According to the most recent report from the Women's Media Center (WMC), women are underrepresented in all areas of mainstream media production in the United States.1 The WMC has been reporting on the gender gap for the past five years, documenting the lack of parity in newsrooms, on radio, on TV, and in the film industry in order to track “progress,” “regress,” and “pushback” in media production. Similar studies are being conducted around the world, as individuals and organizations attempt to address the lack of diversity as well as the structural limitations facing women and minorities working in media industries.2 What these studies and campaigns have in common is the recognition that labor parity, in terms of opportunity and pay, is fundamental to creating and maintaining social equality in media production.
Questions about the lack of opportunities (in production, but also on-screen and in positions of power) resurface annually, particularly now that televised ceremonies for the Emmys and the Academy Awards have evolved into metaphors for Hollywood's homogeneity. Social media campaigns such as #OscarsSoWhite use the award season to highlight racial exclusion across all categories in film production, illuminating inequity in the media by circulating images of glamorous but overwhelmingly white audiences and winners.3 Moments that appear to signal a breakthrough, such as Halle Berry winning an Academy Award in 2001 for best actress (the first African American woman to win in that category) or Kathryn Bigelow's win for best director in 2010 (the first woman to win in that category), recede against the seemingly inexorable pressure to return to the status quo. Glamour aside, the crux of the problem persistently returns to a question of labor: who is hired and who is not.
As critiques of Hollywood's exclusionary practices have gone mainstream with heightened intensity over the past five years, statistical inquiries, charts, and graphs have been deployed to objectively quantify media's pervasive diversity deficit.4 During this same period, perhaps not surprisingly, the word “diversity” itself has come under scrutiny, criticized as a meaningless buzzword too easily invoked in discourse and just as easily ignored in practice. At its most cynical, in terms of talent and content, diversity can be understood as yet another marketing strategy used to carve out and appeal to niche audiences.5 Even power/house screenwriter and showrunner Shonda Rhimes has pushed back against praise for her diverse casts and award-winning shows, noting that they can create misplaced confidence in the mainstream media's ability to change. During her acceptance speech for the Norman Lear Achievement Award in Television that she received at the Producers Guild of America Award ceremony in 2017, she satirically observed, “It is not trailblazing to write the world as it actually is.”6 It is a sentiment with which feminist historians can probably agree.
For media scholars, examining labor practices is key to understanding how structural limitations within media production have been constituted and replicated.7 For feminist historians, this project is often complicated by having to make women's work visible as labor, which is not simply a question of historical neglect: it is a cultural legacy and a material present. Feminist film historians, confronting the problems of women's often-uncredited participation in film production, have adapted to archival absences by seeking new forms of evidence and focusing on different creative practices and modes of production.8 Another persistent challenge is the conflation of women's work with emotional care or affective avocations that are not recognized as labor.9 As Vicki Mayer succinctly puts it; “Herein lies the rub of feminized media labor: its invisibility, even to those who do it.”10
The search for the history of women's labor in media industries has driven archival research, critical theory, and data set analysis for more than thirty years. For instance, in an annual report called The Celluloid Ceiling, Martha Lauzen has been documenting employment patterns for women in the film industry since 1998. Using the top 250 films released in the United States, the report provides data on women working as writers, directors, producers, editors, and cinematographers, and reinforces the stark parameters of women's employment in contemporary filmmaking. Such raw data confirms minor shifts in some occupations, but also confirms the persistent stagnation of occupational mobility for women working in film production.11
For many media historians, analyzing the current lack of opportunities for women in production or positions of power within media industries leads, almost inevitably, to comparisons between the present context and the early years of the American film industry's development. At a time when women did not have the right to vote, the film industry afforded some women entry into an array of occupations, most notably as directors—which is not to say that the silent era was a utopic space of opportunity, but the contrast is compelling. How to account for this period has been a generative problem, driving archival research to uncover the kinds of work women performed and what happened to constrain those opportunities as the industry consolidated its economic structure and formalized production practices behind its famous studio walls. Groups such as the Women Film Pioneers Project, begun by Jane Gaines in 1993, as well as the annual Women and the Silent Screen conferences have provided forums for the ongoing reevaluation of this early period. Scholars, archivists, historians, and curators have painstakingly excavated the names and biographies of women who were engaged in directing, acting, and producing, but they have also uncovered a catalog of occupations, ranging from accountants and acting teachers to cinematographers and stunt persons to distributors and wardrobe consultants.12
