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Unconscious Bias and Women in Entertainment

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“Unconscious biases are social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness. Everyone holds unconscious beliefs about various social and identity groups, and these biases stem from one’s tendency to organize social worlds by categorizing.” – University of California, San Francisco: Office of Diversity and Outreach

There are many different types of unconscious bias, but I want to talk specifically about a bias that I personally encounter every day as a woman in the entertainment industry.  

If you look at the history of the way women have been perceived, you will see how easy it has become for our society to create an unconscious bias towards them.  Women are even guilty of feeding into the bias against themselves.  Women have graced the covers of magazines half naked for years, women typically play the girlfriend in films.  Women are often just there to move the men’s story along. Women in politics are scrutinized more for their outward appearances than their policies.  I even grew up hearing “don’t run like a girl” and “don’t’ cry like a girl” to both men and myself.  I mean really?!!??!?!  I grew up hearing this on the playground along with all of my other schoolmates, of course we all grew up thinking running or crying like a girl was a negative thing.  And every single little comment and image has created an unconscious bias in our society.

Let me give you some examples of an unconscious bias- ones that I have witnessed with my own eyes. It is when a women’s private parts are used in slang to mean weak and pathetic. It is when a women and a man walk into a meeting and the women is not acknowledged, or talked down to compared to her male counterpart.  An unconscious bias is when a studio executive says “why would I watch a movie about women.”  Or when a studio man says “I don’t understand these girls in high school and why they care about their friends.”  Or “Movies about women don’t make money, because men won’t see movies about women stories.”  That was just said to me a couple of weeks ago, by the way.

Women have spent the last generations identifying to men’s stories, that’s been the norm, but what if we changed the norm? 

My producing partner is a man, and we will often go to meetings where women are talked about in a way, that is just unacceptable or I am talked to in a different way than he is. I first used to call this out privately to my male partner, and then I just started calling it out, straight out in a meeting.  Most times the person didn’t even realize what they were saying.  But hopefully they will think twice next time.

My film Catching Faith was just reviewed by a man, and it is very obvious in the article that this man suffers from an unconscious bias.  In the review he raves about our male director (who deserves to be raved about) and also credits him for co-writing the script.  But he never mentions the two other female writers, even though he talks about our other jobs on the film.  He also completely dismisses a scene about a women’s group in the review by saying it’s  “just simple, a bunch of girls sitting around a table.”  He raves about the two lead male actors in the film, and never mentions anything about ALL the female actors.

I have devoted myself and my work to calling out this specific unconscious bias at every chance I get.  It is so ingrained in our minds to think about women in a certain way, to speak about women in a certain way, that it has become auto pilot.  It just happens, and unless we call it out both in our own minds and then out loud when we hear it, it will never change.  I was even interviewed by a woman who was putting down women driven films, totally unconsciously, until I pointed it out, and she was like “OH MY GOSH”! 

I was cast last year in a movie called “I Feel Pretty” opposite Amy Schumer in a scene as the captain of her private plane.  It was a conscious decision by the filmmakers to cast against type and give that role to a woman.  On set everyone constantly referred to my co-captain, as captain, because he was a man.  People even said they assumed he was playing that role, even though I was dressed as the captain.  We shot the scene and I cheered for that very small milestone for women everywhere…. Until the movie was released in theaters.  I bought my ticket and my popcorn, ecstatic to see my role in the film and praying I didn’t land on the cutting room floor.  And although I am clearly in the scene with Amy dressed at the pilot, when the actors are all in the plane, guess what?  Yep, the captain comes on the loud speaker and it is a man’s voice!  In post production they added the voice of a man to the role I was given and played out not only on set but in the final edit.  I rest my point people, don’t even know if I need to say more! 

A big topic right now is, do we as women have to call out that we are female filmmakers, or a female director or producer.  “Isn’t that just feeding into the problem,” you might ask.  But I think we have to say it, cause if we don’t, then people will assume it is a man who holds that position.  It’s an unconscious bias that a man is the producer, director, or the owner of a production company, because it has been the norm for so long.  I don’t want to have to call myself a “female filmmaker” just like you would never call a man a “male filmmaker” but until it’s not assumed it’s a guy, then I think I have to keep saying it.

So my mission for you all is to be OVER aware of the comments towards women on a daily basis, and don’t be afraid to call it out!  Only then can we all shift this bias and create a balanced existence for ourselves and the ones to come behind us. 

Check out this amazing little girl calling out “the unconscious bias” and being part of changing the norm, that only girls want pink dolls and the boys get the superheroes.

Alexandra Boylan

About Alexandra Boylan

Alexandra Boylan (Producer, Writer, Actor, Co-Founder Mustard Seed Entertainment and Mirror Tree Productions) Alexandra is an award-winning filmmaker. MirrorTree Productions, has produced numerous feature films, including "Home Sweet Home" and "At Your Own Risk". Her company Mustard Seed Entertainment's film "Catching Faith" had a two year run on Netflix and was on the shelves of Wal-Mart. Her most recent film "Wish For Christmas" sold to Pure Flix Entertainment and Universal Studios Home Entertainment. Alexandra’s script "Switched" was awarded the winner of the Kiaros Pro MovieGuide award for best screenplay. She is the author of "Create Your Own Career in Hollywood: Advice from a struggling actress who became a successful producer" available in Kindle and print on Amazon, and is an active member of Woman in Film Los Angeles where she served on the WIF PSA Board. Alexandra co-collaborated on the book "Thriving in Hollywood!" for msinthebiz.com