Guerrilla Girls Take On Film Industry Sexism

From our billboard last year we were invited on a few conservative radio talk shows, which really surprised us,” says the Käthe Kollwitz of the Guerrilla Girls, an anonymous feminist arts agitation group. “But we learned something really interesting—the only thing ultra-conservatives hate more than feminism is the film industry! So they’re our new best friends!”

The Guerrilla Girls, a group of activists whose public appearances are marked by anonymity, gorilla masks, and a healthy intolerance for institutional sexism, are not the sort of “new best friends” one might imagine alongside Rush Limbaugh. Last year, to protest the generally horrifying state of affairs facing women in Hollywood, in association with the anonymous group of women in the film industry, Alice Locas, they designed and displayed a billboard featuring the “Anatomically Correct Oscar”—he’s white and male, “just like the guys who win!”

This year’s billboard, which was on display throughout March at the corner of Melrose and Highland in Los Angeles, featured the “Trent L’Ottscar,” honoring the fact that “even the US Senate is more progressive than Hollywood.” (Fourteen percent of the Senate is female, while four percent of last year’s one hundred top-grossing films were directed by women.)

“If you say, ‘Is Hollywood an old boys’ network?’ they’ll say, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah—it’s all people and their cousins and their uncles and this and that,” says Kollwitz (all the Girls take the names of dead female artists; others include Frida Kahlo and Rosalind Franklin). “[And] even though they’ll admit that, they’ll still say there aren’t any good women film directors. . . . They still want to believe that the fields of culture are meritocracies above it all.”

The Guerrilla Girls commenced operations eighteen years ago, “when statistics in the art world were as bad as they are in the film world today.” Their earliest protests were aimed squarely at the art world, including 1989’s famous “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?” piece. Originally commissioned as a billboard by New York’s Public Art Fund (PAF), the project was later rejected. “The PAF said our design wasn’t clear enough,” explains the Girls’ website. Finally PAF rented space on the sides of New York buses (until the bus company deemed the image “too suggestive”). The piece—Ingre’s Odalisque with a gorilla head—was accompanied by a pair of uncomfortable statistics: “Less than five percent of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but eighty-five percent of the nudes are female.”

“Over the years, people have said to us, ‘Are we quota queens?’” says Kollwitz. “And we’ve never complained about statistics that were even twenty, thirty percent. But when statistics are this low, something is at work.”

Beyond the Oscar protests (which included some covert work putting up Guerrilla Girls stickers in the bathrooms at the venue, the Kodak Theatre), 2003 will be a busy year for the Guerrillas. In addition to the Girls’ numerous appearances at colleges and universities, later this year Penguin will publish Bitches, Bimbos, and Ball-Breakers: the Guerrilla Girls Illustrated Guide to Female Stereotypes and The Guerrilla Girls Guide to New York City Museums, a comic book which will teach you how to go to museums “the Guerrilla Girls way,” which Kollwitz says includes “understanding why what you see on the walls is what you see. . . .

“I think there’s something about culture, there’s something about the stereotypes of who the creative geniuses are, that die really hard,” she says. “And culture’s just lagging behind the rest of society. . . . It’s just ridiculous that the film industry, which is supposed to be hip and edgy and cool, is so out-of-date.”

To learn more about the Guerrilla Girls, visit their website at

SAG and AFTRA Poised to Unite

by Charlie Sweitzer

Following months of talks, years of speculation, and a recent failed attempt, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) announced on February 8 their boards’ near-unanimous resolution to draft plans to merge the two unions, citing as their principle reasons “rapid industry and technological changes” and “the gross inefficiency of parallel operating structures.”

The “new” union will operate over three Affiliates: Actors, Broadcasters, and Recording Artists. In the boards’ report, they anticipate “that in the future, other organizations representing performers and media artists may be invited to consolidate and affiliate following the creation of [the new union].”

The two unions have a significant overlap between their memberships. Of the 150,000 total workers who currently belong to SAG and AFTRA, more than 40,000 belong to both—sixty percent of AFTRA’s members also belong to SAG, and forty percent of SAG’s members belong to AFTRA.

