Earlier this Fall, the New York City Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment (MOME) introduced what they refer to as a “groundbreaking series of initiatives targeting the underrepresentation of women in film and television.”
The series consists of five brand-new programs, each of which is designed to directly combat the gender gap in the film, television, and theater industries; the scarcity of work and roles for women in these fields has been proven time and time again and, of late, seems to finally be the subject of some long-overdue attention.
As MOME Commissioner Julie Menin reminded in the Mayor’s Office press release, women make up more than half of the population in New York City (a city renowned for its theater and media communities) and yet make up shockingly little of the casts, crews, and creative teams of films, TV shows, and plays produced in New York. According to the Mayor’s Office, Mayor de Blasio and his administration are committed to, “[elevating] women and other underrepresented groups,” especially in a field as New York-famous as the arts industry.
Why is the Mayor of New York concerned with women in the arts? The issue of gender parity in the arts is not a new one. In fact, it’s become somewhat of a hot topic in recent years. The League of Professional Theatre Women’s Women Count study conducted between 2010-2015, looked closely at the employment of women in the Off-Broadway theater world. Their findings were simultaneously shocking and unsurprising, as they echo what’s been true across arts-based fields for a long time. Women writers and directors work far less frequently than their male counterparts, in fact, only 30% of the plays produced Off-Broadway during the study were written by women and women accounted for a mere 22-40% of the population of working directors. The scarcity of women designers and technicians is even bleaker; from 2010-2015, 14-22% of sound designers, 8-16% of lighting designers, and 22-36% of set designers were women. When women were hired, it was often the same several women over and over again — it was rare that a theater institution took risks and gave opportunities to new or emerging female artists. These statistics represent a frustrating inequality, one that’s given rise to parity-focused theater seasons and organizations including The Kilroys and the Women’s Voices Festival, and, now, the Mayor’s Office’s new focus on supporting women.
Similar studies have been conducted in the film and television industries, including original research conducted as part of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media‘s work fighting for equal representation in the media. Since its founding, the Geena Davis Institute stance has been that girls’ lives are enhanced by seeing themselves represented well on screen, and that the current scarcity of female role models, both on screen and behind-the-scenes, has an impact on what girls believe themselves to be worth or capable of. In study after study, they’ve shown both that women work less behind the camera and are depicted with far less variety, diversity, and complexity in film than their male counterparts. The Institute’s most recent report, called The Reel Truth: Women Aren’t Seen Or Heard, included the launch of the Geena Davis Inclusion Quotient, or the GD-IQ, a new method of automated media analysis. The GD-IQ will make it easier for researchers to measure the portrayals of women in the media. and has already found that, in 2015, men appeared on screen for twice as long as women and ad twice as much dialogue, but that “films led by women grossed 15.8% more on average than films led by men.”
It’s fitting – and exciting – then, that Mayor de Blasio’s administration sat down to do something about these astonishing statistics. To encourage parity, the program will include five initial facets that the office is referring to as “concrete actions” by which they will address the problem head-on. First, MOME is working to support women financially and to connect them to funding, something that’s often very challenging for female artists (particularly younger ones) to secure. It will do so by launching its Women’s Fund For Film and Theatre, through which they will offer $5 million grants to provide resources to writers, producers, and directors whose endeavors are “by, for, or about women.” In addition to the funding available through those grants, MOME will also provide financial resources to female filmmakers through what they’re calling a “film finance lab” to “speed fund” a group of fifty women filmmakers working on women-centric movies. Those fifty artists, many of whom MOME is hoping will be emerging, will have the rare opportunity to meet face-to-face with investors and financial firms.
MOME also recognizes that women need to be given opportunities to have their work produced, so they’re including a script-writing contest. Writers submit short pilot scripts, the winners of which will be produced and will air on the NYCLife channel. The office also produced two documentaries set to air across New York, both of which focus on successful New York women including the founders of New York City restaurant Sarabeth’s and Suze Orman. Other inspiring programming includes original research MOME will conduct on the inequality female film directors face, partnerships with New York colleges and universities, and a program to train New Yorkers from at-risk communities as production assistants.
For years, research has been conducted, stories have been written, and frustration has amounted surrounding gender inequality in the arts. Start-ups, foundations, and organizations have been hard at work to contribute to research, further the conversation, and offer solutions and opportunities of their own, but, until now, there hasn’t been this kind of push from a municipal agency to support women in the arts. It’s especially significant that the initiative was launched in New York, where so many young artists across a wide range of mediums flock as they begin their careers. MOME, it seems, is answering the call by committing to work hard to create a more equal playing field for women. Here’s hoping New York makes actionable change a trend and that other agencies follow suit.