A- A A+


Catherine Marshall |  02 March 2016

'Is Hollywood racist?' comedian and MC Chris Rock asked at Sunday night's Oscars. Though the question was rhetorical, he provided the answer everyone already knew to be correct: 'You're damn right Hollywood's racist.'

Chris RockIt was a win-win culmination of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign in which no actual person had to take the blame. Instead, a faceless institution named 'Hollywood' was rapped over the knuckles for its racist approach while the flesh-and-blood, white faces that represented it could get on with the business of congratulating themselves.

But while all this mollification was going on, there was another, gargantuan prejudice saturating the very air these celebrities were breathing: sexism so rampant it pervades Hollywood's movie-making industry from root to tip.

Rock might well have asked this question: 'Is Hollywood sexist?' And the answer would have been a resounding, 'You're damn right Hollywood's sexist.'

Rock referred in passing to sexism, but there was immense irony in listening to this from a man famous for his misogynistic jokes. (One of Rock's past 'jokes' goes like this: 'Pussy is like Visa, accepted everywhere. Next time you ain't got no cash, say "Do you take pussy?"')

As much as people of colour remain largely absent from our screens and behind the camera, so do women — especially when they're considered 'old'. It's such a glaring omission in a world comprising 50 per cent women that the lack of a #HollywoodSoMale campaign to rectify the matter beggars belief.

Individually, women in Hollywood have spoken out about sexism. Cate Blanchett made headlines (and caused some pennies to drop — thunderously, one hopes) when she asked a red carpet cameraman panning up and down her body if he did the same to men. Patricia Arquette accepted her statuette at last year's Oscars by calling for wage equity.

And film producer Ross Putman is raising awareness by posting female character descriptions from Hollywood scripts — routinely posed in physical and sexual terms — on Twitter.

But still, Hollywood churns out its sexist fare: according to a study by the New York Film Academy, just 10.7 per cent of the top 500 movies made between 2007 and 2012 featured a cast that was half female. Almost 90 per cent of movies, in other words, contained a cast that was male-heavy, distorting the actual gender balance of the world's population.

Of the females who did star in these movies, almost 30 per cent wore sexually revealing clothes (compared to seven per cent of men), 26 per cent got partially naked (compared to 9.4 per cent of men), and roughly one third of those with speaking parts (another area in which women are underrepresented) were shown partially naked or wearing sexually revealing clothing.

And women of colour — who suffer the double humiliation of both racial and gender discrimination — made up just 13 per cent of characters in 2015, according to the Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film (CSWTF) at San Diego State University.

If Hollywood is a world unto itself, then it is one in which women exist in far smaller numbers than men, and in which their purpose is clearly defined as that of sex object. It is a world at whose centre sits the revered Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which votes in Oscar winners, and whose member base is 77 per cent male (and, as the #OscarsSoWhite campaigners have noted, 94 per cent white).

The composition of the academy, of course, mirrors that of the industry itself, where older white males occupy most positions of power. According to the CSWTF, just 20 per cent of those working in key behind-the-scenes roles on the top 700 theatrically released films in 2014 were women.

It has to be asked, then: why do we, as the paying public, tolerate a movie industry that portrays people who are already discriminated against in real life — people of colour, LGBT people, women — in an unflattering, unrealistic and unrepresentative way? Why do we heap praise on this year's Oscar winner, Spotlight, while failing to notice there is just one woman in the lead cast?

And where is the campaign calling for Hollywood to quit making movies that mirror the fantasy lives of ageing white men and reflect instead the real and diverse communities we live in?

As the #OscarsSoWhite activists know too well, outstanding performers are distributed equally across genders, races, ages and shapes. But while those in power are white men, they will seek to portray the kind of world they recognise, and in which they would prefer to live. And every time we buy a ticket to see one of their movies, we will be giving them our tacit consent.


Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a Sydney-based journalist and travel writer.



Comments should be short, respectful and on topic. Email is requested for identification purposes only.

Word Count: 0 (please limit to 200)

Submitted comments

Movie making is first and foremost a business. We talk about 'the film industry' and rightly so. As an industry it needs to sell its product to the biggest possible number of consumers. No matter how one analyses it - Sex Sells. Films at the same time an art form. The more artful they are, the less money they make. So much so that cinema complexes have a special theatre the size of a small chapel for Art-house movies.

