Alabama factory worker or Hollywood film director – all women face gender discrimination everywhere.
Lilly Ledbetter was an Alabama tire factory supervisor who learned, after enduring her job for nearly 20 years, that she was earning only half of what men doing the same work received. She sustained myriad harassments during this time while her sole focus was lifting her family into the middle class. Lilly fought through 3 legal battles, winning the first case at $3.8 million dollars — even though the state cap was significantly lower. However, she never saw a penny of this victory, as she lost the appeal, and also the subsequent judgment in the United States Supreme Court.
In that decision, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg read her dissent from the bench, a rare occurrence. The Justice felt that the court had made a mistake and entreated Lilly to lead the charge for change. Lilly and her husband, Charles, took the Justice’s words to heart and embarked upon another journey, the road toward activism. Lilly transformed from an aggrieved employee into an advocate on behalf of all women. After many years of lobbying Congress, Lilly became the “face” of Fair Pay when President Obama signed “The 2008 Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act” as his first piece of legislation.
I’m a woman director who’s been working in Hollywood for nearly 3 decades. I was compelled to bring Lilly’s story to the big screen because her David-and-Goliath battles with an entrenched, American corporation resonated for me politically, professionally, and personally. The truth is that, while Lilly’s life and mine may seem worlds apart, we are both female workers in male-dominated industries — and gender discrimination hurts the same everywhere. I’m a Lilly. And if your career has ever suffered because of gender discrimination – then you’re a Lilly too.
I first became aware of Lilly, like most folks did, as I watched her on television at the 2007 Democratic Convention. I was mesmerized by her strength and inspired hearing this about how this dealt woman dealt with the terrible consequences of gender injustice in her life. I was heartened by the momentum of her activism, drawn to investigate her story on a personal level.
I soon developed a warm rapport with Lilly and her team: her attorney Jon Goldfarb, and the woman with whom Lilly co-wrote her biography, Lanier Scott Isom. I optioned her story to write and direct a film about her ongoing conflicts with narrow-minded factory workers, powerful capitalists, and the United States government itself. It’s been 8 years since that time and I’m delighted to say that I’m close to seeing this dream become a reality; but the story of getting here has been fraught with continued challenges, many of which are gender related.
I’m not a famous director. You don’t know my name and you probably have not seen my work. But I am a director who has paid my dues and knows my craft. I’ve done all the so-called “right” things. I have a Master’s degree in directing from a top film school. I’ve made numerous short films that have won prestigious awards and have garnered coveted grants. I’ve worked in the industry in a variety of positions: as an actor, a storyboard artist, a screenwriter, a branded webisode creator — and ultimately directed over 60 hours of Emmy-nominated television and long-form movies – all while simultaneously raising two children. I’ve also taught directing in the Masters program of one of the most famous film schools in the world, chaired the Directors Guild of America Women’s Steering Committee, and currently mentor hundreds of female directors from a variety of organizations.
While this chronology may seem impressive to the uninitiated, the reality is that my career has had huge gaps of unemployment; times when my family has suffered without health insurance and has gone to sleep with the anxiety of not knowing how we’d pay our bills. Being a woman director in Hollywood is far from glamorous.
For many years, even after I’d already directed a great deal of television, producers would say things to me like, “We already had a woman director this season.” Or, “Our cast and/or crew don’t like women directors.” And while I rarely encounter such overt discrimination now, there is still much unconscious bias that persists.
Lilly Ledbetter used the courts and, eventually, the law to bring her issue to light. We women directors may be able to do the same. In the past year, the ACLU and EEOC have affirmed the presence of institutional bias in Hollywood and are investigating the proper methods to rectify the imbalance. Although I believe these actions have led to an increased awareness and activism throughout our industry, there are ongoing, vestigial practices that must change if gender equity ever has a chance.
On my journey to getting Ledbetter made, I’ve had many lovely surprises. The screenplay, co-written with Adam Prince, won “The Athena List,” the Black List competition for scripts featuring female protagonists, run by Melissa Silverstein at the Athena Film Festival. I recently was awarded the “New York Women In Film & Television Ravenal Foundation Grant” for the project, a grant in support of directors over the age of 40. I’ve also received notes from dozens of producers who are fans of the project, urging me on and applauding my efforts, but acknowledging that getting a film like mine made would require Herculean powers.
