Peter Bart: Industry’s Gender-Equality Movement Making Strides On Its Complex Path

Peter Bart: Industry’s Gender-Equality Movement Making Strides On Its Complex Path

Women dominated the box office last weekend, if not news coverage in general — reminding us that the movement, as it unfolds, continues to teach us, please us and occasionally confuse us. Each week brings us new heroines and villains, as well as new expressions: Consider “gender fatigue,” “microsensitivity” or “the new separatism.” Even book titles reflect a new lexicon: How to Date Men When You Hate Men is Blythe Roberson’s latest entry.

Brie Larson has turned out to be a convincing superhero in Captain Marvel, but the road to true gender equality still carries its perils. Even the #MeToo numbers deliver mixed messages: There were more female Oscar nominees this year than ever before (59 of 212), but none for directing and only two for writing. Some 200 prominent men lost their jobs last year due to harassment issues and nearly half were succeeded by women, according to a report from the World Economic Forum in Davos. Still, the number of female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies has declined, reflecting symptoms of “gender fatigue,” another report suggested. While workplace opportunity continues to expand, surveys indicate a serious decline in mentoring, possibly stemming from an edgy environment.

Mixed messages also emanate from the Time’s Up organization: Its legal defense fund raised $25 million last year, including a major contribution from CBS – a direct result of its Les Moonves trauma. However, the Time’s Up CEO, Lisa Borders, quit after only four months on the job after her son had been accused of sexual misconduct.


Whatever its short-term issues, the movement has triggered a fevered dialogue about workplace behavior, and even fashion. When some feminists criticized Jennifer Lawrence for her skimpy wardrobe in Red Sparrow, the feisty actress replied, “I’m a grown-ass woman and I can wear or not wear whatever I please.” Alexandra Shulman, former editor of British Vogue, cautioned women who attended business meetings about the signals sent by plunging necklines, yet designer Bella Pollen, writing in The Economist, warned against “veering into a puritanical future where sexy is outlawed as a dirty word.”


Her comment referred to an early wave of feminists who preached a form of sexual separatism, rejecting sex as “inconvenient, time-consuming, energy-draining and irrelevant” — the words of Dana Densmore, a founding separatist in the ’60s. In response, many “second wave feminists” left the movement, sensing they’d been shunned for living with men. Writes historian Nona Willis Aronowitz in the New York Times: “Celibacy and separatism as lifestyles were unrealistic for some women.” A popular book for that readership was titled My Enemy, My Love (a precursor of How to Date Men When You Hate Men).


While today’s #MeToo leaders are eager to avoid the controversies of early feminists, tensions are rife in those workplaces gripped by scandal. CBS is a prime example: Acknowledging the transgressions of once-revered Moonves, the network has contributed much of the former president’s severance package to the Time’s Up fund. Allegations about deep-seated sexism within CBS News and its prize show, 60 Minutes, prompted the appointment of Susan Zirinsky as chief of the news division. Her stars Gayle King and Norah O’Donnell likely will assume top anchor roles on future shows once held by men.

All this would come as a shock to the first CBS news czar, Don Hewitt. While a brilliant producer, Hewitt epitomized the network’s macho boys club atmosphere. His guiding precept was that 60 Minutes stories be built around one strong figure (usually male). Some years ago when I was a guest on his shows, I felt I was in the presence of a football coach rather than a news producer.


Critics find that today’s shows veer sharply from his precepts; last week’s 60 Minutes was built around bland dissertations on Federal Reserve policy, gene therapy and the ACLU. The workplace atmosphere reportedly has become civil and restrained. Some, however, fear for its future.