriends together and grab your tickets to this celebration of one of the most enduring and inspiring characters ever created,” added the announcement, which has been shared on Facebook more than 1,700 times.
Alexa Muraida, a city of Austin spokeswoman, told The Post that multiple people have filed discrimination complaints with the EFHO following the Drafthouse’s decision to hold women-only screenings. Muraida declined to confirm the names of individual filers, but said the city is “reviewing” and “investigating” the charges.
The screening drew praise from some, but it also provoked an outpouring of anger from others who flooded the theater’s Facebook page to label the event “sexist.”
“Very tacky Alamo,” Facebook user Allan Dale wrote. “I’m all for equality and having a screening specifically stating it is not inclusive to everyone, is against equality. I’m not saying Alamo did this intentionally, but it is still just wrong.”
The theater’s official Facebook account responded to some of the critics, echoing the swarm of movie fans who descended on the page to defend the gender-specific screening.
“This has zip to do with equality,” the theater commented. “This is a celebration of a character that’s meant a great deal to many women since 1940.”
Responding to an angry email he received from a man calling for a boycott of Austin, Mayor Steve Adler delivered a sarcasm-laced rebuttal that defended the Drafthouse’s decision to reserve screenings for women.
“You and I are serious men of substance with little time for the delicate sensitivities displayed by the pitiful creature who maligned your good name and sterling character by writing that abysmal email,” Adler wrote.
After reviewing Austin’s municipal code, Stacy Hawkins — an associate professor of law at Rutgers University who specializes in employment law, civil rights and diversity — told The Post that the theater’s management finds itself in an increasingly common position. As public and private sector organizations look for opportunities to celebrate diversity and embrace historically disadvantaged groups, they run the risk of violating laws that were designed to respond to overtly racist, exclusionary practices. Hawkins said anti-discrimination law is increasingly being used to attack diversity efforts through allegations of “reverse discrimination.”
Women-only movie screenings, Hawkins said, are not the same as “old boys” clubs that excluded minorities and women. Intent matters, Hawkins said, but the law is not nuanced enough to distinguish between malicious and benign intent.
“This new focus on diversity and inclusion is not really accounted for by the laws of civil rights and discrimination,” Hawkins said. “Law is not calibrated for our new political paradigm of diversity and inclusion.
“As far as public accommodations are concerned, I can tell you in no uncertain terms that the reason this case was filed under the Austin city code is that it prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex.”
But Hawkins said she remains unconvinced that the women-only screenings violate male employees’ rights. In order for a cause of action under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a male employee would have to show a “material action,” such as losing a job or suffering the loss of pay. As long as male employees are assigned to other screenings in the theater, they aren’t losing their jobs, hours or pay, Hawkins said.
“I don’t think that would constitute an adverse employment action,” she said.
Hawkins said the entire controversy could have been avoided with a simple tweak in the theater’s advertising.
“Just eliminate ‘no men welcome’ language,” she said. “You try to make sure you demonstrate this is an event for and about women and, most likely, men aren’t going to show up.”
Alamo Drafthouse — which was founded in Austin in 1997 — has never shied away from provocative marketing and public political stances that embody the city’s countercultural spirit. Last year, in the midst of a heated national debate about transgender people using public restrooms, the theater’s founder, Tim League, announced plans to build a gender-neutral restroom with all-gender urinals.
The flagship Austin location — one of 26 across the nation — said last week that the criticism online has been met with a positive response in real life.
“We are very excited to present select, women-only WONDER WOMAN screenings at Alamo Drafthouse,” Morgan Hendrix, Alamo Drafthouse creative manager said in a statement emailed to The Post. “That providing an experience where women truly reign supreme has incurred the wrath of trolls only serves to deepen our belief that we’re doing something right.”
Clark said that statement was another example of the business’s “brazen attitude” in “defending its decision to engage in discrimination.” Another reason he found it offensive: He has many gay friends for whom “Wonder Woman” was an idol growing up in the 1970s.
“I understand the reason for creating a women-only event, but the equality principle is fundamental,” he said. “It sometimes means we have to give up some of our ‘trait only’ spaces to make sure we are not being exclusionary.”
“There are men in Austin who would like to celebrate women’s empowerment,” he added. “There are women in Austin who would like to go to this event with their gay best friend, and they can’t under this rule.”