The unions’ next step was to draft a constitution, along with a business plan and plans for implementation and transition. These were presented to the joint boards of directors on April 5. Once approved by both boards, all members of both unions will vote on whether to approve the plan and merge. To pass, the plan must be approved by sixty percent of each union. In 1999, a similar merger between SAG and AFTRA was voted down in referendum. It passed AFTRA, but not SAG.

Today, though, there is good reason to believe the merger will be approved. “We are in the midst of a crisis,” says Jayne Wallace, AFTRA’s national communications director. “The economy sucks. Like everybody else, unions are impacted by this kind of thing. . . . Wouldn’t we save money by combining resources?”

Digital video—only a “theoretical” concern, according to Wallace, in 1999—has also become a major factor and, at times, a point of contention between the two unions. Robert L. Seigel, attorney at law, sees the merger as “an inevitable consequence of such factors as the growth of digital video, and whether a format indicates whether a project is a movie or not.” Last year, dispute broke out between SAG and AFTRA over negotiating a series of Fox pilots shot on digital video. Seigel says that further confusion can come from the fact that many films originally shot and intended for theatrical release are now distributed via television or DVD. Wallace comments, “Our relationship [with SAG] is based on technology that is obsolete.”

The union will continue to honor all contracts by SAG and AFTRA, including low-budget production contracts that many independent producers use for their union cast members. Ilyanne Kichaven, SAG’s national director of communications, points out: “One of the principles [of the merger] is the continuation and seamless transition of all SAG and AFTRA collective bargaining agreements. Therefore, low-budget agreements continue under the Actors Affiliate of the new union.”

“The impact of the proposed merger on many performers who are in SAG will be minimal,” says Seigel, “since SAG generally provides comparable economic treatment to those professional performers who are in other unions.”

As a result of the merger, producers will probably have an easier time obtaining archival footage. In the past, this often meant having to determine whether fees were due to SAG or AFTRA, or both. Though Kichaven stresses nothing has been determined yet (“details of the Actors Affiliate are in the process of being discussed”), Wallace says the process of obtaining archival footage will “theoretically” become easier. “Certainly, we believe that any consolidation of our services will streamline [such processes] for anyone we have to negotiate with,” she says.

"Fat Girl" Fights Censors and Wins
by Charlie Sweitzer

Fat Girl, Catherine Breillat’s critically acclaimed 2001 film, returned to Canada on February 21 after a protracted battle with the country’s censorship laws. The film, which deals with adolescent sex, rape, and murder, was initially denied a rating by the Ontario Film Review Board (Canada’s rough equivalent to the Motion Picture Association of America). In Canada, the distribution or exhibition of unrated films is illegal. Fat Girl, like Breillat’s 1999 film Romance, was distributed in the United States without an MPAA rating.

Fat Girl received its Canadian debut at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2001 and briefly played in theaters in several Canadian provinces before the board made its ruling in November 2001. The board cited Ontario’s 1993 Theaters Act’s Regulation 1031, which prohibits “a scene where a person who is or is intended to represent a person under the age of eighteen years appears (i) nude or partially nude in a sexually suggestive context, or (ii) in a scene of explicit sexual activity.”

Cowboy Pictures and Lions Gate Films, Fat Girl’s distributors, appealed the board’s decision, citing the board’s past approval of such films as Lolita and Kids, and reminding the board of its approval, following an initial ban, of Romance. The distributors also challenged the constitutionality of the board’s power. Though Canada’s constitution does not guarantee precisely the same rights as the United States’ First Amendment, it does grant Canadian citizens “freedom of thought, belief, opinion, and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication.”

A hearing had been scheduled for February 2003, but the board re-invited the distributors to submit Fat Girl for rating. The hearing was dropped after the film was rated, but doubt still remains as to the constitutionality of board’s decisions. In a press release, Cowboy Pictures’s lawyer, Craig Martin, says: “We need to ask why it is that we have legislation that confers on a board of part-time employees with no particular expertise the power to ban films in the province.”

This is not Breillat’s first brush with controversy. Her first novel, L’homme facile, was given an adults-only rating by the French government, which meant the then seventeen-year-old author could not legally purchase a copy of her own book.

About :

Charlie Sweitzer is a New York-based writer.