Uncle Pat 03 March 2016

I am reminded of the insight of Gordon Dalbey who pointed out, regarding racial equality: ‘Historically, whites have granted others a rung on the national level of esteem only after exploiting it themselves and then scorning it as lower.’ In practice this means that Afro-American women were only allowed as Miss America contestants at the time the women’s liberation pickets began. It also means that an integrated military came at the same time as the anti-war movement. Thus, according to this view, only when 'Hollywood' as an entity (whatever that is) comes to be despised will the doors open.

Anne Hamilton 03 March 2016

This reality pervades every area of life in one form or another. With regard to the film 'Spotlight', it's important to convey that story with integrity ... only one woman was on the investigative team ... hence one woman in the lead cast. The movie shows up how sexist the print media was in Boston at the time of the Spotlight investigation. It's the structures, systems, and power-brokers that/who perpetrate sexism and racism ... and it's utterly exhausting to encounter.

mary tehan 03 March 2016

well said and overdue. Just sat through hours of boredom with the improbable wall to wall males of that ridiculous film Revenant which has been praised so highly. The point? Of all this bear wrestling, baddie hunting is that brute force is the deciding factor but leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Its tough being a tough guy. Sob.

Jillian 03 March 2016

To Anne. Right , but Hollywood as an entity has long been despised ofr all this. The industry continues to be propped up, like the banks and other worthless entities, because it is of use, or is perceived to be of use, to the State which does the propping. Gung ho militarism, happy families coming through problems together & such tommy rot. Remember its a rare film that makes a profit or even pays its way. Still the industry is propped up for its uses and the enrichment of the useful tool folks at its helm. The Captains of the Industry.

Jill 03 March 2016

While we are at it. Is the Church racist? Is it sexist? Is it setting a good example for Hollywood and the world in general? Is it breaking down prejudices and out-dated traditions? Is this post relevant to the discussion? Will it see the light of day? /

Robert Liddy 03 March 2016

Thank you for your article. As an ordained Anglican priest I find it astounding that often in lists of church topics women and homosexuality are placed together. While sexuality is a topic that needs to be discussed. I fail to see how homosexuality and women are logically connected, other than being see as the 'Other'.

Natalie Milliken 05 March 2016

Similar articles

Time to retire 'magical negro' trope from Aussie sport

Erin Riley | 29 February 2016

Cyril Rioli in actionSports journalists shape narratives. There is drama intrinsic to sport, but the sports journalist draws it out, identifying heroes and villains, and slotting each performance into a broader arc. The power to influence the way the public understands a game or player ought to be wielded carefully. Too often, it is not. This is best demonstrated by the ways in which commentators and journalists speak about Indigenous athletes. A simple superlative can be loaded with more than a century of cultural baggage.

The Kanye West konundrum

Jen Vuk | 26 February 2016

Kanye WestIt seems not a week goes by that Kanye West isn't in the news. Over the past few weeks alone, West has among other things disparaged Taylor Swift, announced that 'white publications' had no right to write about black music, and tweeted in support of alleged serial rapist Bill Cosby. Depending on your perspective, West is either the gift that just keeps giving or the twit who just keeps tweeting. How has someone like him managed to flourish in a time in which online shaming has become the norm?

Battered broadcaster's Bolt delusion

Jeff Sparrow | 27 January 2016

Margaret Simons The Content MakersJosh Bornstein compared the ABC to the victim in an abusive relationship, desperately trying to ward off the next blow by anticipating the criticism of its enemies. Certainly, enlisting Andrew Bolt to participate in a documentary on Indigenous constitutional recognition seems like a pre-emptive defensive move against the accusations of bias that are routinely levelled against the national broadcaster. For Bolt the arrangement is win-win; for the ABC it's yet another example of self-sabotage.

The butterfly effect of online grief

Kate Mani | 27 January 2016

Blue butterfly shapeA few months ago, someone I know died. We had only met a couple of times, accepted each other's Facebook friend requests, and messaged each other on and off. But I grew to know him well. His face filled my Facebook newsfeed weekly. Now I see his family's farewells, and the preceding year of photos makes it even easier to picture their grief. Be it the loss of a friend or a city shattered by terror, the 21st century colossus that is social media has reinvented the wheel of commemoration.

2015 in review: Images that empower women

1 Comment
Catherine Marshall | 15 January 2016

Image from Getty Images LeanIn CollectionStudies confirm that sexualised images of slim young women used in advertising and popular culture lead to body dissatisfaction, psychological impairment and eating disorders. A new initiative from the non-profit LeanIn.org is fighting this entrenched culture through a partnership with Getty Images. It has created a photo library depicting females in many sizes, cultures and styles of appearance, but all strong and determined and in-charge.