Montgomery County native Kat Hess says she always wanted to work in the film industry.
“By the time I graduated from college, it was an absolute obsession of mine and I somehow convinced my parents to let me go to film school to pursue it,” Hess said. She said that attending film school, where male students outnumbered female students in classes by four- or five-to-one ratios, opened her eyes to how women were under-represented in the business.
“This was also where my decision to work in film stopped being just about the pursuit to work in art, it became about representation,” Hess said. “Every screenwriting class I would voice my opinion about either the lack of or the terrible way women were being portrayed. I realized it wasn't just the guys in my class (all of which I do think highly of – most became like brothers to me), but it was representative of a bigger problem in Hollywood. Why aren't women on screen? Why aren't their stories being told? Why are they only in movies in the service of the male storyline?”
Hess said that when she graduated from film school and began working as a production assistant and crew member on various productions, she continued to see this lack of representation, as well as the rampant sexual harassment in the industry.
"My first big [production assistant] job was for a reality show, and I was more excited about that than I can remember,” Hess said. “While drinking during a wrap party, a married crew member who had been telling me about his pregnant wife propositioned me. I refused. He was at least 10 years older than me and considerably higher up. I refused. I felt uncomfortable. I thought we were friends. He yanked on my arm and tried to pull me to the elevator. He told me it would be fun. I got scared no one would ever hire me again if I refused. Somehow I managed to get out of his grip. He called me the next day to apologize and begged me to never talk about it. I didn't think much of it; men do things like this in bars all the time. I felt like I had to be nice to him the next time we worked together. For as uncomfortable as he made me, I didn't want him to be uncomfortable. I've since learned that I'm not the first, nor the last woman to think this way. We normalize behavior, and we minimize our discomfort or pain to avoid being seen as ‘making a big deal out of nothing.’”
Hess eventually worked her way to up to being a second assistant director, a position responsible for coordinating communication between department heads and supervising various day-to-day tasks on a film set.
She has worked as a second AD on over 20 features. While she counts many male co-workers as friends and allies, she said that as she climbed the ladder, some male crew members showed resentment having a younger woman in a position of authority over them.
“Once when I demanded to understand why a department head was withholding information from me that had caused a huge problem throughout the shoot and particularly that day, he advised me to ‘Sit in (my) car and look pretty,’” Hess said. “When I reported this to my boss, he was sympathetic but felt like he could not fire him due to how close we were to the end of the show. When I asked my other male boss for advice, he told me I have to learn how to sugarcoat things. I asked him if he would give this advice to me if I was a man, he hesitated and then told me no. It's different because I'm a woman.”
Hess said she experienced numerous instances of sexual harassment over the years, with the most egregious incident involving a powerful man in the industry whom she declined to name.
“My experience was very Mad Men-y,” Hess said. “He commented a lot about how my body looked in my clothes. When I would ask if I could leave his office, he would tell me I could stay if I wanted to be harassed. At first, I would laugh and play it all off, but then it all just started to get to me. I knew if I spoke up about it, nothing would be done. So I didn't. I found that I started to eat my feelings about the situation. I started to cry spontaneously at work. When I actually stopped laughing and "playing along" one of my other bosses pulled me aside to talk to me about how I dress at work. I was "dressing too provocatively." I had never been so embarrassed before. I had to buy new clothes because everything I owned fell in line with the kinds of things I was wearing. I knew this was because I wasn't playing along anymore, and between that, all the comments, and the stress of the job, I finally quit.”
After multiple allegations of sexual abuse and harassment against famed producer Harvey Weinstein surfaced last October, industry employees have leveled accusations against some prominent media personalities, leading to many of them being fired. Many women have participated in the social media campaign #MeToo, in which they share their own stories of being sexually harassed.
Hess said that she thought that the infamous audio recording of President Donald J. Trump bragging about his ability to sexually assault women, and the failure of that to prevent his election, had inspired many women who had previously been afraid about adverse effects on their careers to speak up.
“The best thing we can do is to support those who are brave enough to speak up and to listen to them,” Hess said. “There is nothing easy about sharing a story like the ones that have been shared; those men and women who speak about their accusers are putting everything on the line. I include myself in this mix, of those who have to learn to be brave enough to share names, but I'm not quite there yet. I'm still working up my courage, and I know a lot of others are too. The film industry is certainly not the only industry this is happening in, but it is one of the most watched, and the best thing we can hope for is that these headlines inspire change throughout every industry. The best solution to creating a better working environment is to continue to support victims when they come out, to create better material that is positive and doesn't shame women, and most importantly, for women to continue to take up more positions on set, as the more women there are the better the environment often is in regard to what is being said on set and what is happening. These are not solutions, but they are tools that can be used to push for a better future.”
Hess said that, despite her experiences, she still loves working in the film industry and that she believes that cinema itself can be a valuable medium for transforming attitudes towards sexual harassment and other social ills
“Movies can help teach acceptance in ways that lectures or articles never can,” Hess said. “The more we elevate minority voices – especially those who are not white – and the more we put the reality of our diverse world on the screen, the more we can help foster a more accepting society. To me, the fight is worth every sacrifice I have made and endured. There's no chance I could walk away now; we have a lot more work to do.”