Can the Sony Hack Prove Hollywood is Sexist?

Curator's Note

The Sony hack of November 2014 made accessible, through illegal means, a vast selection of confidential information pertaining to the company’s employees and corporate operations. For scholars studying the politics of gender and employment in the media industry, the hack offered material evidence exposing Sony’s sexist hiring practices. Disclosed emails divulged that actresses Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams were paid less than their male co-stars in Sony’s 2013 film American Hustle. The hack also made news when it revealed a pay disparity amongst the company’s top seventeen executives who earn over $1 million: 94 percent of whom are male, and 88 percent who are white.

More devastating than the multi-million dollar salaries of movie stars and executives, the cyber attack exposed a corporate culture of privilege and unaccountability regarding its below-the-line employees. Formal complaints by an African American female Executive Assistant were published in the press and detailed the racial discrimination and sexual harassment made by her male boss. The employee’s plea, “I need someone to protect me from Keith [Le Goy],” had gone unanswered by Sony’s Human Resource department. Activists critical of the film industry’s legacy of employment discrimination wondered if Guardians of the Peace's vandalism might signal a tipping point in how female employees—at all levels—are treated in this business.

While the evidence of Hollywood’s institutionalized sexism and racism is available for public consumption by the press, social media platforms, and peer-to-peer file-sharing networks, researchers face an ethical dilemma: is it “good” scholarship to use illegally sourced documents? Sony threatened the mainstream press with lawsuits if media outlets continued to publish the company’s “stolen material.” The studio’s legal counsel went after individuals on Twitter, specifically musician Val Broeksmit, for posting screenshots of emails between executives suggesting screenwriters and film directors for hire—the overwhelming majority of whom are men. For feminist, anti-racist scholars, who see their work functioning as a tool for social justice, these are invaluable primary sources, but does their unlawfulness incriminate those who study them?


You raise a lot of really important issues and questions here. As a researcher, I have been consistently frustrated by the lack of access provided by studios not just to contemporary materials but to archival materials that date back to the mid-twentieth century! So my initial impulse is to use whatever you can get your hands on! The more ethical path would likely be to consider whether or not we are using the material responsibly. Perhaps this is an area where media studies can learn something from journalism. It seems that a good standard might be something like: does the good done by using the leaked information outweigh any potential harm from using that information? In the case of the assistant whose please for help had gone unanswered, maybe the answer would be yes? If the leaked material is exposing sexist and racist practices in a public company, maybe yes again? But you are also touching on an even larger issue of expectations of privacy in today's digital age. When the response to the leak of nude photos stolen from the private accounts of young actresses is a collective shrug and an admonition that the actresses should have known better and assumed that nothing is private anymore, does that same lesson hold for email communications between executives at powerful corporations? Should everyone assume that nothing is private anymore?

I think Jen is absolutely correct that one should measure the potential for ethical good over the harm being done by working with illegally-obtained documents. We should also ask ourselves, as ethical scholars, what we might be willing to get in trouble over. I wonder though, what the potential for negative fallout might be for Sony if they pursue their legal options too heavy-handedly. The Broeksmit case didn't get a ton of attention, but the potential for looking like a company that cares more about *seeming* anti-racist or anti-sexist as opposed to *being* anti-racist or anti-sexist might bite them in the butt. I also wonder the extent to which companies are wary of hacktivists like the free-internet wing of Anonymous. It's all well and good for Sony if they can play the role of pro-Democracy martyr against the egotistical tyrant's hackers. But when Sony starts to play the overly-litigious sexist/racist company, that wastes much of the goodwill they've built up throughout this affair. Who knows? If enough scholars, journalists, activists, and others are willing to play martyr to Sony's litigiousness, it may generate enough new bad publicity to force their hand towards addressing some of these issues.

Thank you Maya, as well as Jen and Philip, for highlighting the ethical issues at play with the Sony Hack and access for scholarship on contemporary Hollywood industries. Jen, I am inclined to agree with you that given the large disparity of materials available on Hollywood (at any given point over the twentieth and twenty-first centuries of the industry), any access is vital. I'm also intrigued by Maya and Philip's points about Sony's threat of legal action against the publications who have published information revealed from the hack and the potential conflicts over using this leaked information in scholarly research. Aside from the limited donated collections of studio archives, one of the few outlets through which to examine contracts in Hollywood has been through litigation, as the documents become accessible through LA Superior Court (see Eric Hoyt's excellent essay ""Writer in the Hole: Desny v. Wilder, Copyright Law, and the Battle Over Ideas." and Philip Drake's " ‘Reputational capital, creative conflict and Hollywood independence: the case of Hal Ashby," both of which utilized such court records). So a Sony lawsuit trying to sequester and protect the hacked material has the potential to do the opposite and "archive" the hacked emails and material should it be used as evidence in court. Echoing Philip, such litigiousness might back fire for the studio.

Jen--Interesting idea of media studies scholars looking to journalism for some cues on how to work with material that has been questionably sourced. I do think there is a way as activist-researchers to justify the use of such materials for a larger "good' and protect ourselves in the process. Philip—To your point, Sony has to choose its battles here. Do they take on damage control by going after “regular people” on Twitter who have little to lose (a few tweets removed) vs. firing its chairman as a way to save face in front of its biggest stars, and the POTUS? The Sony leak provided some new evidence on industry racism and sexism--a problem that has been part of the business since its inception. You're right, here the company must be careful in how it presents itself in the question that surely many have wondered: who is the worse evil, the hackers or discriminators? Emily—Excellent to point out how court papers are often the most telling research documents: the nature of the court system—and those using it--in its necessity for detailed defense and response produces copious materials. And the final irony, for Sony trying to maintain its privacy, that once entered into such a system, the material becomes public.

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