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What I Learned From My Brush With Sexism in Hollywood

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Art Credit: REEGONE

Ever since I was a kid watching classic films with my family, I wanted to be one of the people who made movies happen.

I spent my teenage years starring in high school plays and singing in a rock band. I went to film school and worked as a production assistant in New York City postgrad. When a friend’s short film was up for an Oscar, I called with congratulations. He invited me to L.A. to work on his USC thesis film, and off I went. With a little help from friends and family, I got a foot in the door as a receptionist at a Hollywood studio. A couple years later, I became the assistant to a feature film development executive at a bigger studio.

Hollywood types would call looking for my boss and schmooze with me, giving me a chance to pick up some inside info or hear about the screenplay that would become the Next Big Thing.

One caller was a well-respected literary agent—let’s call him James. We had a few phone conversations about music and movies and had similar taste. That counted for a lot with me, so I thought we were friends—or at least friend-ish. One day, we decided to meet for lunch. It was quite a coup for an underling like me to sit down with himI was nervous. As the unlucky valet sputtered off with my decrepit Nissan in the parking lot of the restaurant, I told myself this was no different from other lunches I’d been to. We’d have the usual light banter and maybehe’d sharea smidge of career advice. No biggie.

I enjoyed the whole see-and-be-seen aspect of our lunch at a well-known Hollywood spot. Lush vines entwined across the trellised, open-air ceiling, dappling sunlight over the lunch crowd. We talked a bit about the biz, and he made the usual off-color comments. He had a wife and kids, but I always steered the conversation back on track as I rolled my eyes—that old-school, Rat Pack attitude was pervasive, but what did I have to worry about? I was a Turner Classics kind of girl, not Cinemax.

Then he launched into a particularly long, steady stream of sexual innuendo. Itwas so blatant I felt I had to make reference to his family just to, you know, remind him they existed. He didn’t like that. Things got awkward.

Once he realized I had no interest in becoming an extramarital conquest, Irealized we were not friends—there was no business relationship, no nothing, that did not involve me taking off my clothes.

The check came. James made no move to pay. Raising his voice and shoving his chair aside, he uttered a torrent of angry words and finally, the vilest of all epithets for a young woman in Hollywood: “You’re over the hill!” He stormed out.

Horrified, I held my breath and pretended to study the pattern of unsweetened iced tea stains on the white linen tablecloth, waiting for one of my fellow diners or a waiter to stop and stare.

But no one noticed. No one cared. No one except me.

I was shocked; I knew a lot of genuinely good people in H’wood who were there because they loved movies and weren’t into power, politics, and sex. Many, though, were quite the opposite. Take the producer who tried to coax me to drive from Santa Monica to Burbank (a long drive) at 11 p.m. so he could help me get to know, ahem, “the business.” (I politely declined, but had I said yes, it might have helped my career.) Or take the young TV starlet, in our office for a meeting with executives, whose skirt was so short I could see the lacy mesh of her thong as she sat in the lobby. I felt embarrassed for her, but I knew she was playing the game. I hoped it would work out for her better than the woman who used to roam the halls of one of the Hollywood studios shouting, “I know who I effed to get this job; who do I have to eff to get out of it?”

I felt wounded and ashamed. After a few years in that balmy yet smog-laden L.A. air, I had reached my expiration date.

Wait… what??

I wasn’t in L.A. to be a Playboy centerfold. In fact, the career I was attempting basically consisted of networking with other film geeks and reading screenplays on the weekends. If I needed to be a hot 21-year-old for that, then there was a problem. I simply couldn’t believe the only way to do business was by using my body as a bargaining chip.

And then I realized why James’ words stung: not because they were true, but because his hurtful attitude is in the very air we breathe.

You know, the one that says a woman’s life ends at 30 and that her worth and power depend entirely on sex. It hadn’t started with James, and it wouldn’t end with him. In songs, TV, and film, the message is whispered so softly and consistently that I never knew I was hearing it. Even when it was broadcast loudly and obnoxiously, it was always background noise. Until its damage became crystal clear.

It took me some time, but I realized that by consuming and producing mass media without much thought or concern, I was placing myself under the thrall of James and his kin. Looking back, I see now that James was also damaged by this—so too, surely, were his wife and kids.

If there’s anything I learned from this experience, it’s that the problem is much bigger than sexist older men. The problem is the hyper-sexuality of the media culture, which is truly a war waged on all of us.

To initiate change, we must start by looking at ourselves. We can step back from the “edge”—the sexually explicit, vulgar, and insane. For about 50 years, Hollywood has been pushing the same tired envelope into ever “edgier” territory and congratulating itself every step of the way for being progressive. Result: Yesterday’s R rating is today’s PG-13. To buck the trend, look for uplifting stories where fully dressed folks try to live good lives. Try The Mighty with Sharon Stone or The Black Stallion with Mickey Rooney.

In the end, it all comes down to being informed. Can you go to through the checkout line without being barraged by magazines promising hot sex tips? I can’t. Neither can our kids. The damage that the entertainment industry does is real and lasting. Check out the American Psychological Association’s report on the sexualization of girls. A keystep in combating sexism and over-sexualization is becoming aware.

Finally, we can make the choice to vote for classy entertainment by boycotting non-classy options. Content providers track our choices to plan what they’ll air next season. Would you watch your favorite show with your five-year-old niece or your grandma? If the idea gives you the creeps, think twice about what you’re watching. Weelect the future of our culture with our clicks, our dollars, and our eyeballs. So vote classy.

When we see how our individual entertainment choices impact the culture we can become agents—not power broker agents like James but agents of positive change in our own lives and the lives of others.