Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Hollywood's glass ceiling: Why doesn't the film industry trust women?

By Melissa Silverstein, Special to CNN
updated 12:08 PM EDT, Mon July 1, 2013
Hollywood actresses Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy grace the red carpet at
Hollywood actresses Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy grace the red carpet at "The Heat" premiere. The film was a hit at the US box office this weekend grossing at total of $40 million.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Author Melissa Silverstein highlights Hollywood's women problem in her new book
  • Women directors accounted for just 9% of Hollywood blockbusters in 2012
  • More female directors needed to reflect women's voice, says Silverstein

Leading Women connects you to extraordinary women of our time. Melissa Silverstein is the founder and editor of Women and Hollywood. She is co-founder of the Athena Film Festival and author of "In Her Voice: Women Directors Talk Directing". Follow her @melsil on Twitter.

New York, NY (CNN) -- It would be wonderful to say that in 2013 things were looking up for women in Hollywood -- both onscreen and behind the scenes -- but the sad news is that the numbers have remained consistently dismal for the last decade. In 2012, in the US, women made up 18% of the directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films. And women directors accounted for just 9%.

Read: 'Slumdog' star Freida Pinto empowers women

It's clear that Hollywood has a woman problem. It's not just that they don't trust the vision of a woman to direct; they don't trust that people want to see our stories. There's a prevailing sense that male stories are universal, for everyone, and that women's stories are just for women.

Banking boss: Nothing scares me
Tina Brown: 'Taking risks comes easily'
Tina Brown: I'm living my dream

Just look around at your local movie theater and you will see that the male action superhero films have become the dominant narratives of our time. Just this summer, we have already seen the release of the latest versions of "Superman", "Iron Man", "Star Trek", "The Fast and the Furious", and still to come are "The Lone Ranger", "Thor", "Grown Ups", "The Wolverine" among many, many others. The message is loud and clear -- these are the movies that matter -- not only to Hollywood, but, increasingly to the world, as the international box office now accounts for almost 70% of the grosses of these films. And none of the films above are directed by women.

The reality that female directors and producers and writers deal with is the ongoing perception that women will go see movies about men and that men won't go see stories about women. The success of "Bridesmaids" in 2011 helped diminish the case slightly, as did "The Hunger Games" in 2012. But even though women buy half the movie tickets, this perception persists especially for those who want to tell women's stories.

Read: Making it as a female movie mogul in Hollywood

Another problem is that because there are so few movies about women, the ones that are released are held up to absurd scrutiny. If you fail the entire gender is blamed and we take two steps back, but on the other hand, if you are a success you can't get a sequel made because women's successes are still seen as flukes. We are stuck in a catch 22.

It is worth noting that this summer in the sea of superhero films, there are only two films with women leads being distributed by the major studios. "The Heat" is an original comedy, written by a woman Katie Dippold and directed by Paul Feig, the director of "Bridesmaids". It stars Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy both at the top of their game in a genuinely hysterical film. "City of Bones: The Mortal Instruments" is the latest attempt to build off the success of the "Twilight" franchise.

While neither of the movies being released by the studios is directed by a woman, there are a handful of women directed films you can see this summer, at least here in the US. We have films from Sofia Coppola, Susan Seidelman, Margarethe von Trotta, Shari Springer Berman, Rama Burshtein, Jerusha Hess, Katie Aselton, Maggie Carey and Lake Bell. The problem is that all of these films are small, don't have superheroes flying or cities blowing up. These films will be available on a limited amount of screens, so you need to live in place that has more than just a local multiplex or else you will easily miss these films and your entire summer can go by without seeing a single film by a female director.

Read: Who were the real 'Great Gatsby' women?

But even though the statistics are still dismal, there are women breaking through all across Hollywood. The reality is that there are women decision makers at all levels in the business. Amy Pascal has been successful as the head of Sony for several years. And just last week a new three person team was named to run Warner Brothers and it includes a woman -- Sue Kroll. And let's not forget Kathryn Bigelow who broke through and became the first female to win an Oscar for best director. She can make any movie she wants at any studio. But she chose to make her last film "Zero Dark Thirty" with an independent producer Megan Ellison, who has made quite a name for herself over the last couple of years. And while there are still not enough women directed films at the top tier festivals, this year for the first time at the Sundance Film Festival there was parity in both the US documentary and feature competitions.

But we need more women and more female role models as directors because movies have such power in our culture. They are a reflection of who we are and what we value. They are what we talk about at work on Monday morning. They are how we socialize. When we don't see women, and we don't see women's stories, we get the message that women don't matter as much, that our stories don't count, that our experiences are less valid. And that's something that is just not acceptable.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Tue April 1, 2014
In 2007, Arianna Huffington collapsed at her desk. Suffering from a broken cheekbone, the editor-in-chief decided to change her workaholic ways.
updated 12:23 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Meet Mo Abudu, the talk show host portraying a very different Africa. As a glamorous presenter, she also heads up Ebony Life TV network, based in Nigeria.
updated 8:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Their job is capturing the most horrifying images on Earth -- keeping their eyes open, where others must look away. Meet Kate Brooks and Gerda Taro, the war photographers of today and yesterday.
updated 2:19 PM EDT, Tue March 25, 2014
Gloria Steinem speaks onstage during Equality Now presents 'Make Equality Reality' at Montage Hotel on November 4, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.
As Gloria Steinem turns 80, Kathleen McCartney highlights the remarkable life of the feminist so far.
updated 11:32 AM EST, Sat March 8, 2014
CNN hosted a Tweetchat on gender equality with special guests including Nobel Peace prize laureate Tawakkol Karman. Here's what you missed.
updated 6:59 AM EDT, Thu March 13, 2014
From shaving her head for climate change to opting for a sustainable business model, Vivienne Westwood is simply unstoppable.
updated 11:02 AM EDT, Wed April 2, 2014
In what would be a dream come true for her alter ego, Carrie Bradshaw -- Sarah Jessica Parker has turned her love of fashion into a new shoe range with Manolo Blahnik.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Wed March 12, 2014
The Facebook COO's latest headline-making action is a new "Ban Bossy" campaign, which aims at getting rid of the word "bossy."
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Tue March 18, 2014
Meet Gail Kelly, the woman who started as a bank teller -- and now runs the banks.
updated 12:46 AM EST, Thu March 6, 2014
What kind of politician is slashed in the face with a knife, and upon waking up in hospital the first thing they ask about is the election campaign?
updated 11:50 AM EST, Wed February 26, 2014
Former U.S. State Deparment Anne-Marie Slaughter says Brad Pitt is 'posterchild for engaged fatherhood'.
updated 10:25 AM EST, Tue February 25, 2014
Cast your eye across a line-up of world leaders and it might look a little something like this: Man in dark suit, man in dark suit, man in dark suit, Angela Merkel in fire engine red two-piece.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Tue February 18, 2014
Meet Margarita Louis-Dreyfus, the chairperson of French commodities giant Louis Dreyfus Holdings, with a net worth estimated at an eye-watering $6 billion.
updated 6:38 AM EST, Mon February 17, 2014
YouTube has a new boss and she has a "healthy disregard for the impossible" -- according to Google CEO Larry Page. Here are five things you didn't know about her.
ADVERTISEMENT