Quotas at the Golden Globes?

Congratulations to Regina King for winning best supporting actress at the Golden Globes on Sunday. Her performance in If Beale Street Could Talk (directed by Barry Jenkins) was stellar, and her selection as best supporting actress was one of the few decisions by the Hollywood Foreign Press that I agreed with. But her acceptance speech gave me pause.

In accepting her Globe, she said she wants 50-percent female involvement in all her future projects. And she encouraged everyone else in a position of power to also hire 50 percent women and 50 percent men. The room erupted in applause.

King has since said her comments were not scripted but grew spontaneously from her passion for gender equality. That passion is admirable, and it’s something I support. But let’s be clear: What King is advocating is a quota. And though U.S. courts have not definitively said whether hiring quotas are illegal (see Wikipedia), I would argue that they are counterproductive to long-term equality and also insulting to the underrepresented gender or race, as quotas often assume that the underrepresented gender or race is not talented enough to get the job without the quota. Some would counter that argument by pointing out that, because the playing field is currently not level, quotas level it by preventing gender and racial bias. But quotas are nevertheless not the fairest way to reach a level playing field and are also counterproductive to quality, as they sometimes prevent the most qualified person from being hired. (And as Ruth Bader Ginsburg reminded us in her first gender-discrimination lawsuit, Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, gender-specific laws harm both genders. In other words, a 50-50 quota designed to help women could potentially reduce the number of women a particular movie is allowed to hire.)

Let me be clear: I’m not talking about affirmative action and other progressive programs, which I encourage Hollywood to support, so long if they are administered fairly. I’m discussing only quotas, which are unpopular with not just legal scholars and progressive advocates of societal change, but also with the American people.

Maybe I’m taking King’s words too literally. If so, I apologize and concede that the sentiment behind them is noble. After all, the Supreme Court has said that setting a goal or an objective of reaching hiring percentages is both legal and moral. But if King really does plan to adopt a quota of 50 percent for men and 50 percent for women, wouldn’t it also make sense to hire 71 percent white, 18 percent Hispanic, 12 percent black, 5 percent Asian, and 1 percent Native American? (Heck, those official census stats don’t even add up, presumably because no one can agree on a definition of “white.”) Admittedly, that’s taking this argument a step too far, but isn’t that exactly what a quota system would do? And I certainly wish King good luck if she wants 50 percent of her cinematographers and gaffers to be women. Sadly, she’s unlikely to find them. (Until we encourage more women to join those industries, which have been traditionally dominated by men, King will probably be left understaffed. But, hey, I challenge her to prove me wrong on that point.)

I’m a white man, and if the historical tables had been turned and I were living in a world where white men were underrepresented in Hollywood, I would be Jessica Chastain at the Globes: standing up and cheering at King’s words. And just like King, my heart would be in the right place but my words ill advised. At the risk of sounding preachy and self-righteous – hey, I’m just a film critic – I’ve always thought that our goal should be to level the playing field so everyone has the same chance, while encouraging diversity in all senses: race, ethnicity, gender, culture, background, subject and artistic style. And that kind of true equality and openness can’t be achieved through quotas.

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