Pay Women the Money They Need to Make the Culture

Sure, 2015 was “great” for women. But only if 2015 marks the last year in which things can be so very bad.

Because this is 2015, we open on an Instagram. My favorite of the year. I didn’t take this particular photograph, but I did screengrab it, meditate on it, make it my phone background. It was a picture of an Excel spreadsheet.

Illustration by Amanda Lanzone

I was up late one night a few months ago working on a profile of Claire Boucher a.k.a. Grimes and I had hit a writing impasse in the homestretch. So I cannonballed into her ’gram (a.k.a. dogged cultural reportage). I scrolled back a few weeks, trying not to accidentally double-tap anything at 3 a.m. (lurkers never win). And there it was. In between hair-dye selfies and a photo of a baby rhino butt: a pixelated snapshot of her laptop screen. The spreadsheet contained two columns marked “engineer” and “producer.” Boucher had written her name in each column 13 times. There were no other names. The caption read “Fillin out tha paperwork.”

In order to know why this image hit me straight in the gut, it is important to realize that incredibly few women (at least those signed to major record deals) ever get to put out an album with such clean credits. Many women (including Boucher) have stories about not being allowed to even touch mixers in the studios, without supervision, as if their delicate lady butterfingers might slip and wreck the machines. Here are the stats: Women claim sole production credits (as in, serve as the top engineer and mastermind of) less than 5% of all albums. As Kelsey McKinney pointed out over at Fusion, this year was a particularly bad one for female musicians all around, despite the outsized optical successes of Taylor Swift and Adele and Rihanna and Katy Perry. Only 25% of the 178 songs in the Top 40 were sung by women, and there was only one song of the 178 written entirely by women without a male somehow involved in the process. No woman produced a song in the Top 40 by herself (and only 3.2% were co-produced by a woman and a man).

Photograph via @actuallygrimes on Instagram

Men run most record labels and streaming services, and the lack of respect for women trickles down right from the top: When asked about why he created Apple Music, Jimmy Iovine said, “I just thought of a problem: Girls are sitting around talking about boys. Or complaining about boys, when they have their heart broken or whatever. And they need music for that, right? It’s hard to find the right music. Not everybody knows a DJ.” This is who is steering our cultural Death Stars. Men who believe women can’t even find music, much less make it.

I am glad to live in a world where girls grow up thinking that Bey has always stood perfectly still in front of “Feminism” in neon, a pillar of shimmering strength. This is an indelible, galvanizing image with undeniable cultural currency, and it is worth noting that Beyonce served as executive producer of her self-titled album (meaning that she had full control over hiring, marketing, and distribution strategy) and that she made a point to work with female producers in the studio. But those girls still don’t often get to experience culture that comes directly to them from the mind of a woman, that only women have touched along the way, that has been made in rooms where only women have entered.

This is why that Instagram lodged itself so deeply in my brain. Epiphanies are largely fabricated for mythmaking; it is only in the rear view that mundane moments reveal themselves as bolts of inspiration or breaking points. I won’t claim that one grainy pic of a computer screen caused a seismic disruption in the atmosphere, but it did give me a jolt. That photo — a bold, swaggering pronouncement of aesthetic autonomy by a woman working at the highest level of her art form (your personal feelings about Art Angels aside, NME and Pitchfork just named it one of the best records of the year) — became the visual shorthand for so many ideas that I had been turning over in my head. I was drawn to Boucher like a magnet because of her undeniable talent, but also because of her uncompromising, unicorn insistence on (and ultimate success in) creating her weird, wonderful, exuberant work without anyone else’s help. I kept repeating it like a mantra in my head as I walked down the street: Fill out tha paperwork.

Claire Boucher a.k.a. Grimes performs at the Guggenheim, 2015.

I have been thinking a lot about my “job” as a journalist in 2015, and how I have been repeatedly drawn to women who exercise semi-autonomous control over their own output. I spent four months watching the creators of Broad City, who edit every episode of their show themselves. I interviewed Azealia Banks, who left Universal to self-release her own album, much of which she produced in a room by herself. I talked to Melissa Rosenberg, the creator and showrunner of Jessica Jones, about making the first Marvel heroine who feels like a real woman and delivers withering clapbacks to men who have abused her and those around her. In our interview, Rosenberg shot down anyone who chose not to watch the show just because a woman was the hero: “That’s called misogyny, and I’m so damn tired of it.” she said. I wrote about Christine and the Queens, a.k.a. Heloise Letissier, a French pop star who created her own genderless persona and who gained international fame without bowing to any of the femme requirements of most glossy marketing schemes. I talked to Dawn Richard, who has put out some of the most challenging, intricate, fluid, boundaryless R&B records (and music videos) of the past few years all on her own. I wrote about Transparent, a show where creator Jill Soloway tries to create a safe, female space on set (she called this method “discerning-receiving” in The New Yorker) and also started a bootcamp to teach inexperienced women and transgender writers who may have previously been shut out of the industry how to write TV. I have been circling the idea of women and creative work, and specifically women who make work without men involved, all year long.

