“Implicit bias” is something that comes up here every once in a while; it’s pretty foundational to important things like sexism and racism, and if we say that the first step to defeating your intolerance is understanding it’s there, understanding the possibility that unknown biases could exist is that process revealed. In this video, I’d like to talk about implicit bias, appropriately the B story, while the A story is making a case for Affirmative Action in Hollywood.
Whoa! Affirmative Action, oh my God, right? At least, that was one side of the discourse back in early 2015 — remember that time? #OscarsSoWhite? That was a hashtag, and a social activist movement created by the blogger April Reign. For anyone in the room who still bristles at the equation of activism and social media, sometimes it’s just about an idea, and I learned something eye-opening through all this kerfuffle.
Now, the situation with the 2015 Oscars, looking back on the year that was, 2014, precipitated because of the nominations, in which at the very least, Ava DuVernay was not nominated for Best Director, and the rest of the categories were utterly bleached. This was around the time when movies and TV shows started to become more diverse, which we’re still struggling with now of course, but this led to a lot of frustration when the Academy continued to overlook the accomplishments of women and people of color. A number of prominent black celebrities skipped out on the show in protest.
And the argument from the other side was: this isn’t about inclusion for the sake of inclusion — it’s not Affirmative Action, this is art. You are nominated when your work is the best, and obviously, yours was not. Maybe that sounds reasonable, but I read a series of tweets by the writer Imran Siddiquee, and I wish I could find those tweets, but I believe the essence was:
We say “merit,” but our valuation of merit is influenced by 100 years of a relatively unchanging Hollywood. It’s a cycle that perfectly sustains itself. We’ve had Image A telling us what the Image should look like, and so we steer ourselves toward future Image As, even at the expense of investigating Image B.
The idea is that there are great things out there, being produced and potentially produced by women and people of color, but we don’t recognize them as great. And that really blew my mind, because it lends itself to this troubling question: how do we know when we’re biased, what of our values have been truthfully calibrated, to whatever extent you can? And then everything’s thrown into question.
And we look back at the sad state of Hollywood and suddenly things start to a lot of sense. Recently, we saw the record-breaking debut of the Wonder Woman movie, directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins, and it’s been cause for celebration. But the story behind it is that adversity that creates heroes. And while heroes are great, that adversity doesn’t need to be there.
We look at the statistics and it’s objectively unfair or uneven, as a start. And I think the solution is obvious: hire more women. They’re not coming up, and we think they’re not interested. But what if we can’t see that they’re interested, or qualified, because we see the world in a way that is biased? This does raise some immediate concerns though, for example, the problem of who gets to tell whose story? Which we’re now introducing to the table because a “who” has been reified, where before it didn’t exist.
But I don’t think it takes a thought exercise, because it’s possible people have been saying that one of the areas we’re weakest is with considering women, who have been Image B for, well, a long time.
If we go far enough down the skill tree and unlock the power of listening, I do believe anybody can write anybody’s story, it’s just that, to this past 100 years of Hollywood, there’s been a regular California drought of listening. This is a tale of writer X making presumptions and the Internet reacting, eternally retold. We’re simply not there yet, and we can’t keep waiting, hoping one of these guys gets it right — they occasionally do — but it’s not a viable solution when there’s a better one that’s been hot to trot for, well, probably 100 years.
And again, the prospect of hiring women to tell women’s stories doesn’t worry the cruft among us for itself, hopefully, but I fucking– but for the principle it represents, that we shouldn’t confine people to only telling their stories, especially for what it closes off for other people, so eager, so fragile. To be a semantic dick for a hot second, isn’t that kind of storytelling anyway, that it’s always “your story,” even if you’re writing about, like, space pirates fighting the gleegalords from Neptune? Your take on an Asian-American person will be your take, it’s not supposed to speak for the whole of Asian American people.
Theoretically, yes. That’s why we’re interested in artists, and their approaches and interpretations on various subject matter. But in practice, just as there’s a gulf between intent and interpretation, when the non-Asian filmmakers behind Breakfast at Tiffany’s erect this image, the Asian Jason Scott Lees in the audience are affected in a way to where it doesn’t matter whose take it is, whose interpretation. All that exists is the image, and it doesn’t just exist, it burrows. Take it from me, but do so lightly.
So we say, again, hire women as often and aggressively as you can. Who am I talking to? I don’t know. Until that day that the non-Asian filmmaker’s image no longer stands alone, but is flanked by the Asian filmmaker’s image, maybe a moratorium on attempting to tell other people’s stories. And when it comes to women’s stories? Jesus. We could talk about the Breakfast at Tiffany’s equivalent for women characters in media, because that list is endless, but other people address that quite well and I’d rather focus on a different phenomenon. I have four examples for you, four works of media which feature women characters who eventually undergo a specific change. That is, toward character.
You might know Shannon Woodward from Westworld, or for her battles on Twitter for which she has remarkable stamina, but one of her previous major roles was on Raising Hope.
