Industry Standard 

Are female executives to blame for Hollywood’s unrealistic beauty norms?

Actresses Keira Knightley, Amy Adams and Cate Blanchett.
Keira Knightley, Amy Adams, and Cate Blanchett.

Photo-illustration by Slate. Photos by Matt Carr/Getty Images and Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Hollywood producer Gavin Polone has a theory about how unrealistic beauty standards for women are perpetuated in film and TV. “During the course of my 18-year producing career, I’ve been told by a female executive that her female boss ‘would never cast anyone who wasn’t really, really thin.’ I’ve been told by a female executive to have an actress’ bra padded. And on multiple occasions, I’ve heard female producers and executives ask to have an image digitally stretched in a scene to make a particular woman look thinner. I don’t remember a male executive or producer ever saying anything remotely similar about altering a woman’s appearance to make her look thinner or busty-er,” Polone—who’s produced on Gilmore Girls and Curb Your Enthusiasmwrote in the Hollywood Reporter last month, weighing in on the hell that broke loose after Lena Dunham appeared on the cover of Vogue. “There should be change in how women are portrayed in the media, and that change has to come from the female executives and producers who are the ultimate deciders about onscreen content.”

Polone is right about this: Very skinny women are overrepresented on TV. In film, female characters are much more likely to be thin, small-waisted, and dressed in sexually revealing clothing than men are. But when I asked a group of actors, producers, writers, and casting directors about who’s to blame for reinforcing that standard, everyone pointed the finger in a different direction. It was like the Rashomon of sexual objectification.

“I don’t hear this crap from women,” one female TV producer told me. “I hear it from men. … In writers rooms, they put pictures of the girls who audition on the TV, and a room full of primarily men will yell, ‘Ew! Go away!’ about incredibly gorgeous women.” The producer, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid angering those guys, continued: “I’ve never heard a female executive say anything about a woman’s weight or age. The main thing we all worry about is whether the actress has had too much plastic surgery.”

“Men in general are very respectful of women in this industry,” says comedian, actor, and producer Jeff Garlin, who acted and produced on Curb Your Enthusiasm and currently stars in ABC’s The Goldbergs. “Only a male asshole says anything. And there are a few assholes, so it’s not like nobody does it. But … I think this comes from women themselves.”

“I can’t tell you how many times we will push for an actor, only to hear from male executives: ‘Not pretty enough. Prettier. Prettier,’ ” says Los Angeles casting director Sharon Bialy, who’s worked on Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead. “It happens frequently.”

“When women talk about other women, they can be far more critical and a lot more vicious,” says Megan Duffy, an L.A.-based actress who’s also worked behind the scenes, casting music videos and independent films. “The men I’ve worked with say the same things, but in a much softer way. A man will say, ‘Oh, she’s curvy, she’s not right for this, but she’s beautiful.’ But a woman will go right for the ‘Her thighs are too fat to fit into our costume’—no shame.”

“People always say, ‘it’s women who are hardest on women,’” says producer, writer, and director Jill Soloway, who won the directing award at Sundance last year for her film Afternoon Delight. “Are we really supposed to believe that men don’t give a shit about the way women look? That it’s only us?”

Actresses have always had to contend with extreme physical pressures at every level, from film executives to TV writers, right on down to themselves. “It all exists in this wider culture,” Soloway says. “Only in the past few years have women who don’t look adorable on paper been allowed to star in their own shows. There’s still very little precedent for anyone investing in shows about women who don’t fit the criteria of what most men find attractive.” But now that Hollywood has let a few women behind the scenes, women are starting to assume some culpability for the images their industry projects. And some of their male peers seem a little too eager to transfer all of the blame for institutional sexism on the new women in their midst. Forget the stereotype of the skeezy director on the casting couch, who views women in film as a way to get off. The modern mythical creature behind Hollywood sexism, according to Polone, takes the form of a high-powered woman who shames other women in order to get ahead.  

Here’s the first problem with that image: Despite Polone’s personal experiences, women do not secretly control the entertainment industry. According to a 2013 Women’s Media Center report, women made up only 26 percent of show creators, 25 percent of executive producers, 38 percent of producers, 30 percent of writers, and 11 percent of directors on television during the 2011–12 season. Only 6 percent of the top 250 grossing films of 2013 were directed by women, and just 10 percent were written by them. Most of those numbers have barely budged in 20 years. “It’s comical to think that women are now ‘in control of television’ so they’re giving actresses and women everywhere complexes,” the female producer told me. “But there are more women executives than there used to be,” and the simple fact of their existence has sometimes translated to an overestimation of their influence in the industry. In 2011, AdWeek noted an uptick of women at the executive level at major U.S. television networks, and argued that those women “are having a disproportionate, and even subversive, effect on television’s business culture.”

AdWeek described the typical male exec as “bluff” and “charming,” while his female counterpart is “sometimes brusque” and “slightly harried.” The subtext is that while men sit comfortably at the top, women are forced to outperform them just to prove that they belong. That often requires them to be aggressive about satisfying the sexist representations in shows and films that have proven bankable long before women were let into the room. Says Soloway: “Some women want to have good-looking women in their shows, because we’ve been told that that’s what will make the show promotable to the widest audience, and we want to get our shows on the air.” That’s not subversive, but it is practical.