Jill Soloway.

Optics would say that this has been a banner year for women in culture, at least in terms of representation and visibility. There’s Ferrante fever. Trainwreck. “Bitch Better Have My Money.” Adele and Taylor’s monster sales. Orange is the New Black and Jessica Jones and Transparent and Broad City and UnReal and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Empire and Inside Amy Schumer and Jane the Virgin and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and everything that keeps beaming from Shondaland. Donna Langley runs Universal, Kathleen Kennedy runs Lucasfilm, Bonnie Hammer runs NBCUniversal, Dana Walden runs the Fox Television Group: (and women sit in the top seats at Comedy Central, BBC America, Lionsgate TV, and more). There’s the towering rise of Bitch Planet. Actresses like Patricia Arquette, Jennifer Lawrence, and Jessica Chastain finally are finally speaking up about the wage gap. Kim K.’s Selfish was a bestseller and an aesthetic power move. We got The Argonauts, Fates and Furies, The Witches, Lenny, “On Pandering.” We now have a proliferation of slang terms for powerful groups of women who come together to plot world domination (i.e. “coven,” or the slightly worse-for-the-wear “squad”).

So sure, 2015 was “great” for women. But that statement is only true if 2015 marks the last year in which things can be so very bad. If this year somehow magically marks the end of women being widely shut out of cultural production, paid significantly less than their peers, and rarely given the chance or financial backing to create mainstream art without male interventions in the process, then I will feel ready to celebrate 2015.

But I am inclined to save my champagne. The numbers in music are garbage, but they are even worse in Hollywood. The numbers there are so bad (or, to quote Manohla Dargis, “immoral, borderline illegal”) I can’t decide if I should laugh or burn things down. This year, women directed only 5% of all studio films and directed only 16% of all television episodes (in the 2013–14 season, 70 shows hired no women at all). The number of women writers on TV staffs dropped from 30.5% to 29%. The numbers are even more condemnable when it comes to women of color; in the 2014–15 television season, for example, women of color directed only 3% of all episodes. There are powerful women of color working in film and television as directors and showrunners — such as Ava DuVernay, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Shonda Rhimes, Mindy Kaling, and Dee Rees — but their ranks are few and the obstacles they face are tremendous. Earlier this year, DuVernay made a public call on Twitter for her followers to name films with strong minority women leads that were directed by women, and found they could name only a few.

How is this acceptable? How are we not tearing down marquees, bum rushing red carpets? This year, all of the Best Director nominees will be male, and so a man will walk up to the podium and thank everyone who got him his statue. But what he should say is that he is embarrassed to win in a category where he essentially only competed against himself.

The answer might be, and increasingly seems to be, looking outside the mainstream for more authentic voices, but also, the mainstream is where the money is. This is all, always, always about economics. And I want women to be paid. I want women to be paid as much as men are paid, to make things, to experiment, to get to fail and fail again, to get their ideas directly to the public. “I get rejected about 700 times a day, no question,” says Dawn Richard, about the double-edged sword of being a woman who chooses to create work on her own without a built-in support system. “From labels, bookers, publicists, journalists, every day. Because I reach out myself. I like my fuck-ups because they turn into these really really cool mistakes. We’re imperfect and that shit is beautiful.”

Dawn Richard.

Here’s a little story about why it is important for women to control the means of cultural production:

During one of our interviews, Boucher talked to me about how most of her songs begin with a kind of girlish glossolalia that pours out of her late at night in her home studio. They are sounds she says she does not feel she would make if she was in the classic studio setting, where “there’s like 20 guys and everyone’s drunk.” When you listen to Art Angels, you hear the traces of this early vocalise; her falsetto trills or feral growls. These whimsical flourishes, and the eccentric beats she lays them over, are what make the record work; they are its beating heart. She just doesn’t sound like anyone else.

This is important not only on a technical level but also in terms of who ends up receiving the final accolades. Currently, even if a woman produces the majority of her record, if a man is somehow involved in the process, the media often refers to him as the architect of the sound. Earlier this year, Bjork addressed her frustration with this phenomenon, saying that though she made most of her beats herself, her male co-producers gets to bask in the acclaim. “I did 80 percent of the beats on Vespertine and it took me three years to work on that album…Matmos came in the last two weeks and added percussion on top of the songs, but they didn’t do any of the main parts, and they are credited everywhere as having done the whole album.” So even when women do get to touch the equipment, male intervention can end up undoing the public perception of their work.

