Even with the increased demand for episodic content, women of color remain offensively underrepresented in behind-the-camera positions. The jobs are out there, but WOC are not being considered for them. To address this bias, NALIP (National Association of Latino Independent Producers) put together a discussion with five prominent female directors during this year’s Media Summit.
The panel featured a combination of those who started out making independent film and moved into television and others whose bread and butter has always been short form storytelling: Catalina Aguilar Mastretta (Vida), Aurora Guerrero (Queen Sugar), So Yong Kim (Vida), Kimberly McCullough (One Day at a Time), and Linda Mendoza (Fuller House).
According to Guerrero, the bias against women of color and queer people is ingrained in the very fibers of the industry because of the way those at the top perceive others: “There is a huge issue with the powers that be that don’t reflect the rest of the world. They tend to be white, male, straight, middle to upper class, and so they understand the world through that lens and a lot of people get left out. There is always racism, classism, and homophobia at play, always,” she said.
There is also the prevalent notion that women of color should only be hired to work on projects about POC. The problem with this, as Catalina Aguilar Mastretta points out, is that “the stories of people that look like us and have our experiences are not getting made, and we are not allowed into the world of the people that are telling other stories either.”
Then, for those who have managed to get their foot in the door and helm an episode of television, getting hired on other shows is still a challenge since showrunners and executives often prefer someone who’s directed multiple series. It’s a catch-22 that perpetuates the lack of opportunities for women of color to hone their craft in the episodic medium.
Getting in the room and staying there is a difficult feat even for a seasoned director like Linda Mendoza, who’s been around for 20 years. “I have over 200 episodes of television under my belt, and it doesn’t matter how much you work, you always have to prove yourself,” she emphasized.
Aguilar Mastretta recalled a meeting with an executive where she wanted to throw her hat in the ring to direct a project. The exec explained she could read it but that they were officially only going after a specific list of directors – she wasn’t one of them.
Later, Catalina found out a white male director she went to film school with, who had considerably less experience than her, was among those being considered. “I called my agent and said, ‘I just need to know why that guy is on the list and I’m not. I just need an honest answer.’” Following that exchange, she got on the list. “You call people out and they realize their own bias.” She believes that if Tanya Saracho’s Vida didn’t exist she wouldn’t have a television credit to her name yet.
For several of the panelists, the opportunity to direct television came from other marginalized creators. “The women that are opening up the door for us are other women of color from One Day at a Time, to Vida, to Queen Sugar, so we need to be in those positions more and more,” said Aurora Guerrero. “For me Ava DuVernay has been a lifesaver. She is super intentional and real about everything that she puts out and that she talks about,” she added.
In Kimberly McCullough’s case it was the fact that Gloria Calderon Kellett hired her when she was eight-and-a-half months pregnant that showed her how much of a difference it makes to have an understanding leader. McCullough’s son was two months old by the time she directed her first episode of One Day at a Time, and the line producer arranged a room for her to breastfeed in. “Gloria didn’t really say anything about it until show night. On show night she looked to her daughter who was eight-years-old and said, ‘Honey, this is Kimberly, she just had a baby two months ago and she is here directing the show and kicking ass, can you believe that?’” Calderon Kellett was showing her daughter what is possible for women, and McCullough felt honored to serve an example for such valuable lesson.
Near the end of the conversation Asian-American filmmaker So Yong Kim summed up what the major takeaway is when talking about female content creators, “I’m not sure that women are better directors than men, but they are just as good, on the same level.”