This (Wo)Man’s Work

When men devalue the labor of women like Andrea Arnold and overvalue the work of even problematic men, it’s a triple whammy that diminishes the individual woman, women in general, and the overall quality of culture.

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | June 2019 |  11 minutes (2,804 words)

What is it about my work that makes it so much less esteemed than so many men’s? Was it not produced with enough sweat? With enough brain power? With enough complaint? What is it that gives a man sitting in an ergonomic chair, staring at a computer screen, typing on a laptop, so much more gravitas? Maybe he’s not doing it with a fan pointed at him, like I am. Maybe he doesn’t have a bottle of water next to him. Or is it the bouquet of flowers on my desk? Does the smell transfer to my work? Is labor produced in a sweet-smelling room less insightful? If you shut your eyes and I put my work in one of your hands and a man’s in the other, will you be able to weigh the difference? What if neither of us have done anything yet? Will you be able to weigh it then?

“1 in 8 men believe they can make a better film than Andrea Arnold,” one person tweeted last week. I laughed. It was a quip amalgamating two stories that dominated social media that same week, both impressively undermining women’s work. One was a survey of 1,732 Brits conducted by YouGov that found that 12 percent of the men believed they could win a point off Serena Williams, a tennis champion who holds the most Grand Slam titles combined — singles, doubles, mixed doubles — of any player currently on the pro tennis circuit. The second was a report from IndieWire, citing a number of anonymous sources, that claimed the second season of Big Little Lies, directed by British auteur Andrea Arnold, was ripped out from under her and put back in the hands of first season director Jean-Marc Vallée to do with what he pleased. To be clear, Arnold is an Oscar-winning filmmaker who has claimed the jury prize at Cannes three times. Vallée is not. Like him, she has directed episodes on four TV series. But there’s one key thing that Vallée had that she didn’t: an established rapport with Big Little Lies creator David E. Kelley.

Oh, male bonds; so reserved and yet so unconditional. This is the kind of alliance that has Eddie Murphy backing John Landis to direct Coming to America a year after Landis was charged with involuntary manslaughter (he was acquitted). This is the kind of camaraderie that has Prince Andrew attending a welcome-back-to-New-York party that registered sex offender Jeffrey Epstein reportedly threw for himself. These are extreme examples, but in essence, they show men supporting men they like, no matter the quality of their work, what they’ve done. 

Imagine how men who have done nothing so problematic are treated by their male friends. Imagine if literally any women were treated that way.

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I say that I landed my first job off of a column I wrote, but that’s not the whole story. There was a column, but there was also a man who liked the column. That man who convinced my boss to hire me. That job led to every job that followed, and I wonder what would have happened if that initial man hadn’t vouched for me. Would my work alone have gotten me the job, or did it need that man and his friendships? And all the male editors working around me, did they need the same endorsement, or did their work stand alone? Do men even have to think about any of this? How much of my energy — energy I could use for work, for life — is wasted wondering? How much does that uncertainty affect what I produce? I think about how many times I have applied for jobs, how many times I have pitched articles, how many times I have proposed books, and been turned down. How many times I have wondered whether I should keep doing this, whether I am good enough. Then I think of all the men who have gotten jobs, published articles, authored books who seemed so much less qualified, their work so inferior. They aren’t better than me. But they do have dicks. And those dicks are the CVs I will never have.

That Big Little Lies, a women-fronted show based on a book written by a woman, is predominantly run by men speaks to Hollywood dicks’ propensity for other dicks. Kelley created the series, adapted both seasons for the screen and, along with Vallée, is among five men (and five women) who executive produce it. It’s telling that Vallée, who directed Season 1 and appears to claim some real ownership over the series, has talked more about Arnold’s direction of the second season than she has. In fact, I can’t find one interview with Arnold on Big Little Lies (her reps didn’t reply to requests either). But five days before the show’s premiere, Vallée spoke somewhat patronizingly about the woman whose films had been informing his since at least 2010 (Martin Pinsonnault, who worked on sound for Vallée’s 2011 film Café de Flore, has said the “general film sound aesthetic” was inspired by Arnold’s 2009 feature Fish Tank). “It was her turn becoming a marathonian. It was a good decision, based on Fish Tank and Red Road, if she was ready to play in the sandbox like I did, to come from the feature film world,” he told IndieWire. “She was on her own; she didn’t need any advice.” Arnold has been directing television since 1996 — this made her sound like a first-time director as opposed to a veteran who entered the industry at the same time as Vallée. But Vallée seems to have a history of failing to concede to female authority; in that same interview, he also referred to a clash of control between him and showrunner Marti Noxon on Sharp Objects, another woman-fronted story, this one adapted from Gillian Flynn’s debut novel and the reason Vallée was not available for Big Little Lies’ second season. “I ask you to trust me. Let me make the creative decisions,” he claimed to have told Noxon. “We had to learn to work together, be respectful of each other.”