Claire Boucher a.k.a. Grimes.

For Boucher, her insistence on working alone is the reason she insists doesn’t make pop songs— “Pop music is made by teams of people,” she told me. “I make independent music. Not just because I want to exist in the alternative, but because I think it’s important not to be artistically indebted to anybody if you want to stand for something. I want people to start thinking of me like Trent Reznor.” She needs the pathway between her creative vision and her listener to remain clear and uncluttered. She brought in only the pinch-hitters she wanted to collaborate with, including Janelle Monae (who is one of the only women currently operating her own independent record label attached to a major label) and the petite Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes, who Boucher flew to the United States for the first time to perform in front of a sold-out crowd in New York City. She also launched her own small label, which she calls a “collective,” and she brought her first signee, an underground songwriter named Nicole Dollanganger, on tour with her across the country (a tour where she performs on stage flanked by two female backup dancers and no one else). Boucher is harnessing her energy to signal boost other women, which is even another, higher level of changing the game. Of course, the thread of her artistry is lost when people write about her; it becomes more about how she managed to make what she made as a woman at all. (And see, I’ve already fallen prey to it! The internalizing is real.)

Women who are paid to create culture are often taught to remain separate from one another because they are breathing rarefied air; don’t disturb the atmosphere. And while I want women to control their own production and do it totally on their own if they have to, the idea of the Lone Female Genius is also holding us back: we need to work together if we are going to topple anything. When women are isolated, they compete instead of conspire. And women should be conspiring! (If that sounds scary, welcome to a double standard; when brilliant men work together, people make documentaries about it. When two or more smart women know each other, it becomes a nefarious secret scheme). Collaboration is an essential part of getting work out into the world that not only feels authentic, but truly intersectional.

Statistics show that women creators, when given total control over their budgets and hiring, tend to hire other women; they fill their sets and studios with female teams. On Empire, showrunner Ilene Chaiken actively recruits women of color to direct episodes, including those who have little to no previous directing experience but have shown exceptional promise. Of this initiative, she said, “It matters because they’re telling culturally specific stories…It’s also about the feeling on the set, about the interaction with the cast and the sense that this is a show that’s being made by people who are equally invested in the stories they’re telling.” I interviewed Viola Davis before and after her mic-dropping Emmy speech this year, and she echoed the idea that women of color must control their own narratives (and oversee their own projects) to ensure authentic representation on screen: “Now that I’m producing, I’m seeing what’s happening behind the scenes with people like Alfre Woodard, with people like Sanaa Lathan, with Taraji P. Henson, with Kerry Washington. These are all women who are producing their own material. They know their beauty, they know their talent. The women I know don’t accept the statistics anymore. They don’t accept the numbers as cementing their future.”

I want these and other ambitious women to be able to make the work that they want, at the scale that they want. I believe that idiosyncratic, intimate storytelling from women is vital, but it is also important for women to control the production of our broad cultural mythology, the big narratives (and big budgets) that captivate wide swaths of viewers all at once. This year, with Creed, director Ryan Coogler proved what happens when a fresh outsider voice gets the keys to a major Hollywood franchise; he made a boxing film from a singular black perspective that didn’t cater to white audiences but also didn’t exclude them. The next step is pushing the studios (be it via public shaming or ACLU probes) to give the golden blockbuster keys to a non-male. The closest we got this year to a woman taking on a franchise property was Marvel’s Jessica Jones, and there is a lot that can be said for its success.

Krysten Ritter on the set of Jessica Jones, 2015.

Jessica Jones languished at ABC before landing at Netflix; ABC just couldn’t see how to make a mainstream show that featured a wounded woman who was also a superhero who was also a mental case who was also an advocate for abuse victims and the rights of battered women all across New York City. But Netflix gave Melissa Rosenberg runway to make what she wanted (at least as much runway as a woman who makes a show for Marvel, which employs mostly men, can wrestle for herself). What came out was the first show in memory that featured a female protagonist with inherently radical feminist aims (she needed to destroy her rapist, a mind-controller who was terrorizing the city as a fragile white male who just wanted to be loved; very au-courant), but that wasn’t talked about only as a show for women. It got to be deliciously dark, twisty, utterly violent. The female gaze was all over the frame (just look at how Luke Cage glistens with his shirt off), but men didn’t seem to mind it. They allowed their reality be suspended for a moment, and women finally allowed theirs to come to life on screen; what women saw, what I saw, was a dark journey into the heart of a woman who has been threatened so much that she decided that there was no other choice than to fight back.

