Why hasn't film's sexist 'casting couch' mentality been obliterated?

Actress Rose McGowan penned a scathing response to Owen Gleiberman's column.

Actress Rose McGowan penned a scathing response to Owen Gleiberman's column. Photo: Michael Loccisano

 In 2015, one would like to imagine that the "casting couch" mentality – that vaguely apocryphal entertainment industry occurrence, memorably noted in Julia Phillips' ripsnorter You'll Never Eat Lunch In This Town Again, that leads producers and casting agents to expect sexual favours from aspiring performers (and vice versa) – is dead and buried.

After all, the biz is abuzz with talk of gender equality in funding quotas and investigations into sexist hiring practices; things are changing, right? Well, sort of.

The entertainment business may well be stepping tentatively into a new era, but as a number of prominent actresses have found, there are certain aspects of film and TV industry sexism the biz is not so keen to have brought into the open.

Rose McGowan took to Twitter earlier this year to decry a casting note for an unspecified Adam Sandler film that requested actresses wear "black (or dark) form fitting tank that shows off cleavage (push up bras encouraged)", evidently par for the course for many castings; days later, she was dropped by her agency, Innovative.

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While a number of other prominent actresses echoed McGowan's outrage at the time, it's perhaps more telling to look at how the industry treats emerging actresses, the women who don't have the benefit of half a million Twitter followers or powerful managers to back them up.

Horror stories from the audition circuit abound; it seems every actress has at least one story about an audition, screen test or casting note that made their skin crawl.

When I asked a group of actresses for their worst nightmares, tales shared – on condition of anonymity – ranged from aspiring actresses being asked to submit naked photos for a role (the casting notice was posted on Facebook) to an established actress who was asked to simulate masturbation during an audition for an "award-winning director".

Then there are the more subtle, but still insidious, forms of industry sexism; one actress reported receiving a casting note for an advertisement that sought either a male or female lead. "The woman had to be 'late twenties to late thirties' but the guy could be 'thirties to mid forties'."

And nearly all of the actresses, regardless of their age, experience level or body type, had encountered casting notes that required them to wear a swimsuit or tight-fitting clothes to "show the body", regardless of the role (one of which included a suburban mum shopping in a supermarket).

"After submitting my first self tape [a video audition] to my now former manager, she told me I needed to be fit and trim," recalls Jean Grant, an actress and writer based in New York. "Every time we'd speak on the phone, she's never let me forget how my body was unacceptable in that first self tape and how necessary it was for me to be 'stunt' ready. By the end of our time working together, she replaced 'stunt' with 'bikini' ready."

Grant later decided to speak up after she was sent a casting note she felt was a bridge too far, and that she could no longer follow the "put up and shut up" approach she'd tried to maintain. "I obeyed that statement for six months until I refused to audition for the most sexist and misogynist independent feature film. That refusal got me fired by my representation," she says. "

The industry can be especially difficult to navigate for younger actresses, who may find themselves pressured into casting situations they find uncomfortable.

"It is paramount to dress appropriately for the given character at an audition, however, as I am merging from children's [TV] to adult drama, I am feeling the pressure to dress older than I feel," says Australian actress Lana Golja, who starred in ABC3's Worst Year Of My Life, Again. "At 20 years old, I have been encouraged to wear skin tight clothing, to display cleavage, and even wear bikinis, merely for a first round audition. The expectation to look flawless and have a defined figure is pressure enough, but to be told my audition will not be considered because I am not exposing the majority of my body is vexing, to say the least."

Like many of the other actresses I spoke to, Grant and Golja have experienced seemingly arbitrary requests for "sexy" or skimpy clothing at auditions for roles that don't necessarily fit the "sexy" bill.

"Initially, I felt the freedom of being able to audition for a diverse range of roles, from tomboy to 15-year-old fairy princess," Golja recalls, "until I was advised a pretty floral top was not 'sexy' enough for a fairy."

Inspired by McGowan's activism, Grant made a point of writing about her experiences in an essay that was, in turn, shared by McGowan herself. And both Grant and Golja agree that change must also come from within the industry, from the screenplay up.

"I never want any woman to go through the sexist and degrading bullshit trenches as I did," Grant says. "The inside of the industry needs to shift from its content, more female executive producers, writers, directors and creative roles.

"After I was fired from my manager, I went back to writing and now am beginning to direct my own work. I won't sit back and wait for Hollywood to make it happen, nor should other women. The stronger community and network women have, the stronger the shift in the industry."