In addition to information about individuals, institutional histories are key to understanding how the structuring of labor practices persistently rationalizes the exclusion of women from positions of power and authority.13 In Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood (2006), Karen Ward Mahar utilizes research methods from film and business history, sociology, and feminist scholarship to account for the gendering of the Hollywood studio system.14 Tracing the inclusion and exclusion of women working as filmmakers (particularly as directors) between 1896 and 1928, Mahar accounts for the ways in which institutional “masculinization” pushed women into types of labor that upheld traditional gender norms. Mahar's scholarship has helped lay the groundwork for understanding how the studio system (and by extension other media industries) relied on and replicated corporate organizational strategies, particularly how positions of fiscal, creative, and managerial authority were defined and gendered—a legacy that haunts Hollywood to this day.15 Recent research continues to complicate the studio narrative. In Never Done: A History of Women's Work in Media Production (2016), Erin Hill further refines the narrative of women's exclusion from production practices and studio history, examining the ongoing negotiation within the studio system over gendered forms of labor and their role in media production.16 Challenging the seemingly hermetic backdrop of the studio's contract system, Emily Carman in Independent Stardom: Freelance Women in the Hollywood Studio System (2016) has analyzed how women adopted freelance labor practices in order to carve out different opportunities and exert more control over their careers.17
These are just a few selected histories, but they demonstrate how feminist scholarship continues to complicate our understanding of the ways in which women's labor is imbricated within media institutions. Broadly speaking, they are also representative of how feminist labor scholarship coheres around key areas: on the one hand, accounting for women's work that has been ignored or poorly understood, and on the other, examining categories of work as they inform individual or collective identity. These areas are not mutually exclusive, as can be seen in scholarship that draws on traditions of social history to investigate the formation of guilds, or the histories of unions, unionization, and labor reform movements. In both respects, however, such work on film and media labor can disrupt the active-passive gender bind of historical causality by which women are written out of history as nonproductive bystanders.
As the essays in this issue also demonstrate, overarching themes emerge through a focus on work that connects labor studies to other areas of feminist media history: how identity and agency are constituted in relation to forms of work that offer opportunities for self-expression and representation; how the formation and maintenance of collective organizations such as guilds and unions coalesce around class, race, and gender; and how institutional structures systematize and control access to work even as they replicate and rationalize social and gender hierarchies.
To borrow a phrase, labor is a useful category of analysis.
The reference here to Joan Wallach Scott's seminal essay “Gender: A Useful Category of Analysis” (1986) is doubly appropriate, as Scott's work, which offers a sustained argument for the centrality of gender as an analytical paradigm, is also firmly grounded in empirical research into the labor conditions of working-class women in nineteenth-century France.18 Scott's analysis was, after all, a feminist intervention into the uncritical reproduction of gender biases in established histories of nineteenth-century trade unions and labor organizations.19 Although the work may be best remembered for crystallizing a moment in which historical practice shifted focus to gender history, it should also remind us that examining the conditions of women's labor (in its relationship to gender, race, ethnicity, class, and sexuality) is a profoundly generative historiographic project. As Judith Butler suggests, Scott's argument demonstrates how the focus on gender and labor can disrupt “conceptual schemas” that “actively constrain our ideas of what history can and will become.”20
Despite years of compelling research, there is clearly still a need for feminist scholars to persist in disrupting historical schemas, particularly those that resist change. As Shelley Stamp has pointed out, American film and media history texts continue to fail at incorporating the scope of women's participation in the early industry—in effect, the entrenched production segregation that characterized the studio system is still being replicated in texts that include material on women in sidebars or as “special features,” separating women's stories from the dominant narrative.21 The articles collected here share in the traditions of feminist labor scholarship as acts of reclamation and as correctives to mainstream history, while the varied approaches and influences—how they integrate ethnographic studies, oral history, archival research, and discourse analysis—suggest rich interdisciplinary potential for feminist historiography.
In “Auteurism, Machismo-Leninismo, and Other Issues: Women's Labor in Andean Oppositional Film Production,” Isabel Seguí (re)embeds the filmmakers Beatriz Palacios and María Barea within the transnational upheaval of oppositional cinema practices in South America. Seguí historicizes Palacios's and Barea's participation in politically radical filmmaking from the late 1960s to the early 1990s, detailing how their labor was subsumed by the collective practices and romantic partnerships endemic to these small-scale and highly mobile production communities. Seguí also suggests that the careers of these women were further obscured by the logic of auteurist criticism that validated deeply entrenched patriarchal principles, a process that occurred within the collectives themselves and was further replicated in accounts of the period. To counter this narrative, she reconstructs the peripatetic careers of Barea and Palacios and, through personal interviews with their colleagues and friends, introduces firsthand accounts of their centrality to the history of radical filmmaking in South America.