After Dan Harmon was asked to hire more women on Community, he said that he was ultimately pleased to diversify his staff because “women are different, and I think having them in the room is crucial to a family comedy, ensemble comedy, television comedy, where half the eyeballs on your show are women.” But he also observed that his new female staffers “do more dick jokes than anybody, because they’ve had to survive, they have to prove, coming in the door, that they’re not dainty.” Put another way: They had to prove that they could lend a female perspective without disrupting the male culture. “If you were to run a casting session with producers of both genders, so many unspoken things would be at play,” Soloway says. “Men would be trying to be political and not say crude things around female co-workers, and the women would be trying to be political and appeal to the men by being crass. When I used to be in writers’ rooms with men, I would always try to be the most inappropriate person in the room, to tell the dirtiest jokes. It was a way of communicating that I could play with the boys. It made it harder for them to count me out.”

That dynamic contributes to an industry in which female comments about women’s bodies can appear pointed and obvious, while persistent male influence remains unstated. “Men soften the blow a little bit, but women aren’t ashamed at all of being vicious to one another,” the actress Megan Duffy says. “I think it comes from an insecurity of our own bodies.” But it also stems from their insecurity about their role in an industry that continues to devalue them: “To survive as a woman in the entertainment industry,” she says, “you have to be a bulldog.” And men, too, take out their insecurities on actresses’ bodies. When Garlin talks about “male assholes” who focus too intently on the female form, he says “they’re all men who, in real life, would never be secure enough to have a relationship with a real woman.” These men are working out perceived professional slights, too. The increased representation of women in Hollywood, the female producer told me, “annoys some older male writers.” Men can attempt to reclaim some of their masculine power in Hollywood by shaming women’s bodies, but they can also do it by deflecting responsibility for sexism in Hollywood—shaming women for shaming women. This is “just another way of blaming women,” Soloway says. “It divides us, and keeps us fighting with each other. It’s a way of distracting us from the giant misogyny we have to deal with every day.”

The reality is that physical expectations for women are often written right into the script, and TV and film writers remain overwhelmingly male. In a series of analyses of TV comedies, Dr. Gregory Fouts, a psychology professor at the University of Calgary, has found that 76 percent of female sitcom characters are underweight. The thinner the character, the more positive comments she receives from male characters about her body; the fatter she is, the more derogatory comments she gets. And that ridicule is often reinforced by an audience laugh track. But the industry’s emphasis on female appearance also works the other way, forcing TV writers to write women as eye candy instead of real people in order to please executives. One woman who works on a long-running sitcom, and asked to remain anonymous for fear of compromising her job, says that a male executive producer turned up at casting sessions with specific physical requirements for every actress who made it on set. “When they were casting for a woman’s role—usually a small supporting role in the episode—he made it very, very clear that they were not to hire an actress who wasn’t ‘a perfect 10,’ regardless of how talented she was,” she says. He’d single out body parts—“her arms were too long,” “her eyes were too far apart,” “her teeth were too big,” or “her shoulders were too broad.” And the writing staff had to scramble when “that hot actress he hired for a funny role was terrible and ruined the comedy of the episode because she couldn’t act.” Writers on the show were forced to “dumb down the female roles and avoid writing comedy scenes for them, because they knew it was likely our male exec wouldn’t hire anyone who was actually talented or funny.” Not that a very attractive woman can’t also be funny, but when you are casting only for looks, you really narrow the talent pool. In this instance, one “male asshole” had the power to dictate the representation of women in the entire series.

In order to land roles in that landscape, actresses are incentivized to put pressure on themselves to compete on a physical level. And we’re not just talking about bankable movie stars, who are selling their glamorous looks as much as they are their characters—the standard applies even to the small-time actors tapped to play the “everyday” people who populate barstools and bookstores on network television every night of the week. Duffy, a 5-foot-tall, 92-pound actress with a dancer’s body who has appeared in small parts on Gilmore Girls, Mad Men, How I Met Your Mother, and Criminal Minds, says that on one of her first shoots as a model, the photographer asked her to “twist the angle of my body to hide my love handles,” then pinched the skin on her lower back to emphasize the point. “I think about it all the time,” Duffy says, “and it’s been eight years.” Recently, when she was cast in a role in the horror film Maniac that required her to appear nude, she says she took the initiative to put herself on a restrictive 1,200-calorie-a-day diet and up her daily exercise routine to an intense two-hour work-out—even after she’d already won the part. “The description of the character was, like, a hot girl,” she says. “The script referenced really big boobs, which I don’t have. It seemed they wanted someone who was built like a Maxim model. Because I looked a little bit different than what they originally imagined, I put pressure on myself to look as good as possible, so they knew they had hired the right person.”

Duffy may be “taking the initiative” to put pressure on her own body, but she isn’t necessarily overcompensating. Women who do play into the industry’s appetite for younger, hotter, thinner women are often rewarded with roles. Garlin says he sat in on casting on one show where an actress came in to read in a short skirt and no underwear. “I felt like I was in Basic Instinct,” Garlin says. “It disgusted me—not that I’m disgusted by a vagina, but I don’t need to sneak looks at someone’s vagina at work,” Garlin says. But when he looked around at the other men in the room, “their faces were red, their cheeks were rosy,” and when she left, they advocated for her to get the part. “I tried to fight it,” Garlin says. “But when you have four men who are adamant, what are you supposed to do?”  

 “Unless it’s absolutely checked, people in the industry will tend toward presenting the prettiest version of everything,” Soloway says. While shooting Transparent, her new comedy pilot for Amazon starring Jeffrey Tambor and Gaby Hoffman, Soloway says she “had to get incredibly specific with my hair and makeup people. I wanted audiences to watch the show and believe that I didn’t have anyone doing makeup at all. But it wasn’t enough to say I wanted the makeup ‘natural.’ I had to be so specific. When we did Gaby’s makeup test, we went through 10 different iterations of ‘natural.’ Eventually, I had to make a point and say: ‘Pretend you’re doing makeup for a guy.’ ”