Wow. I guess that was too big of an ask from Arnold. According to IndieWire, Big Little Lies’ creative team “collectively decided to hire” Arnold when they couldn’t wait for Vallée, with the plan — not shared with Arnold — that Vallée would ultimately reshape her work to make it seamless with Season 1’s natural aesthetic. “We have similar ways of shooting, when you look at it,” Vallée said. “She shot handheld, available light.” To say this was a reductive summation of both of their work is an understatement. Visually the two filmmakers may be similar, but stylistically they are virtual opposites: Vallée is all staccato energy, while Arnold is lyrical observation. This appeared to be a clear instance of bald hubris — not to mention sexism — of believing that a proven, talented artist could be “given free rein” without considering that her singularity went beyond mere technique. Arnold’s dailies were reportedly full of her signature poetry, but before she had even delivered an official cut of one episode, Vallée swooped in and an army of editors broke down her footage to the first season’s specifications. Arnold, who had “worked tirelessly” to prepare, was reportedly left heartbroken. While Vallée’s rep said in an email to me that IndieWire’s story was “factually incorrect,” he provided no further explanation. HBO’s publicists did not respond to requests for comment from Kelley either, though the network released a statement: “There wouldn’t be a Season 2 of Big Little Lies without Andrea Arnold. We at HBO and the producers are extremely proud of her work. As with any television project, the executive producers work collaboratively on the series and we think the final product speaks for itself.”

Okay, but this didn’t sound like collaboration. This wasn’t an indie filmmaker being tried then chucked because they were too weird. This sounded like cannibalism. This sounded like a man (Kelley) trusting another man (Vallée) over a woman. It sounded like two men who wanted a woman’s work — not just as a woman on a woman-led show, but her imprimatur as a lauded filmmaker — but only in service of their own purposes. This sounded like two men (and a creative team) who chose to be disingenuous in order to make that happen. But the very reasons for which they chose Arnold were the reasons that wasn’t going to work. Arnold is an uncompromising director — like Lynne Ramsay, like Dee Rees, like Kelly Reichardt — and her work is singular precisely because of that. But all these men saw was a woman: in other words, a pliable artist who would work for them. (Although their reported failure to inform her of their plans suggests that they had some idea she might not go along with it willingly.) Instead of trusting and respecting her work the way they would a man’s, instead of granting her the attendant power and control they would give a man of her caliber, they treated her like a something to be used and plundered.

A similar thing happened to Sarah Milov, author of the forthcoming book The Cigarette: A Political History. Here & Now, a show co-produced by WBUR and NPR, aired a segment last week called “America’s Complex History with Tobacco, From ‘The Marlboro Man’ To E-Cigarettes,” in which host Jeremy Hobson discussed the subject with two male historians from the radio program BackStory who frequently appear on the show. Every fact the men cited was reportedly from Milov’s book. “Then I got to the end of a nearly 10-minute segment and did not hear myself credited at all,” she told The Lily. There were apologies and a strange editor’s note on the WBUR site stating that Milov “provided extensive research material for historians Ed Ayers and Nathan Connolly,” underplaying the fact that her book was the framework for the show. The historians were invited because they were tried and trusted (and tenured; Milov is an untenured associate professor at the University of Virginia). And it makes sense that they would be, except that the show trusted Milov’s work enough to base an entire segment on it. More importantly, the lead researcher on the piece, Monica Kristin Blair, explained in a tweet thread on Wednesday that she had promised Milov credit and that the brief she gave the hosts emphasized that they “should make sure” to shout out her book because without it the segment would be nonexistent. It’s troubling that the person who appears the least responsible for the oversight, a woman among three men, is the most contrite. “I’m sure I could have done more to seriously emphasize just how vital it was to credit Dr. Milov. I’m sorry I didn’t,” Blair tweeted, adding, “even without my email, the centrality of her work was obvious in my research brief. I always use citations, and Dr. Milov’s name was on every page I wrote, multiple-times over. So when did Dr. Milov’s name get dropped? I don’t know. Segments move from research, to production, to recording, to editing, and so forth. All I know is that at some point, Dr. Milov’s name wasn’t treated as an important part of the story.” 