The gendered labor dynamics of familial or collaborative production models can effectively obscure women's work as emotional care, but it can also be mobilized as a rhetorical strategy. In “Below-the-(Hem)line: Storytelling as Collective Resistance in Costume Design,” Helen Warner examines the discourse of community alliance in the Costume Designer, the trade journal of the Costume Designers Guild, Local 892 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. Warner's focus on craft labor draws on traditions of feminist labor history that engage with trade unions and guilds, particularly in the way such organizations deploy gender ideologies to galvanize a collective sense of identity around shared forms of work. By tracing how guild leadership attempted to construct and maintain a sense of collective purpose during a period of economic uncertainty and increasingly fractured employment practices, Warner also demonstrates how more inclusive attention to the narratives of women media workers is important to the expanding field of production studies.
In “Producing a Radio Housewife: Clara, Lu 'n' Em, Gendered Labor, and the Early Days of Radio,” Jennifer Hyland Wang examines the production history of the popular radio series Clara, Lu 'n' Em, which aired on NBC from 1931 to 1937 and made an unusual transition from the evening to the daytime schedule. The series began as a nightly show that starred three Northwestern college graduates who performed their comedic political banter in the guise of midwestern housewives taking breaks from their domestic routines. Working through an archive of marketing material, Wang explores how advertising strategies shifted over the course of the show's run, tracking with the industry's move toward gender-segregated scheduling. As Wang demonstrates, promotional discourse increasingly aligned the women's on-air and off-air identities, effectively crafting personas that minimized the trio's associations with the talent, craft, or skilled labor of writing and performing. Wang's intensive reconstruction of the series’ promotional history contributes to our understanding of how industrial imperatives were shaped by gender constraints and institutionalized through programming and marketing.
Diana W Anselmo's “Gender and Queer Fan Labor on Tumblr: The Case of BBC's Sherlock,” investigates the pleasures and costs associated with fan communities as they work to produce new texts and readings of the popular BBC television show Sherlock, a modernized adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's classic detective stories. Anselmo explores the textual labor of fans who deploy queer reading strategies and techno-crafting and design skills to remake Sherlock into a love story between Holmes and Dr. Watson. As she also documents, however, attempts to control an interpretive framework for Sherlock are central to the fraught relationship between the fan-based online communities and the show's creative team. Bringing together ethnographic fan studies with labor studies, Anselmo traces with compassion how the work of fandom can challenge textual and institutional authority, build new communities, and at the same time, risk forms of financial and emotional exploitation.
In “Shiage and Women's Flexible Labor in the Japanese Animation Industry,” Diane Wei Lewis interrogates how women's labor was critical to the economic viability of the Japanese animation industry during a period of technological transformation. Caught between the expanding popularity of anime and the need to control costs, animation companies developed strategic advertising campaigns that solicited women to take on shiage (finishing tasks) as home-based work. Lewis reconstructs this overlooked history by examining how advertising in women's magazines promised work that was artistically and financially rewarding, and could fit the rhythms of a domestic schedule. As she details, in the representation of suitable “feminine” labor, women were addressed as both workers and consumers; they were also expected to accept exploitative working conditions in exchange for work they could love. This appeal to emotion as an acceptable substitute for financial remuneration is another characteristic of “feminized” labor in which inequalities are rationalized through affective compensation, a theme that can be traced through several of the essays collected here.
We are pleased to be able to include Bridget Kies's article “Television's ‘Mr. Moms’: Idealizing the New Man in 1980s Domestic Sitcoms,” which won the 2016 Society for Cinema and Media Studies Women's Caucus Graduate Student Writing Prize for the best work in feminist media history, an award cosponsored by Feminist Media Histories. Kies examines the complex dynamics of changing family life through representations of stay-at-home dads (and paternal substitutes) as they played out in a popular cycle of Mr. Mom comedies. The article traces how the new man of the 1970s was adapted to the changing cultural contexts of the 1980s, a decade of Reagan-era family-values conservatism noted for its ambivalent attitudes toward progressive identity politics. As Kies demonstrates, Mr. Mom characters navigated new types of masculinities in their performance of domestic life and work, speaking to the ongoing and complex transformation of gender roles both inside and outside the home.
The definitions of “labor” contain the complexities of its study. According to the Merriam-Webster English Dictionary, labor can mean difficult physical or mental effort (as in producing goods or services, or as in childbirth); an act or a process; or a social class or group that works for wages. In both simple and complex ways, labor can define both occupation and identity, bridging the defining features of modern life. As the essays collected here attest, for feminist scholars who investigate the relationship between gender and media production, a focus on labor can be an entry point into institutional histories and a challenge to historiography; it is also a methodology that can make power visible, an approach that is relevant both as a historical project and as a critique of contemporary life.