But a woman doesn’t have to take on a superhero to be effective in the mainstream. Look at what can be achieved when a woman focuses on a more personal mythology: Soloway’s Transparent feels like no other show on television (or the web). It has a different kind of energy that most shows, one that is both softer and more direct. It slips in and out of dream sequences, haunting musical motifs, sentimentality shoved up against identity politics. (Some transgender activists have lamented that while her show provides opportunities for trans actors and writers, it is also run by a woman who is not trans, and who is telling their story for them. This is a problem, but Soloway has at least been open to this critique; it is also important that we are moving towards a world where trans women own their own cultural production.) This season featured sex between women over 70, full-frontal mastectomy scars, open conversations about gender reassignment, a woman wearing a strap-on, a lesbian dominatrix, and a three-minute scene where a group of naked, uninhibited women danced around in the woods like giddy nymphs to an Indigo Girls song. As a woman watching this, my jaw kept dropping. How does this show keep reflecting back to me the way I have actually felt, what is this alchemy? And this flash of recognition immediately made me sad: How moving it is to feel like you can meld with the screen, how deeply this mirroring affects you and changes the way you feel for long hours. I realize how rarely I feel this way, the way that men must feel all the time.

As a final note, I should add a disclaimer here: this piece is being edited by a man. This is a caveat I could slap on a lot of my work, but I never do — not because I have anything to hide, but because I have never really thought to reveal it, it is such a common occurrence in my writing life. My editor runs this publication, which means that he has the top edit on this piece, he says which words will get published, in which order; the piece and the publication live on a platform founded by another man.

This is not a complaint: my editor on this piece is one of the good ones. He listens to me and we have long, thoughtful discussions about my ideas; he actively pushes me to be more rigorous and expansive, and he usually lets me win when it comes to haggling over syntax and structure. He trusts me, and I have learned that I can trust him. He shields me from any pressures coming at him from above (you’d be surprised at how many editors do not do this) — he doesn’t talk to me about pageviews or whether or not he thinks a certain quote will go viral. He gives me freedom to write what I want to, office space to do so when I need it, and the competitive word rate I asked for. This is a pretty idyllic editor-writer relationship, and I am fortunate to have it. Still, about nine out of the 10 editors I usually work with are men (or more accurately, they self-identify as cisgender males). This tends to be the breakdown of most women I talk with who do the kind of writing that I do.

And, in the spirit of Fillin Out Tha Paperwork, I have begun grappling with this ratio. I have become slightly obsessed with it. This is not a new feeling — many have been clocking the lack of female top editors at general interest publications since I began writing for them — but lately I see the broader effects of it. I have been thinking about how my work might have been different — might be different — if I wasn’t always aware that, at the final moment between me and publication, a man could swoop in and make changes. I like to think that this knowledge doesn’t affect what I write or how I write it, that I am unflappably myself at all times, compromising my voice for no one. But then I think, maybe I have stopped myself from growling into the microphone because I knew it wouldn’t fly.

I wrote about all the powerful women and their cultural output I mentioned earlier for male editors, and did not feel encumbered doing it. But I also did not get to write about many women that I wanted to, that I thought were important this year, because the editors I pitched them to didn’t see their cultural value (and these were not obscure women, but some of the biggest names of the past 20 years). And it isn’t always intentional: these editors are serving their publications and their editorial missions; they have jobs to do. But I also understand acutely after several years of writing and pitching how difficult it can be to place stories about certain types of women in general interest publications, and I have to believe that it has something to do with the gender breakdown of the editors at the very top (spoiler: mostly dudes). The editor of this piece turned down a story on one of the biggest female girl groups of the ’90s who was trying for a comeback this year (and who provided the teenage soundtrack for most women I know). “Too nostalgic,” was the decree. For men, maybe. This is how the filter works.

So it all comes down, again, to money and autonomy: women need to be in charge. Women need to be in charge. At least half the time. Our culture suffers when this doesn’t happen. And it is my job, it is all our jobs, to keep shouting this over and over and over and over until we start to see some movement. And not just say something, but do something. Start filling out the paperwork.

Last month, I posed a question on Twitter about which women in culture people wish could get free reign to make whatever they want. I got hundreds of responses covering all categories of creativity: illustrators, game designers, playwrights, comedians, cinematographers and choreographers. The hunger for unfettered creativity to spill into our laps is there, it is real. For my part, I want to start something of my own in 2016; to create the culture instead of just write about it, and to do so in collaboration with other women whose brains are on fire. I am seeing now that this is the only way forward. And this is why, after looking at all the numbers and finding them terrifying, I have hope for the year to come. As women become more and more visible, they need to not only be their own top liners but also bring other women along for the ride: Imagine the first pop star at Swift’s level to make a record untouched by men, or the first woman to make a network show with an all-female set. Those will be good days. We are hopefully moving towards those days. But until we are there, we have to keep talking until there is nothing left to say. We have to make this the Last Bad Year.


All photographs via Getty Images.