When Ashley Judd was making Paramount's Kiss the Girls in the late '90s, she was being pursued by a mogul from a rival studio, whom she believed wanted to cast her in a film. But suddenly she found herself falling into a dark trap.
"I was sexually harassed by one of the industry's most famous, admired-slash-reviled bosses," the actress says, revealing a story she's never before publicly disclosed. The man, who Judd declined to name, invited her to dinner. When she arrived at his hotel, she was told to meet him upstairs in his room. "It was so disgusting," she says. "He physically lured me by saying, 'Help me pick out what I'm going to wear.'" The advances continued to escalate. "The ultimate thing when I was weaseling out of everything else was, 'Will you watch me shower?' " Her voice cracks. "And by the way, I've never been offered a movie by that studio. Ever."
Judd says the gravity of the situation didn't hit her until later. "I did not recognise at the time what was happening to me," she recalls. "It took years before I could retrospectively evaluate that incident, and realize that there was something incredibly wrong and illegal about it." She's speaking up now because she hopes her story can give strength to other women in similar circumstances. "I think that talking about it is essential to the process of becoming aware, accepting that this is reality, and then ultimately taking action," Judd says.
In the late '90s Ashley Judd says she was sexually harassed by male executive a Hollywood studio. "It took years before I could retrospectively evaluate that incident, and realize that there was something incredibly wrong and illegal about it" she says.
For years, women in Hollywood have quietly endured sexist work environments, wage disparity, lack of job opportunity both in front of and behind the camera, and other wrongful behaviour. But 2015 has marked a turning point. Hardly a week goes by in which a prominent actress or director doesn't make headlines by blasting Hollywood for treating women as second-class citizens.
The push for equal work opportunities has gone hand in hand with an increasing outcry over sexual assault, both on college campuses and elsewhere, involving major figures such as Bill Cosby and radio host Jian Ghomeshi. The issue reached new heights when New York magazine ran a July cover story titled "I'm No Longer Afraid: 35 Women Tell Their Stories About Being Assaulted by Bill Cosby, and the Culture That Wouldn't Listen."
The conversation about how women are treated in Hollywood is reaching a fever pitch amid a national spotlight on feminist issues, fueled in part by presidential candidates like Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina, as well as author Sheryl Sandberg's "Lean In" campaign. Indeed, there's a new wave of feminism bubbling up whereby more women are speaking out publicly against long-endured injustices.
Even Pope Francis, on his just-concluded visit to America, preached about the importance of treating women fairly in religion, insisting it was time the church valued their "immense contribution," and suggesting that places of worship could not afford to remain mired in old ways.
Patricia Arquette used her 2014 Oscar win for supporting actress to call for wage equality for women.
The movement among those working in entertainment counts among its members such high-profile individuals as Emma Watson (who launched the U.N.'s He for She campaign for gender equality), Meryl Streep (who created a fund for women screenwriters over the age of 40), Lena Dunham (who interviewed Clinton for her newsletter LennyLetter.com, and asked her whether she considers herself a feminist), Patricia Arquette (who used her Oscar speech to stump for wage equality) and Jessica Chastain (who spotlights issues of creative equity).
"It's our responsibility as artists to bring up the lack of diversity in the industry," says Chastain, offering a viewpoint that is increasingly becoming conventional wisdom among young actors. "I don't think it applies just to women -- it applies to everyone. I know for me, the last few years, seeing how few female protagonists were in the best picture nominations made me realise that our stories are being erased."
It used to be that from time to time, women in Hollywood would complain about the paucity of opportunities, but now there's a collective bullhorn effect. At the recent Toronto Film Festival, Sandra Bullock (Our Brand Is Crisis) talked out about how her latest role was originally written for a man, and Emily Blunt (Sicario) revealed how financiers pressured filmmakers in an attempt to change her character to a guy.
At Cannes in May, Salma Hayek Pinault spoke about Hollywood's lack of investment in stories targeted to women: "It's not that we are mad or that we were scared," the actress tells Variety. "My theory is there's now an opening for us because we represent such strong economic power," she says, citing that women are not only their household's decision-makers, they frequently have become the breadwinners.
