Jun 30, 2018

Our Revised Anita Hill Moment

History Lesson

Dr. Anita Hill was sexually harassed by a man who now sits on the U.S. Supreme Court. If you are a woman and old enough to remember the riveting 1991 testimony of the then 35 year-old law professor, you no doubt recall that the only great divide in this country during the Senate Committee confirmation hearing for Clarence Thomas was along gender lines. There was no question in any woman's mind of the veracity of Dr. Hill's testimony, only in the minds of about half of the senators who voted for confirmation. Clarence Thomas slipped by with one of the lowest margins ever recorded in confirmation votes for Supreme Court justices, 52-48.

One of the Democrats who voted for confirmation is still a senator, Richard Shelby (D, Alabama). We are well-rid of Joe Biden, who was especially hostile to Dr. Hill. While many of the most rebarbative and misogynist Republicans, such as Arlen Specter, are gone, Orrin Hatch (R, Utah) is not. He now serves as president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate. If that is not frightening enough, every woman and every right-thinking man in this country, should be terrified by the fact that President Trump will be choosing nominees for the Supreme Court in the coming weeks.

Representation of Women in Journalism

I mention this history because we are now at another “Anita Hill moment” in the United States, one in which record numbers of women are running for public office, as they did after the Thomas confirmation. Many of them are women of color, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who will soon occupy a Congressional seat for the 14th District of the great state of New York. While I find this encouraging, as an author and film critic, I feel the need to report that in my corner of the world, in film journalism, very little has changed despite all the rhetoric flying around about supporting women’s filmmaking.

Every day I get announcements of new women’s film programming at various venues, most recently, for the upcoming Toronto Film Festival. That’s terrific, but what I do not see is programmers reaching out to women filmmakers and critics to chair panels at these events. I rarely see women’s faces when I attend film festival events or filmmaker Q&As, even when they feature female filmmakers. In the audience at press screenings, most of us are white, and there is often only one female critic in a group of 30 men, so our voices are naturally drowned out. Programmers and curators need to pay attention to the ratio of women and men in press screenings, and on their panels. Start counting.

I wonder about the committees that are choosing the movies to be shown for “women’s programming.” Are they predominantly women? If they are not, then how will our voices be heard? Many of us are tired of taking on a room full of men who disagree with us, at least not without support from another woman or, as welcome, a guy! I find myself too tired of late to explain to white male critics how a girl protagonist is unnecessarily sexualized in a recent film, or why I don’t attend retrospectives of male filmmakers who are misogynists or rapists, Roman Polansky among them. When female critics get quiet, their male colleagues need to ask why.

Web Page Representation

How a picture is worth a 1,000 words: an entire white, male panel and Anita Hill.

When I scroll down the web pages of such august institutions as the American Film Institute or the British Film Institute, what I see are pictures of white males, and lists of films in which women filmmakers and women’s stories are grossly underrepresented. I also now avoid, for instance, Bloomberg’s culture section, and that of the Wall Street Journal, because I see only men, generally white, in the photos.

While I read Variety online, I do so less these days; it has a serious dearth of female critics. White male critics are reviewing films that are female-centered and, frankly, many times they miss the point of the film. Sofia Coppola’s Beguiled is a case in point—and not just in Variety. If I were an editor, I would not immediately assign every female-centered film to a female critic, but I would pay very close attention to the issues that the film raises that white males would not understand or have never experienced . . . but most magazine and newspaper editors are white males. (I'm lucky to have three who are right-thinking white men!)

Catching Up on the Representation of Women

The scramble among mostly white male institutions to “catch up” to women’s art borders on offensive—and much of it feels market-driven. No one is addressing the ways in which these institutions became white and male-dominated in the first place. What long-term efforts are film institutions making to ensure the inclusion of women? As the author of a curriculum on diversity, and a former corporate diversity trainer, I can tell you that it takes years for companies to develop practices that reduce institutional biases against women and people of color—and the presence of women helps, but it does not ensure the absence of bias.

The fact is that we live in a capitalist society in which women have to continually prove that they are a market force. The hell with that! The lives of women and girls matter, period. Recently, I interviewed a female filmmaker who described a moment when she and her producer, also a woman, were viewing 2nd unit footage for her upcoming project. (This is photography that is not “principal,” a street or crowd scene.) “We winced at the same time,” she said, referring to a brief shot of a female actor’s body that was overtly sexualized. The cinematographer was a man, someone she had worked with on another film. The filmmaker and her producer are gay women. I mention this last fact because heterosexual women sometimes forget about the plight of gay women.


The most important reason women's voices need to be heard and women's faces need to appear onscreen: So our girls will witness their power. All of us owe a debt to Dr. Hill and many women like her who risk their careers in speaking the truth. Lastly, I hope all of you out there who did not vote for Hillary have learned your lesson: a society that does not invite the participation of women is doomed. Hillary would not have put Clarence Thomas on the U.S. Supreme Court.