It was yet another instance of men wanting a woman’s labor, but under their ownership. “At no point in the process were we trying to conceal the importance of Sarah Milov’s work,” Connolly told The Lily. No, but they were concealing Milov. Men took a woman’s work and reconfigured it for their own use; the woman cast aside. This is about more than a simple shout-out. It’s about a female scholar’s work being stripped of the power it might have had — its content, yes, but also its ability to more firmly secure Milov’s future (remember, she’s untenured). The choice by three well-placed men not to acknowledge one woman ripples through Milov’s career, through academia, through the world, through how our work is valued and how we value themselves. 

Men’s value, meanwhile, is incessantly buttressed by other men. There is this tendency for men to keep it in the dick department at the office, a kind of workman’s code. I believe it’s the reason I have pitched one male editor a million times and almost got one commission but little response beyond that, while a guy I know with much less experience pitched the same editor and got a lunch date. I was reminded of that when an old interview with Eddie Murphy from Playboy recently recirculated on social media. In it, the actor explained that the reason he gave up the chance to direct Coming to America was to help director John Landis, who had just been acquitted of involuntary manslaughter after three actors (including two children) died on his Twilight Zone set in a horrific helicopter accident that led to a change in safety and child labor laws. “So you hired Landis out of friendship despite thinking he’d been irresponsible?” the magazine’s interviewer asked, to which Murphy responded in the affirmative. “I liked the guy,” he said. “I used to always say that the one fun experience I had with a director … was with Landis, because he plays around a lot on the set. I made Paramount hire him.”

That Landis treated him like shit on the Coming to America set was a kind of sad vindication. Because what did Murphy think? That male camaraderie trumps all? That Murphy’s great experience with this man, that Murphy’s power to nudge one of the biggest studios in the world hire this man when he was disgraced meant that this man would not act the way he always had? That somehow their friendship transcended this man’s personality? Like all the men who supported Jeffrey Epstein despite him being a registered sex offender. Like that “he was always nice to me” line. Elaine May made one mistake that didn’t involve destroying anyone’s life — she directed box office failure Ishtar in 1987 — and only directed one other film, a Mike Nichols TV doc, 29 years later. Producer Warren Beatty, who believed he had done her a solid by taking on the project, “barely spoke” to her for a year or two after that. Because it was a blow to his ego, so their friendship meant nothing. A man gave a woman the directorial power, and she blew it, and by extension no woman should direct ever. 

A man runs little risk of being treated this way under similar circumstances. For certain men, being shown up by a man is not an insult, because the two men are on equal footing gender-wise. Fundamentally, these men do not see women as equals. Which is why women have to work that much harder to be valued by them, thus falling much farther when they fail. When alpha males give women a chance, it’s less in a spirit of fairness than condescension. And when the women don’t measure up, it doesn’t just reflect on them, but on the man — he is emasculated by his sissy decision to put a woman in charge. When men dismiss women’s work, they’re actually dismissing women first and their work second, all to ensure they won’t be dismissed themselves.

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I try not to think about what my articles, my jobs, my books, my life would be like if men treated me like other men. I try not to think about it because I don’t (I do) want to trash my apartment in a fury or assault everyone around me with diatribes about inequity. I do think about the limits of the culture around me — the sameness, the repetition, all the books and the plays and the music and the TV shows and the movies by men that are not very good but have been made anyway because men decided that they should be. I think of the women’s work  — from Lena Waithe’s series The Chi to Lulu Wang’s Awkwafina-led The Farewell — that shows women can do better than this. This year’s Emmy nominations for comedy writing are proof: 53.8 percent of the nominees are women. I think of the reasons that happened: Fleabag, Russian Doll, Pen 15, all original women-led shows created by triple threats, or close enough. Women doing 10 times the work for the same accolades. I think of the work that the best female filmmakers have been allowed to make, the smaller, more intimate stories, as the worst male filmmakers are entrusted with technically complex, bombastic spectacles (Ava DuVernay being one major exception). I think of the women in the background of those spectacles making them better, like Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who was nominated for 11 Emmys for Fleabag, but wasn’t hired to write the Bond script — she was entrusted instead with grooming the work of its four male writers. I think of what an original Waller-Bridge Bond script would have been. I look at the hashtag #ReleaseTheArnoldCut, which started trending after the Big Little Lies mess, and ask along with everyone else: Why does any other cut even exist?

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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.