Even as the Toronto International Film Festival was boasting that almost a third of the films in its 2016 lineup were directed by women, the 10-day event was hiring young women to show up at its high-profile parties in revealing body suits and cheerleader outfits.
Complaints about the presence of scantily clad models and dancers were raised on social media this week after the festival's closing party last Saturday featured a "prom" theme and a cheerleading squad in crop tops with the TIFF logo emblazoned across the chest. The opening party had included female dancers who wore low-cut purple lamé body suits and thigh-high black boots while they performed in the windows of the TIFF Bell Lightbox.
According to the company's Twitter account, both the cheerleaders and the dancers were staffers from Cotton Candy Events, a Toronto firm that hires out "brand ambassadors" and "promotional models." Cotton Candy's website promises "The Perfect Face for your Event" and features multiple images of young women dressed in jean shorts, low-cut shirts and bikini tops while they apply lipstick, blow bubblegum or lick lollipops. The very few men shown on the site are street performers who have had their bodies airbrushed to depict fictional characters. In a photo on the company's Twitter account, the TIFF cheerleaders are posed pointing to the festival's logo on their chests.
TIFF confirmed Tuesday that the performers at the parties were hired by the festival but did not comment further, directing The Globe and Mail to a statement it had posted on Facebook saying TIFF was always seeking to improve its work culture and its events. (Cotton Candy's directors did not immediately reply to e-mails and phone messages Tuesday.) The complaints about the presence of the performers at the two parties first emerged in a Facebook post from a Toronto woman who works in the film industry.
"What does it say to the women who work for TIFF, the female filmmakers and industry guests and the general public when they walk into an official TIFF event to see women treated as objects?" asked Alison Zimmer in a Facebook post. "What tone does it set for how women are to be treated, respected? For me, this undoes any good will from the endless women in film panels, strides towards equity in programming and stated commitments to representation."
Contacted Tuesday, Zimmer, who works as a sales co-ordinator with Toronto film distributor Mongrel Media, said she had nothing to add to her post where she concluded: "I feel … compelled to say something, with the hope that this gross tradition will finally end."
TIFF responded to her complaint on Facebook, saying: "We appreciate Alison's comments and will take them into account as we plan TIFF events in the future. We've also responded to Alison directly and hope to meet soon to hear her thoughts in person. We're always looking to improve our work culture and our events. We thank Alison for voicing her concern to us."
Her complaints come at a time when the international and Canadian film industries are struggling to address stark gender inequity that keeps women out of most of the top creative jobs. TIFF 2016, which ran from Sept. 8 to 18, included several panels about opportunities for women in the industry, including one about the shockingly low level of female directors in bigger budget films – estimated at less than 10 per cent in Hollywood and even lower in Canada and the United Kingdom.
There has also been backlash in recent years against the use of so-called "booth babes" at trade shows in both the computer and pharmaceutical industries in the United States, where critics have complained that the practice of luring the public with scantily clad young women is based on stereotypes of the customers and insulting assumptions about their professional behaviour. Some trade shows have established exhibitor dress codes in response.