Dalton Delan|The Unspin Room: It shouldn't take Wonder Woman to crack media glass ceiling

The Unspin Room

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WESTPORT. CT. — The year is 1546. The fetid, dangerous Delta of the Maranon River in Brazil claims the life of conquistador and explorer Francisco de Orellana, but not before he has renamed the great river the Amazon, claiming to have fought a tribe of women warriors in his descent of the river — a tribe likely as mythical as the Greek race from antiquity.

Fast forward to 2017. Despite taking in $100.5 million, shattering records for best opening weekend for a female director — of an action film, no less — Patty Jenkins had to prove herself and did not have a two-picture deal, as most male directors would, to helm the sequel to "Wonder Woman." Like many women before her, she had to work twice as hard to show she could equal or outperform a man.

Caught in media swamps

A recent report, aptly titled "The Celluloid Ceiling" by the San Diego State University Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, reveals that only 7 percent of the directors of the 250 top-grossing films of 2016 were female — 2 percent less than the previous year. A similar decline took place in all creative roles in cinema, with only 17 percent of these jobs filled by women last year.

Women are still fighting their way out of media swamps on both sides of the lens. In front of the camera, research by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media reveals that women comprise a mere third of speaking roles in cinema, and four out of five characters in films who are portrayed as working are male. It's as if Rosie the Riveter never went to work.

In sector upon sector of media, the song remains the same. During my time in cable television, it seemed — based on my several brilliant female bosses and numerous colleagues — a more unbounded career path for women. But we are backsliding ferociously now. The same San Diego State study shows that the already paltry one-in-four creative roles held by women in broadcast television takes a further hit when cable television is factored into the equation — bad math all around.

One might like to think that the millennial paradise of the tech world in culturally forward California would hold more promise; instead, the atmosphere reflected by more than 200 women with more than a decade of tech-sector experience, according to a survey known as "Elephant in the Valley" for good reason, finds that almost without exception the female workers report sexist attitudes and behavior in what amounts to a digital locker room writ large.

In the journalism space, there is no respite from bad news. A recent "Global Report on the Status of Women in the News Media" from the International Women's Media Foundation finds that within more than 500 companies in nearly 60 nations, almost three of every four top managers are male; even in front of the camera, barely over a third of reporters are female.

The history of the evening news, at least on commercial networks, is no more promising. In all the years we have been tuning in over dinner, only two women — Diane Sawyer on ABC and Katie Couric more recently on CBS — have held a full-time, weekday solo anchor chair. None hold it currently, and the Women's Media Center announced this month a petition for CBS to hire a female journalist to replace departing anchor Scott Pelley. If you are so inclined — I note not as advocacy but as information — you can tweet the petition at #HireHer; however, I harbor my doubts that the top brass at CBS will be listening — but hey: don't ask, don't get.     

On Madison Avenue, a recent report from the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising still locates less than one-in-three leadership positions in the ad world for women. Back in the day, when the character of Peggy in Mad Men was trying to get her foot in the door as a copywriter, my own mother was a real-world ad agency pioneer. She stuck up for herself, and consequently found herself frequently thumbing a ride to the next employ.

Still only words

So this past Mother's Day, I sat with my mother at dinner as she recounted, with her nearly century-old mind set somewhere in her ad world heyday, another day of copywriting for imaginary products and fantasy bosses I took to be bemused doctors. She said she had done good work today, but she couldn't figure why her copy remained stuck on the page and nobody came to collect it.

All these years later, little has changed, yet my mother keeps at it assiduously, still striving in a male-centered world. Surely someday someone will take note. When they do, and our long-rumored enlightened culture finally arrives, it will be great to see the media actually walk all the talk. Until then, it's only words.

Dalton Delan has won Emmy, Peabody and duPont-Columbia awards for his work as a television producer.


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