Matt Damon’s diversity comments showcase challenges of women in film

Matt Damon is sorry but not sorry. NASA/Bill Ingalls

Matt Damon has apologized after his interruption of a prominent female producer, who voiced concern about diversity, sparked a firestorm on social media this week. But the controversy sheds light on a much deeper issue affecting women in film.

It all went down on the season premiere of Project Greenight, a reality show where Damon and Ben Affleck give an aspiring filmmaker a shot to direct a feature film. The two actors call on A-list Hollywood writers, directors and producers to help them decide who makes the cut.

Effie Brown — the only African American on the panel — pointed out that the only black character in the script is a woman hit by her white pimp. She suggested that a directing duo comprised of a Vietnamese man and a white woman would be a good choice for the film. Damon cut Brown off, telling her diversity is “what you do in the casting of the movie, not the casting of the show.” Brown’s reaction to his response was one of shock.

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The 44-year-old actor was accused of “Damonsplaining,” a twist on the term “mansplaining,” which is when men correct or speak over women.

The situation drew attention to a sad reality in Hollywood.

The deeper issue facing women in film

Actor/producer/director Natalie Portman spoke to Global News at the Toronto International Film Festival last week about what she called “a very big problem.”

“Studios and also just distributors for independent films are largely male-run and they’re used to dealing with male storytellers and male conventions of storytelling,” Portman said.

“I think there is an unconscious bias. I think all this conversation about that ‘we need more female filmmakers’ is helping push people to recognize the bias and really make an effort to get female filmmakers more represented.”

Last year, 4.6 per cent of studio movies in the U.S. were directed by women. Sixteen per cent of television episodes were directed by females; only three per cent were female television directors of colour.

“There’s a fixation on male superheroes, male action movies,” said Melissa Silverstein of the blog Women and Hollywood.

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“It’s very hard for a woman to break through.”

The numbers are slightly better in Canada, but not by much. A 2013 video produced by the Toronto Actra Women’s Committee stated that 19 per cent of Canadian directors were women; as were 23 per cent of film writers. The message: “Our stories just aren’t being told.”

The co-chair of the committee, Nicole St. Martin, admitted the numbers haven’t gotten much better in the last couple years.

“It could be disheartening if it weren’t for the fact that people are becoming more aware,” St. Martin said.

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Not only do women often face challenges getting projects financed, but they sometimes also have to deal with sexism once they get the job.

READ MORE: 7 times women have been asked sexist questions by reporters

Established actress Emma Thompson recently said sexism has actually become more entrenched and prevalent in Hollywood.

“When I was younger, I really did think we were on our way to a better world. And when I look at it now, it is in a worse state than I have known it — particularly for women. And I find that very disturbing and sad.”

WATCH: Oscar winner Patricia Arquette called for pay equality in her acceptance speech

What’s being done to create change

There are plenty of organizations fighting for meaningful change, including the Toronto Actra Women’s Committee. It has put together a “tool kit” that provides professional development workshops for women interested in learning to create their own films. It also profiles and honours successful female filmmakers.

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“We need to see these women and know who they are and what their contributions have been,” St. Martin stresseed.

She believes that even if some of the women they help go out and create more work for others, that will make a difference. Others are also adamant that we need to keep the conversation going, and speak up when we see gender bias.

In the statement Damon issued on Tuesday, he apologized that his comments offended some people but also that he was happy they started a conversation about diversity in Hollywood.

“This is an ongoing conversation we all should be having.”

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