Peter Bart: Women In Media Still Struggling To Reshape The Rules Despite Recent Milestones

Women have owned the Hollywood headlines lately by defying “the rules” – all sorts of rules. Scarlett Johansson has challenged Disney’s dealmaking prowess by filing high-profile litigation. Meanwhile, Reese Witherspoon has sold her media business to two former top Disney dealmakers for $900 million insisting that she and her female creatives will still run the show at Hello Sunshine. At the same time, Olympic athletes like Alexi Pappas and Allyson Felix are spurning rich Nike deals to pursue both equity and influence in new fashion brands.

“The culture of the American workplace still conspires against professional women,” insists the feminist writer Hanna Rosin. In sports and Hollywood, however, her thesis seems to be history (her book was titled The End of Men). Women have been scoring a succession of power jobs in the #MeToo media marketplace, as recent headlines reflect.

“A decision to select a male candidate over a woman today is like joining a suicide squad,” one corporate CEO observed this week. In his view, women are firmly implanted on the power pyramid both as creators and executives.

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Indeed one of the “in” summer books now circulating among “power women” is titled Phallacy. It’s eliciting a communal smirk: Written by a scientist (Emily Willingham holds a PhD in biology), the thesis of the book is that the “penis obsession” propagated by the human Alpha male has become a hilarious anachronism, even among other species.

As Willingham points out, a barnacle can stretch its penis to nine times its body length, a snail can grow its penis on its forehead and ducks have evolved their members into corkscrews. Her conclusion: “As a power symbol, the throbbing obelisk of human masculinity has become political baggage.”

Talk to members of the power circle in Hollywood, however, and you soon learn that the “obelisk” still poses day-to-day challenges. Confides one female executive: “It’s one thing to land the important title, but another to succeed in instilling a female sensibility into week-to-week programming, in terms of subject matter or casting.”

Survey streaming schedules or theatrical releases, she argues, and you find a dominance of material skewed toward the male audience, young or adult. Hence current releases like Snake Eyes, Old, The Wrath of Man – or The Suicide Squad.

While talented female directors are emerging from the fray, their work sometimes reflects a Kathryn Bigelow model — films Zero Dark Thirty, Detroit or The Hurt Locker. Women in the industry were pleased that Julia Ducournau’s Titane won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, but many were perplexed by its surreal plot — a young woman became pregnant in an automobile collision.

To be sure, the fall and winter offers some promising female characters: The Eyes of Tammy Faye stars Jessica Chastain as a televangelist, Nightmare Alley stars Cate Blanchett playing a female shrink, and Blonde probes the secretive personal life of Marilyn Monroe.

“It’s an anachronistic concept that women filmmakers are obligated to make films about women,” observes one female producer. “Still Nomadland and Promising Young Woman last year displayed insights that were absent from the typical studio movies.”

“What’s needed are stories about men whose misunderstanding of women has wrought harm on both sexes,” comments Amy Sohn, author of a new book titled The Man Who Hated Women. Sohn’s book focuses on Anthony Comstock, who, in Sohn’s words, “dealt a century-long blow to women’s health, harnessing anti-obscenity laws to punish birth control advocates, arrest midwives and ban ‘offensive’ books.”

Rosin, whose books declared men obsolete, has lately had second thoughts on her thesis. The impact of Covid-19 on women has been even greater than on men, she wrote recently, reversing the strides of previous years.

Given these obstacles, women have reason to admire Hollywood’s rule breakers in the arenas of media and in sports. To this end, Witherspoon may emerge as a role model. “I’m going to double down on my mission to hire more female creatives from all walks of life and showcase their talents,” she declared this week. “Women’s stories matter.”

Her lead investors are Kevin Mayer and Tom Staggs, both of whom were once prime candidates to succeed Bob Iger, only to finish behind Bob Chapek. Their new entity, still unnamed, is backed by the private equity giant Blackstone Group. Hello Sunshine, Witherspoon’s entity, controls titles like Little Fires Everywhere, The Morning Show plus a book club, and it produces four shows with streaming services.

What is the competitive advantage to Witherspoon in making the deal? ”The big guys aren’t licensing their content outside of their own closed walled gardens,” said Mayer. “That’s where a scaled independent entity like ours can have an advantage in the marketplace.”

That advantage hopefully will pay off for Witherspoon and perhaps for other women who may emulate her.

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