When Men Dominate the Film Industry, What’s the Problem?

"Oscar Statuettes" by Prayitno is licensed under CC BY 2.0 (via Flickr)

Watching the Oscars recently, I was struck by the fact that, for all the emphasis on women over the last year because of the #metoo movement, the winners were still mostly a parade of men. Greta Gerwig did not win for her wonderful movie Lady Bird; Guillermo Del Toro won for the overly contrived movie The Shape of Water. Yes, there were female winners in the acting categories, but there have to be: those categories are gender-segregated.

The domination of the movie industry by men was made horrifyingly clear in a BBC graphic I saw on my Facebook feed a few days after the award ceremony. Men not only dominate in the making of movies but within movies themselves. They’re the ones doing most of the speaking.

A chart showing the speaking time of men and women in Oscars Best Picture Winners
Table published by the BBC showing the speaking time of men versus women in Best Picture winners. Data compiled by Hanah Anderson.

This seems like a seriously concerning sort of inequality, not only because women are so visibly underrepresented in the film industry, but because most of us get our sense of life’s possibilities partly by watching movies. And so you would want a philosophical account of equality to at least label the problem as a problem, if not tell us what to do about it. Yet one of the best-known accounts of equality we have—Peter Singer’s account of equality in Practical Ethics—has trouble seeing any problem here.

Singer argues that for men and women to be equal is for them to come under the “Principle of Equality.” This is not a factual principle, but a moral norm: equal interests should be considered equally. A rescue worker would be conforming to the norm if she treated a male and a female survivor in the same way if they had the same injury. She’d also be conforming if she only treated the male survivor, assuming the woman were too badly injured to be helped. “To each according to his interests,” the principle essentially says.

This is a principle that debars prejudiced treatment in all sorts of situations. It tells us that people in poor families in India shouldn’t adopt the policy of men eating before women (a practice Martha Nussbaum describes in Women and Human Development). It also tells us that during the sinking of the Titanic, there shouldn’t have been a policy of “ladies first.” Compliance with the Principle of Equality would stop families from spending more on the education of boys than on the education of girls—still a practice in some cultures.

Well and good! But it doesn’t seem as if for everyone to come under the Principle of Equality is enough to make us all equal to each other. It wouldn’t even seem to be enough, were the Principle of Equality rigorously followed. The problem is that the Principle of Equality only has application in a certain type of situation—call it a “Type One Situation.” This is a situation in which interests are all that matter. It’s remarkable (once you think about it) how rarely we are in Type One Situations.

Hiring committees don’t decide who gets the job based on who has the stronger interest in getting the job. College admissions committees don’t admit students in light of their interests. I don’t grade papers so as to help people get into law school if that’s what’s in their best interests. And more to the point, the members of the Academy of Motion Pictures don’t choose Best Picture based on the interests of the nominees. If they did, they would have given Greta Gerwig’s movie the award, instead of adding marginally beneficial glory to an already much-lauded director.

Is everyone erring by paying attention to not only interests but merit, talent, performance, strengths of all kinds, weakness of all kinds? Even Peter Singer doesn’t seem to think so. In his chapter on equality in Practical Ethics, he responds to complaints about affirmative action by saying the complainers can’t claim that their interests were ignored because college admissions aren’t based on interests. That’s not a flaw in the admissions process, he seems to say; the expectation that interests will be decisive is a mistake on the part of the critic.

No, of course, interests aren’t all that’s relevant to every decision. We are very often in “Type Two Situations,” situations in which interests may sometimes have some relevance, but many other factors are also legitimately relevant, or solely relevant. And so it can’t possibly suffice for equality that the Principle of Equality obtains, or even that it’s followed, where interests are all that matter. For men and women to be equals, and to be treated equally, there have to be egalitarian norms that hold in Type Two Situations.

Wouldn’t it be nice if the norms could be as simple as Peter Singer’s original Principle of Equality? The norm might be that people should be considered according to their talents, or merits, or specific relevant strengths and weaknesses, etc., and not based on their gender (or race, or sexual orientation, etc.). That’s close to right, but it can’t be that simple because gender does seem to be potentially relevant in some cases. When producers chose Greta Gerwig’s screenplay about a girl’s last year of high school and chose her to direct the movie, it surely didn’t need to be completely ignored that, as a woman, she knew something about the subject.

Why are women so underrepresented among movie makers and in movies themselves? It’s possible that some of the problem is with Singer’s original Principle of Equality being ignored. When a director harasses or assaults an actress, in the manner of Harvey Weinstein, his transgression might be best described as a case of discounting the victim’s interests and wildly inflating his own. He’s in a Type One Situation and he’s violating Singer’s principle.

But the movie industry is also full of Type Two Situations. The industry needs to get better at complying with egalitarian norms in these situations, instead of underrating women as movie makers and protagonists.

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Jean Kazez teaches philosophy at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. She is the author of The Philosophical Parent: Asking the Hard Questions about Having and Raising Children (Oxford University Press) and two previous books. Find out more at kazez.blogspot.com.