The subject at this year’s Women, Men & Media conference was “Sex, Violence or Love Between Equals 1994,” and while the judgment was that sex and violence are still quite prevalent in Hollywood movies, something else emerged: Women, who increasingly are coming into positions of power, have to take responsibility for what they do--and for what they allegedly want to watch. In Thursday’s morning session, at the Bel Age Hotel in West Hollywood, on “Trashing, Bashing and Flashing,” ABC News superstar Diane Sawyer came under fire for doing her debut “Turning Point” program on “The (Charles) Manson Women.” No one mentioned that later Thursday night on “PrimeTime Live,” and again Friday on “Good Morning America,” the peripatetic anchor would be seen interviewing Russian President Boris Yeltsin.
“The Diane Sawyers have to think about what they’re doing,” said John Terenzio, an independent TV producer and former producer of “A Current Affair,” “because their male bosses aren’t.”
“She can do anything she wants to do,” chimed in Linda Ellman, co-executive producer of “Hard Copy,” adding: “The interesting thing about Diane--she’s making all this money. What money does it leave for hiring other people?”
Next Barbra Streisand was criticized by film columnist Ella Taylor of Mirabella and Atlantic Monthly for choosing to direct and star in a movie about “a psychiatrist who spent a good deal of time having carnal interchange with her patient (Nick Nolte) by a roaring fire--hardly a feminist film, or even an ethical film in many ways.” That movie, “The Prince of Tides,” was based on male author Pat Conroy’s acclaimed novel.
And the reason for heavy network interest in the stories of Olympic skaters Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, and of Amy Fisher, the 16-year-old Long Island teen-ager who shot Mary Jo Buttafuoco, wife of her married lover?
It’s “woman against woman,” claimed Jim Bellows, Los Angeles bureau chief for TV Guide, explaining that prime-time audiences are dominated by women 18-49, and such stories “draw a bigger woman audience.”
Later, screenwriter Callie Khouri, who won an Oscar for “Thelma & Louise,” her first movie, put the issue of blaming women in some perspective when she noted that “a lot of times the onus is on women and minorities” to “enforce this code of so-called political correctness.”
Khouri rebuked criticisms of men who saw “Thelma & Louise” as “male bashing” and of some women who saw the female leads as “outlaws.” Did anyone criticize Al Pacino for “Scarface,” Clint Eastwood for his “Dirty Harry” movies or Robert De Niro in “Taxi Driver”? she asked. “These male careers have been built on outlaws.”
When “Malcolm X” came out at the same time as “Hoffa” last year, Khouri added, there was “this outcry” about the role model presented to young black men, while nobody was concerned about the role model “this Teamster boss with mob ties” might give to young white men.
Author Betty Friedan (“The Feminine Mystique”; “The Fountain of Age”), who co-founded Women, Men & Media as a research and outreach project at the USC School of Journalism, led off the conference by saying it was designed to “take the temperature” of the representation of women vs. men in the news and entertainment media.
At lunch she presented one of the organization’s “Breakthrough” awards to David E. Kelley, creator and executive producer of CBS’ “Picket Fences"--the 1993 Emmy winner for outstanding dramatic series--for casting aside “the stereotype of women as decoration” and presenting “women and men (as) peers.”
But at the conference close, comparing movies and TV, Friedan said that while Women, Men & Media had no trouble presenting a TV award, it could not find a suitable American movie to honor this year. “Fried Green Tomatoes” and “Thelma & Louise” previously have won the organization’s awards.
Echoing Khouri, Friedan concluded there are no on-screen portrayals of male/female relationships today like Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. “Is it too difficult to do?” she asked with bite.
On a somewhat brighter note, Women, Men & Media released a study that showed the percentage of female correspondents reporting the news on CBS, ABC and NBC was the highest the organization has recorded, 21%--up from 14% the previous two years. The increase was attributed primarily to CBS, where women reporting nightly newscast stories are now at 32%.