I’ve seen the first season of Community and other than “sort of middling” it didn’t leave an impression. I understood it developed a personality after that, so maybe the character Britta shouldn’t qualify here because everyone became more interesting. But at the outset, I remember they set up the will-they/won’t they between her and Joel McHale’s character, and I was surprised to check in later to find that romance was a far distant memory. She existed for a purpose beyond being the love interest.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
By the later seasons of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Sweet Dee is just as narcissistic and sociopathic as her brother Dennis, but is more willing to get her hands dirty doing, whatever. Contrast this with the first season, the show before Danny DeVito, when she was — I’ll give you three guesses — the voice of reason.
The Last of Us
In The Last of Us, actress Ashley Johnson had a strong sense of her character Ellie, and felt like she’d be more active in various scenes. And the director Neil Druckmann, actually listened. And he’s somebody who continues to listen, courting controversy as he does.
Men don’t always know how to write women. And yet, they were hired to do the job. So if you want to be an unimaginable sociopath and look at statistics for women in the industry and be like “Yeah, that’s about right,” you see this was never really about fairness, just inconvenience. The inconvenience of phantom anxiety that you may one day be supplanted or preempted, taken out of consideration.
“Merit” my fucking asshole. We’re talking about creative work — we don’t measure that with a fucking ruler. Best for the job? We’ve plenty evidence now we don’t know what the job is. Telling a story is an incredible, terrible responsibility, I don’t know why anybody does it. But it is a responsibility, and so all you gatekeepers, all you zombies, I beg you to be responsible.
So the next question, those gatekeepers in mind, is how. Why, for all this time, has the hiring Eye of Sauron been so pointed down at its own Dick of Sauron? Why was Patty Jenkins, an industry veteran, a revelation? Why will nobody entrust Lexi Alexander with a big budget ever again? Why did we murder Diablo Cody and Karyn Kusama? What the fuck did they do to us that was so bad? Look, I haven’t seen Jennifer’s Body, but you will not tell me it performed worse than the box office flops that didn’t derail careers. You’ll notice that most of the biggest box office bombs were directed by men.
Women have a one strike policy in Hollywood for which we have to stay vigilant. And what about the current trend of plucking some indie jerkoff out of the festivals and giving him a slice of a greater Cinematic Universe? That is classic studio executive strategy. A promising talent which can be controlled. That’s fine, that’s another discussion, because my concern is when it’s Edwards and Trevorrow and Roberts and arguably Johnson, we get this deadly sense that there are no women indie jerkoffs who can direct Star Wars — and like, any given Star Wars, not only Princess Leia: A Star Wars Story. You know? Any given superhero movie, not only Batgirl…
Maybe that sounds like a reach, I don’t know. But the anxiety that there are no talents of a specific group is not a hypothetical. In 2014, Aaron Sorkin expressed something in a private email, that “There aren’t any Asian movie stars.” As true as that is, it’s such an ironic thing for a mover-shaker like Aaron Sorkin to be saying. It’s like, you idiot, you are precarious on the edge of epiphany, just somebody push this jerk over. There aren’t any Asian movie stars? Our response was “oh, yes, there are,” like we’re fucking bobbleheads in the window. No, the answer is “then fucking make one” — even Better Luck Tomorrow had to be greenlit by a gatekeeper like yourself, Mr. Sorkin.
It’s like, we celebrate the people who rise up and come to represent their group — those are the stories we like. But at some point, they heard a yes. It’s not just about the rise, or the drive, or even the work. There are thousands of brilliant artists out there right now who will never be discovered, for one reason or another, and one of those reasons is because the gatekeepers don’t know how to say yes to them. They’re not used to it, it’s not instinct, it’s not in their cultural DNA. It’s like how every discovery we’ve ever made in neuroscience came from some horrific brain accident, we only think an Asian can be a star when there’s already a star in place making money, when there’s already a Patty Jenkins breaking box office records — so Jesus, how in the fuck does she ever get there in the first place?
That road to the green light is what might chiefly demand our attention. In the city of handshakes, how are you gonna shake her hand if she’s got cooties? Seriously, the thing they always tell you — it’s not about what you know, but who you know. Even if you’re a writer, an insular, Vitamin-C-depleted writer, you are expected to network. And once it becomes about networking, Hollywood becomes a microcosm for society itself — the sign goes up in front of the boy’s club.
We start with the culture, and as the culture of moviemaking outwardly faces young girls, let’s not call it encouraging, and that creates disproportion. I went to film school in New England, so maybe it’s just different on the “wrong coast,” but I knew every female student in the film program by name. There were not many. At least, that’s what I would say if I knew anybody by name, I keep what I like to consider a clinical distance to most people, but for real, there were like four. It takes a Rube Goldberg device of a socializing narrative — a series of statistically unlikely events in a child’s life to align perfectly to interest an impressionable mind toward directing movies instead of teaching, or modeling, or acting in movies, the things that are okay for women to do, that we’re comfortable with and not threatened by when they do them.
