Lori Anderson: Sexism stripped bare, women hit back

The efforts of Joan Holloway, played by Christina Hendricks, second left, to fight sexism in Mad Men failed. Picture: AMC

The efforts of Joan Holloway, played by Christina Hendricks, second left, to fight sexism in Mad Men failed. Picture: AMC

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Live imitates art, with the entertainment industry rife with outdated attitudes while simultaneously attacking them on screen, writes Lori Anderson

Sexism has drawn its moist seedy finger under the chin of women throughout the decades. In this week’s episode of Mad Men, the pulchritudinous alabaster beauty Joan Holloway finally fought back against the sexploitation that has dogged her career over the past seven seasons – to no avail. Times may finally be changing but for Joan and millions like her in the Sixties and early Seventies, true equality in the office still remained a distant dream.

Patricia Arquette made a strong attack on sexism at this year's Oscars. Picture: Getty

Patricia Arquette made a strong attack on sexism at this year's Oscars. Picture: Getty

Mad Men, despite its brilliance, is only a TV show but it is within this industry and that of Hollywood that the loudest cries of sexist foul play are rising up.

Women in Hollywood are fighting back against institutionalised sexism but the question is whether it’s a battle that can ever be won? This week in the Radio Times, the British actress Ruth Wilson, who intrigued audiences in BBC’s Luther, as the most glamorously well-shod sociopath Alice Morgan, has taken a nibble from the hand that feeds her by complaining about graphic nudity in today’s television industry. Since she recently won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of a depressed waitress who stumbles into a torrid affair with her follow British thespian, Dominic West, in The Affair, (which started last week on Sky Atlantic), this may strike viewers as rather strange considering how frequently she herself shed her pinny.

Although Wilson felt the sex scenes in The Affair were justified by the plot, she said that she is increasingly appalled by the focus on women’s bodies in current drama. “It’s assumed that women will get their breasts out and have to get their breasts out and I baulk at that. It’s unfair and it’s unnecessary.” During filming she kept complaining to the director that both characters should have to act le petite mort: “Why have I always to do the orgasm face? There should be a male orgasm’s face. Why is it always the women who’s orgasming?”

She added that she had a “big concern about how women are treated in the industry generally”. To judge by the recent comments of other actresses and women in the entertainment industry, she is not alone. Last month Kirsten Stewart, the actress who played Bella in the Twilight quartet, announced: “Hollywood is disgustingly sexist. It’s crazy. It’s so offensive.” Again the question of topless scenes was raised when the young actress said: “I question when a fairly established actress finally does a scene in a movie when she shows her boobs and she hasn’t done it up until that moment. Maybe she only did it for the prestigious part and it’s OK for this time because it’s classy and I’m like, ‘oh God – thank you for revealing to the world your treasure’.”

Yet all of this is at odds with the feminist movement “Free the Nipple” that want to “normalise” female toplessness by striding down the street without a shirt or top on, in the same carefree manner as a man. Their argument is that why should their natural bodies be sexualised and so criminalised with charges of public lewdness?

I suppose the key issue here is one of choice. Should a woman be free to choose to walk down the street topless, unencumbered by laws that view female toplessness as somehow more morally offensive than male toplessness? Personally I disagree, while I can see the logic – I think on grounds of taste and decency, both male and female toplessness should be prohibited in public places, beaches excluded. I would argue that this is equality.

When it comes to an actress being pressurised to strip off for a role in a TV or film drama, however, then I agree that this isn’t right and is a dilemma that only affects women. It’s also a dilemma that has become increasingly common as the boundaries on issues of sexual content – and violence – are consistently being pushed by the big American cable channels such as HBO and Showtime, which operate unencumbered by the censors that police the content on network television.

The problem of sexism in Hollywood doesn’t only affect those in front of the cameras but also those behind the scenes. If anyone was in any doubt that Hollywood remains a man’s world they should also take a look at a new Tumblr blog called “Sh*t People Say to Women Directors” which was launched less than two weeks ago but which is already casting a bright light on Tinseltown’s shady practices. The vast catalogue of anonymous stories include the male writer who told his female assistant: “You’re a terrible assistant, why don’t you go back to working in porn where you belong?”

The only way that the balance of power in Hollywood and the television industry will ever reach an equilibrium among the sexes is if more women become “showrunners”, the creative role of writer/producer who wield the power in television drama and that of directors who tend to call the shots in Hollywood. Recent figures show there is still a long way to go. Almost a decade after Kathryn Bigelow won an Oscar for best director for The Hurt Locker, the number of female directors of films released in America was just 23 per cent while among the major Hollywood blockbusters in the top 100 it fell to just 1.9 per cent.

Equality should come from equal opportunity – a point made by the actress Patricia Arquette who, after winning an Oscar for best supporting actress in Boyhood, used her acceptance speech to call for equal pay for women in all industries, including Hollywood where they still, on average, lag far behind men. In the 1940s male supervisors were issued with guidelines for hiring women that included notes such as: “General experience indicates that ‘husky girls’ – those on the heavy side – are more even tempered and efficient that their underweight sisters” and “women lack initiative in finding work for themselves – keep them busy with a day-long schedule.”

We may have moved far beyond those days but both inside and outside Hollywood there remain poor practices to which the only answer is: “Cut!”

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