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The Woman in the Room

Art for The Woman in the Room.


Every woman who’s worked in an office knew that Sony co-chair Amy Pascal was going to lose her job. Though the announcement only came last week, we knew it was coming months ago, when the Sony hacks first hit and an unprecedented wave of stolen emails started flooding entertainment-gossip blogs.

From day one, it was clear that Pascal had a target pinned to her back; in fact, it had probably been pinned there decades earlier, when she rose from the lowly position of personal secretary to a producer and began her climb toward becoming the head of a major motion picture studio. Women aren’t supposed to climb that high, in an industry that notoriously male-dominated. It was only a matter of time until someone found a way to knock her back down.

The Sony hacks were an exercise in schadenfreude, and despite the fact that innocent people did get hurt when passwords and medical records were released, for most onlookers (myself included), reading the leaked emails was less about a desire to hurt someone than seeking some entertainment. We wanted to see how ridiculous Channing Tatum’s emails looked. (Very.) We wanted to see if Aaron Sorkin was as sexist in his emails as he was in his shows and interviews. (Of course.) We wanted to know if legendary producer Scott Rudin was truly enough of an asshole to deserve his reputation. (Is he ever!)

Pascal, as the studio head, was everywhere in those conversations, too. Her name stood out as especially memorable, simply because it belonged to a wealthy white woman rather than to a wealthy white man. From what we learned from the emails, it was notable how well she fit in, even when she was the only woman in the room. She gave as good as she got, and she swore when she was sworn at. When Rudin sent Pascal an all-caps order—“YOU BETTER SHUT [Angelina Jolie] DOWN BEFORE SHE MAKES IT VERY HARD FOR DAVID [Fincher] TO DO JOBS”—Pascal’s response was succinct and commanding: “Do not fucking threaten me.”

True, it’s hard to summon unconditional, bleeding-heart sympathy for Pascal, because she is (a) filthy rich, and (b) racist. She’s been “knocked down” only to the extent that she’s been given a high-profile job producing buzzy projects like the all-female Ghostbusters reboot, and she has more money than you or I will probably ever touch. And her behavior was, at times, just as disgraceful as that of any man she worked with.

The notorious email thread in which she and Rudin speculate about what movies President Obama likes (Pascal starts it—“Should I ask him if he liked DJANGO?”—and Rudin accelerates on to 12 Years a Slave, and before you know it, they’re gleefully suggesting Kevin Hart movies) is disgusting, and alarming, given the struggle black filmmakers have had to get financed and be taken seriously by Hollywood. That email chain would be shameful in any year, but it’s even worse in the year of Ava DuVernay’s Oscar snub for Selma.

Without exonerating Pascal’s behavior or attitudes, though, it’s worth noting that she’s operating very much according to the rules for wealthy white women in positions of power: she’s speaking the boys’ language, affirming the solidarity of privilege—she’s communicating, subtly, that she’s not a threat to the entrenched power structure of the boys’ club, even though her gender makes her look like an intruder. In fact, some might even argue that her racist behavior is a case of her “playing the game” by affirming shared privilege; although, even if that’s true, it doesn’t change the impact of her words and actions. The tricky thing about “just going along with” racism is that it requires you to say and do racist things.

Women are routinely told to do this in order to survive in male-dominated industries. In order to succeed, they need allies, and in order to get allies, they need to become the professional version of Gillian Flynn’s “Cool Girl” from her thriller Gone Girl: always game, always down, always doing exactly what the boys do, but with a welcoming feminine touch. Freezing their eggs through corporate-sponsored programs, say, rather than having babies too soon and having to take time off work from designing and marketing the next iPhone. I once knew a banker who told me that if she couldn’t laugh at sexist jokes, she’d need to stop working in finance.

Pascal followed the rules. She was nice to Sorkin. She laughed at the offensive jokes, and she made a lot of them herself. She was Cool. She Leaned In—and she Leaned Into toxicity and oppression along the way. And it didn’t save her. Let’s be clear, here: Scott Rudin’s career will be in no way hampered by his choice to make racist jokes in that email thread. Many critics and viewers have soured on Sorkin’s sexism—but he won’t have to stop writing screenplays because he says and does sexist things. Their privilege is so thick, consequences can’t get through it.

Amy Pascal lost her job because, no matter how much she spoke the language of white male corporate privilege, at the end of the day, she wasn’t a white man. The rules were different for her, and they always had been. Knowing that won’t necessarily help Pascal, but it might serve as a reminder for other women: Playing the game doesn’t help you gain real power, or real respect. The only way to do that is to change the rules.

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