The Sony hack unintentionally brought attention to the issue of unequal pay, revealing that Jennifer Lawrence's salary on America Hustle was less than that of her male co-stars, although she was arguably the film's biggest box office draw.
"Look, nobody is worth the money that Robert Downey Jr. is worth," says Gwyneth Paltrow, referencing the star of the Iron Man films, in which she plays Pepper Potts. "But if I told you the disparity, you would probably be surprised." She started to notice Hollywood's pay gap for women when her father, Bruce Paltrow, was outraged that a male co-star without a proven track record was getting the same salary as his daughter. "It can be frustrating," she says. "It can be painful. Your salary is a way to quantify what you're worth. If men are being paid a lot more for doing the same thing, it feels shitty."
In May, the American Civil Liberties Union asked for an investigation into gender discrimination in the hiring of directors for movies and television shows. (Women filmmakers were asked to direct a paltry 7% of the top-grossing movies of 2014.) Some are hopeful the threat of litigation along with continuous calls for action from powerful women in Hollywood will help plant the seeds of change. "I think it's so amazing that we are at this tipping point," says Cathy Schulman, president of Women in Film and head of production at STX Entertainment. "My biggest fear is we won't convert. We bring everybody together, all these voices, and we actually have to make a difference now. It's almost as if the issue is getting hip. It's everywhere."
Work to do
Though female-driven films have done well at the box office, women still lag far behind men in job opportunities in Hollywood.
7%: Percentage of the directors of last year's top-grossing films who were women
12%: Lead protagonists that were female in last year's movies
30%: Speaking characters that were female in last year's movies
US$570m: Worldwide gross of Fifty Shades of Grey
Female characters have become the focus of blockbuster franchises like The Hunger Games and Divergent, and movies headlined by women like Melissa McCarthy (Spy), Anna Kendrick (Pitch Perfect 2), Amy Schumer (Trainwreck), Amy Poelher (Inside Out) and Dakota Johnson (Fifty Shades of Grey) have been massive box office winners in 2015.
Yet it's still not clear if executives in Hollywood are ready to adapt. Emma Thompson recently said that sexism is only getting worse in the moviemaking business. A-list actresses were often out of options for roles once they hit 40, but now even women in their 30s are starting to feel pressure. Liv Tyler told More magazine that at 38, the only parts she's getting offered are as "the wife or a girlfriend." Maggie Gyllenhaal, 37, caused a ruckus earlier this year when she revealed that she was deemed too old to play the love interest to a 55-year-old man. Anne Hathaway, 32, echoed the trend in an interview with Glamour: "I'm like, 'Why did that 24-year-old get that part?' "
Social media is playing a significant role in enabling women to air their grievances. The Tumblr blog "Shit People Say to Women Directors," which allows female executives and filmmakers to anonymously post about their struggles in movies and television, became a viral sensation last northern spring. At the Oscars, Arquette received kudos from the blogosphere (as well as from seat-mates Streep and Jennifer Lopez) for using her supporting actress speech as a platform to advocate for wage equality for women around the world. "Women were running up to me in the street, grabbing me, hugging me," Arquette says of the reaction following the Academy Awards telecast. "Others told me they got a raise."
But Arquette isn't sure if the plight of women in entertainment is improving fast enough. "I don't think it's getting much better," she says. "I don't think Hollywood is going to change until someone twists their arm. I don't think agents have fought so hard for their female actresses' paychecks."
Still, despite the setbacks, there are some encouraging signs. Television continues to pave the way for diverse voices both behind and in front of the camera, as Emmy wins for Viola Davis (How to Get Away With Murder), Jill Soloway (Transparent), Uzo Aduba (Orange Is the New Black) and Schumer (Inside Amy Schumer) illustrate. There are also more stories coming this fall that focus on empowered female characters: Miss You Already, starring Drew Barrymore and Toni Collette; Sisters, the comedy from Tina Fey and Amy Poehler; Jem and the Holograms, based on the cult cartoon series about a female rock star; and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part 2, which is expected to clean up at the box office on Nov. 20.
Insiders hope 2015 will be remembered as the year in which women were finally given a chance to shine, to voice their opinions, and to march down the road to progress without turning back. "I think it's going to change for sure, because of the money," Hayek Pinault says. "We're not asking for a favour."