Last week, a relentless paranoia consumed my life as I prepared to direct a live talk show in my media production class. For exactly three minutes, I would take my turn in the director’s chair, giving commands while juggling three cameras, audio, graphics and cues to the talent. I was to follow a semi-scripted outline and make decisions on the fly, while my professor silently jotted down notes behind me. It was all very stressful and very much outside my comfort zone, because, for the neurotic planner that I am, “live” is a four letter word.
I’m sure all nine students in my production class were nervous for their directing rotation. I was. I watched as each individual’s nerves surfaced in their own ways; fingers twisted in hair, bitten nails, cracking knuckles. There was another tell, one that exactly half the class employed: the disclaimer. Sorry if this sucks. I’m totally gonna mess up. I apologize in advance.
The students who used disclaimers, I noticed, were exclusively women.
I recognize that my sample size is small, but even so, I find it extremely unlikely that this was an isolated coincidence. The fact is, all four women in my class preemptively disqualified their abilities as directors in some capacity, while the four men did not.
Disclaimers act as a sort of defense mechanism, a way to show self-awareness in your uncertainties and ensure that you don’t appear overconfident or pompous. They are used to acknowledge that you’re not blind to your imperfections or insusceptible to mistakes. But a thought prefaced with,“This may be a bad idea, but…” is not nearly as convincing as the same one without.
So why is there a gender disparity in confidence? Maybe, perhaps even subconsciously, the women in my film and television classes are less confident in their abilities simply because they haven’t seen many women take on high-powered positions in the industry. It’s no secret that Hollywood is an old boys club; any list of the industry’s “greats” will be overcrowded with old, white men. In the timeline of film and television, relatively few women have risen to great acclaim in the stereotypically male dominated roles of directors, producers, screenwriters and the like.
History has not cultivated many female role models, but there has been enormous progress. Throughout the past decade, incredible women have been able to break through Hollywood’s glass ceiling, successfully writing scripts, directing shows and running studios. And the women that are breaking through the boundaries are confident in their abilities and stand by their ideas. No disclaimers.
It’s infinitely easier to go along with the status quo. When predominantly men raised their hands in my Art of Film class last semester, I noticed the trend, but did nothing. I, like many, didn’t want to say something wrong or divisive, was not willing to run the risk of looking bad. I only got up the courage to speak one time in that lecture: ironically, when the class was having a passionate debate about producer, author and showrunner Shonda Rhimes. I talked about her dedication to blind casting, her movement to normalize minorities through her storylines and her persistence to grow opportunities for women within the industry. Her success, dazzling and inspiring, gave me confidence to overcome the perceptions of my own shortcomings.
The only way that progress can continue is if young women take initiative. It starts in the classroom, in our student organizations, in our internships. It’s time we take on projects that may be outside our comfort zones and have the confidence that somehow, we’ll figure it out. It’s time to stop saying we can’t before we even try.