Earlier this week, the Alamo Drafthouse theater in Austin publicly dismissed male critics who had whined decision to hold a women-only screening of Wonder Woman. As the vociferous male outrage continued unabated, the Alamo decided to run the event in their theaters nationwide, doubling down on their intent to provide a positive space for women to celebrate an iconic feminist figure.
I reported on the men who are complaining about the screenings earlier this week, and I thought I was done reporting on this film, assuming erroneously that they would find something more pressing to care about, such as global warming. However, it seems that I was mistaken: According to the Washington Post, "multiple people have filed discrimination complaints" against the theater.
A gay legal expert named Stephen Clark told the Washington Post that he decided to take legal action after perusing the Alamo Drafthouse's Facebook page. "When the theater responded to complaints, they were pretty snide about it and willing to mock anyone who had a complaint, and that really struck me," he explained. He thus "began researching Austin's city code and decided to file an administrative charge with the city's Equal Employment and Fair Housing Office," the newspaper reports.
"There are men in Austin who would like to celebrate women's empowerment," the lawyer told the Post. That may be true—but does forbidding men from attending a movie screening actually count as discrimination? I asked several legal experts to find out.
"State and local laws, like Austin's law, will often prohibit excluding from a public place like a theater or a restaurant on the basis of their sex—and that is for good reason," said Emily Martin, general counsel and VP for workplace justice at the National Women's Law Center. Clearly, it is important to ensure that sex discrimination doesn't occur—generally, because women have been discriminated against.
There is nothing wrong and a lot that is right with public spaces affirmatively welcoming women and encouraging women's participation.
"There is nothing wrong, and a lot that is right, with public spaces affirmatively welcoming women and encouraging women's participation," Martin elaborated. She cited the Women's Marches around the country as an example of this; those were centered around women and women's rights, but did not specifically exclude anyone, which helpfully avoided "running afoul of important laws that protect individuals' rights to fully participate in their communities."
According to Regina Austin, a professor at UPenn Law School, this area of law is complicated. "There is some precedent for women-only spaces—like health clubs, gyms, and pools," she said, suggesting that privacy could be an important part of what makes such places legally protected—but that the "empowerment" focus of events like the Alamo screening might not have "the same kind of constitutional importance."
"Sex-segregated schools may be a closer analogy," she said, encouragingly—but she's still uncertain of where the law would really fall in relation to a film screening. Austin reiterates the point made by Martin: "There are probably neutral ways of encouraging an audience focused on women's empowerment without contravening laws banning discrimination in public accommodations."
There appears to be some degree of legal consensus that events such as this could be considered illegal. But what I still want to know is: Why must men be so annoying? Unfortunately, this is an eternal question, one that is even less likely to provide a satisfying answer than the Wonder Woman conundrum.