Then, being a minority in the industry, women are subject to the same indignities of being a minority generally. If they’re the only woman in the room, they can only speak through their male colleagues, because again, their voices don’t register, it’s like a dog whistle. And that’s just a frustration confined to the bounds of professionalism, I’m not gonna start talking about sexual harassment and sexual violence. But if you’re curious, you need only read the first page of Everyday Sexism for a primer on that particular blight.
So it’s possible that women carry the stories of women in their minds, better-researched and more intimately felt than when men carry those stories to the green light. But only a select few make it that far.
So how do we fix that system toward ‘hire more women’? Well, Affirmative Action would balance out the Affirmative Action we’re already indulging in with the invisible hand of bias that rests on our brains. It’s that limited vision of greatness principle. Some people think the playing field started out even, that it’s always been even, and these PC liberals are trying come in and tear up the astroturf, like how fucked are you? You heard one thing and believed it all your life. And that’s the beauty of implicit bias, it’s like the perfect organism, or the perfect crime, it erases its trail as it’s being committed, so we truly never know how deep it’s rooted. You with me?
But regardless, I think the process, the system, should adapt to where these biases don’t lead decisions that have these effects, these effects which make such an impact on people’s lives but have this complete plausible deniability. “Women-led genre films don’t make money” was somehow a reasonable excuse for, like, a decade.
But asking the system to change probably isn’t gonna work when it’s so risk-averse and very profitable at the moment and I don’t have a line into the system. I don’t think a lot of people do. And, anyway, I think this is a problem that begins from the ground up. We identified it already — it begins with the culture.
When I think about those film students in my graduating class who went on to be successful, I think about people who were very confident from basically orientation onward. They never second-guessed themselves. And when you hear people in movies say “now there’s someone who never second-guessed himself,” it’s this virtue. But where does that confidence come from? It’s not a quality you just have. I mean, maybe it’s there in the beginning, but it can be chipped away at, gradually, over the course of one’s life. When you feel like an outsider, and then soon, the rest of it comes.
Maybe we don’t know the scope of our influence on other people, but we make it very hard for women to first be interested and then stay interested in this currently male-dominated space. Part of fixing that comes back to our old friend: representation.
When filmmakers talk about being inspired to make movies by watching Star Wars, part of that has to be the escapism — transportation to a new world, and so the creation of new worlds becomes the trade you pursue. But imagine how much more compelling it is, how much more transported you are, when you can see yourself in Luke Skywalker. When you’re affirmed that the world you want to create is worth seeing. The diversity of Star Wars and Marvel and all these big movies that kids also see is fucking paramount, and even if the discussions surrounding them can be uncomfortable or even rabid, they’re very important, too.
But if we’re expecting Hollywood to do the job, perhaps we should lead the way — it’s grassroots, again. The culture. And by that I mean to issue a challenge to myself and all men in the audience. Because it seems like every day we peel back more and more layers on the implicit part of our implicit bias. How much longer before something gives, before we preempt the pattern of history and assert our place in it? Sounds like a lot but, again, it wouldn’t start with much, especially since we know what’s expected of us — to be sexist for another how many generations. So this is the challenge: another moratorium, this time, on our fucking judgment.
If we accept implicit bias, I think reasonably, we should accept that we cannot judge women in any way that’s fair or probably appropriate. You don’t know her story, and you know why you don’t know her story: where the fuck do you learn it? School? Hollywood? Billboards? Fuck no.
For a time, when your finger’s hovering over that @-reply button, just don’t do it. Stop judging and criticizing — maybe for a year. And after a year, you’re welcome to return, but see if you miss it. See if the world’s been colored in with pink and baby blue, because your comment was the only thing standing between your backyard and a feminized dystopia. Or was it just contributing to someone’s capacity for second guessing, which people certainly don’t need assistance with. Tone policing doesn’t carry the weight of law enforcement but if that’s true, a tone in need of policing won’t kill you if left unchecked, while not all tones stand on equal footing.
Are there bad women out there? Without question. Are trans-exclusionary feminists or Megyn Kelly or Malin Melkin terrible people? Yes. Do you have to be the guy to say it? No, you don’t. Somebody else has that covered, and you don’t want to be exercising a muscle that you’re, again, not fully aware of.
In strengthening our own language, maybe we have to let those pipes rest for a beat. I hate how dystopic this is gonna sound, but silence is the first part of listening. I mean, you can practically see that hanging in the background of some dumbass scifi movie funded by the Christian Council for Freedom of Speech or something. But maybe it’s more like, if we believe we can be better, speaking less, and especially to women, is like gathering your forces, building yourself up in private for a later reveal. I know some of you are like me: you’re comfortable with silence, you live in it like Bane, and maybe you talk more to your microphone than any actual person. Then take advantage of that, for a time. I’d like to see what people could be like, what I could be like.
I’m gonna go out on a limb and say, even though I wasn’t counting, I think I was technically being a dick for longer than a hot second? That’s usually the way of things, where it concerns being a dick.
Originally published to A Generic Wonderful on 07/02/2017