One of the reasons that films with female leads are tough to get made is that financing is driven by foreign sales which necessitates a superstar to lead your film. While there are many dubious male actors from the ranks of action films who, despite their advanced years, still can drive foreign sales, in the opinion of foreign sales agents, unless you are one of the handful of megawatt female superstars, women do not drive foreign sales. I’m not an expert in international finance and I don’t pretend to understand the intricacies of this particular equation, but I’ve been listening and learning long enough to understand that there’s a double standard regarding the value of talent based on gender – and that this is an important default mechanism that must be challenged for the sake of the female actors, filmmakers, and certainly the culture of girls and women around the world.
Another obstacle to getting Ledbetter made is the industry’s perception of my value as the film’s director. There are certainly a handful of women directors whose identities are well known, but generally, even colleagues in our industry, when asked, can only name a handful of female directors. Of course, there are thousands of amazingly talented women directing; in fact there are 1,350 experienced women directors in our Guild, but for the vast majority of us our credits are devalued and we struggle to be seen and heard – just like Lilly.
Despite my resume, I’m often called a “first time director.” First time perhaps in that I have never before directed a film that plays in theatres, but with the many high-level, broadcast television series and long form movie credits over the course of a 25-year career, “first time director” is disrespectful at best. All this is — simply another excuse based on fear. Where is the value for the passion I have for this story, the unrelenting tenacity I have to tell it, and the decades of experiences that have led to a maturity and confidence of vision? And why is there a double standard when a male director can leap from making a single indie project to a huge studio tentpole? WTF?
Last year, I met with a producer who refused to consider me to direct my project because she didn’t believe she could finance a film with a female director. When I argued this point with her, she finally relented that perhaps she could get the film made with the woman who had just directed a musical, her first film by the way, that grossed over $70M that weekend. That discussion clarified for me that the producer’s reluctance was not at all about my ability to direct a great film; it was solely about my lack of celebrity. I believe that this culture of celebrity has become a dangerous cover for gender discrimination. Now it seems to be okay to hire a woman director, as long as she’s already a known commodity.
This is a dangerous slippery slope that we must be vigilant in confronting. At the Oscars recently, the president of the DGA was asked to name 5 women directors and he was proud to name the top directors already on most people’s lips. But in my opinion he should have redirected that reporter, as we must all try to change the conversation, to keep pushing forward the idea that there are thousands of accomplished directors ready to work and that our industry need only to look slightly deeper than the headlines.
Our industry’s love of a sure thing affects women who direct television as well. ABC is a network that tries to do the right thing. Every year they produce an event in conjunction with the DGA to introduce their executives to female directors. Sounds great, right? However, the criteria used to select the invited directors eliminates anyone who has not directed an episode of broadcast television within the past two years! In other words, the very population who needs this kind of support are excluded. Women who are actively directing don’t have trouble getting hired, they have agents and are already on approved lists. But women directors with experience who may be out of the loop for a while are shut out. It’s understandable that swift statistical change will look good, but real progress will only be made when the pipeline expands, not when the mission for gender equity is fulfilled by the same handful of directors.
I do sense change and I am heartened by our thespian colleagues who are speaking up for women behind the camera and signing on to our films. We will gain momentum through this sisterhood. At this very moment, I am searching for my own actor/collaborator with whom I can bring the remarkable character of Lilly Ledbetter to life. Like Lilly, I fight every day to advance our film, and I advocate for women directors like me who have powerful stories to tell, bursting with talent. I urge all of us to keep illuminating injustice wherever we go and to lift up other women. I’m a LILLY, are you?
Rachel Feldman is a director and writer currently in development with LEDBETTER, a suspense thriller about Fair Pay activist Lilly Ledbetter. She recently won the Writers Guild of America – Drama Queens Award for Best Spec Pilot for KINKS. You can learn more about her work at www.rachelfeldman.com and follow her on Twitter @womencallaction.