You are an award-winning actress, writer, and producer, who has been a longtime women-in-film activist. What issues have you seen and experienced as a woman in Hollywood?
Ha! Well, it took me an entire book to begin to adequately answer that question. The short version, however, is that Hollywood has systematically excluded women and women’s voices from cinema for the better part of a century. Consider this: if you have watched primarily mainstream US movies in your lifetime, 95% of all the films you have ever seen were directed by men (overwhelmingly white men); 80-90% of all of the leading characters you have ever seen on screen were men (overwhelmingly white men); and 55% of the time you have seen a woman on screen, she was naked or scantily clad.
Those statistics arise out of a culture in Hollywood in which women are seen as mostly inconsequential, sometimes bothersome, and, at worst, props to be used to the satisfaction of the men in power. That culture is not only hurting the women inside of Hollywood – by flattening the careers of even the most talented, ambitious, and relatively successful women, as well as laying waste to the dreams and careers of others – but also the women (and men) outside of Hollywood whose career choices, purchasing decisions, self-identity, and brain chemistry are shaped on a daily business by the monolithically white, male-centric stories our industry is putting out into the world.
You are also the author or the newly released book, The Wrong Kind of Women: Inside Our Revolution to Dismantle the Gods of Hollywood. What do you seek to accomplish with this book?
First of all, the goal is to more thoroughly answer the question you asked above. Very few people up to this point have truly understood the full breadth and depth of the systemic exclusion and oppression women have and are facing in Hollywood. If we are indeed interested in making real and lasting change towards greater inclusivity – and I, for one, certainly am – the first step must be to understand fully the truth of the situation as it stands, however painful that may be. The Wrong Kind of Women attempts to uncover that truth – both through the stories of 100+ women and men that I interviewed, as well as the thousands of pages of data, research, and scholarly papers that I mined to help tie those personal stories to the systemic realities.
Next, I hope the book is a true call to action. My dream is that it will help women (and all underrepresented communities) understand that we cannot continue to wait for the powerful in Hollywood to cede their power to us. There are very few historical examples anywhere in which a group holding as much fame, power, money, and prestige as Hollywood has simply willingly given it up. Rather, we must refuse to stop playing by their rules, which are rigged against us, and take for ourselves our rights and voices. We must find ways to tell our stories and deliver them to audiences without waiting for the permission of the (overwhelmingly white and male) gatekeepers. The book provides concrete and specific actions that anyone and everyone can take – no matter who they are, inside or outside of the industry – to help bring about that change.
Finally, if I have done my job right, by the time people finish reading the book, they will never again be able to sit down and watch a film or TV series without questioning who created it and what cultural dynamics it is working to disrupt and reinforce. They don’t necessarily have to agree with me about what kinds of content they want shaping their neural pathways, but I believe that after reading this book they will understand the extent to which it does and be able to make more informed decisions.
What solutions do you advocate for to address inequities in the film industry? Are there any promising signs of change? What can we do to help?
With respect to whether things are currently changing in the wake of #OscarsSoWhite, #MeToo, and the downfall of Harvey Weinstein…it would be inaccurate to say that nothing has changed, but it would also be inaccurate to say that there are signs of significant and lasting change. The biggest positive movement we’re seeing in the data and percentages is in onscreen representation. We are currently seeing more characters of color in leading roles, more female characters who do more than look cute naked on screen, and so on. However…the presence of such characters and story lines are still not coming anywhere close to parity with their proportional presence in the real-life population.
The bigger problem, though, is that the percentages of people other than straight, white, cis-, able-bodied men behind the camera (writers, producers, directors, etc.) are barely moving at all. To me, we sit at a significant danger point as a result. Because we are seeing greater inclusivity on screen, people are starting to feel like things have changed and turn away from continuing to hold Hollywood accountable. The reality, however, is that we are simply now seeing more diverse stories, primarily still through the monolith of the white, male gaze. It is not, by the way, that that perspective is invalid. It is perfectly valid – as valid as any other perspective. It is simply that white men constitute roughly 30% of the US population. The fact that the perspectives and voices of the other 70% continue to be almost completely absent from the storytelling roles is profoundly disastrous for our society.
I have a whole lot to say on the subject of what can be done to create the real and lasting change that we are not currently seeing. All of Chapter 10 in the book is dedicated to offering specific action items that we can each take no matter who you are and whether or not you work in the industry. I have two relevant messages, I’ll share in this space, however. First, if you are a female storyteller (or a storyteller from any historically silenced community), you must never give the systems of Hollywood the power to determine your worth as an artist or the value of your stories. It is critically important that you understand that their systems were designed to recognize and elevate the work and stories of white, straight, cis-, able-bodied men above everyone else.
In spite of that, audiences all over the world are actually desperate to see stories from different and broader perspectives. This is demonstrated in the financial data that films by and about women actually make more money per dollar spent than films by and about men. Audiences want these stories; Hollywood just isn’t making them. To that end, and considering the influence stories have on our real-world behaviors and culture, it is your civic, moral, and personal responsibility to find a way to tell your stories and deliver them to those audiences who are so hungry for them. You must do this by any means necessary, with or without the approval of Hollywood.
If you are a viewer of movies and television shows, I would urge you to start being part of the change by just paying attention to the perspective of the content you are watching. Who are the leading characters? Who isn’t? What is the story subtly telling you about who is good and bad? Important or inconsequential? Which characters are getting to make decisions that affect the outcome of the plot? Who is wearing clothes and who isn’t? Notice, too, the gender identity of the director, writer, producer of the content. Think about how that is informing the story.
Once you start noticing, understand that you are continually “voting” with your dollars and eyeballs with every film or television show you choose to watch. That is true every time you buy a movie theater ticket, pay $2.99 to rent a film on iTunes, or stream it as part of your Netflix subscription. Once you have started paying attention, then, if you are unhappy with the kind of content you are being offered, stop voting for it. Vote for different content instead. Consider a commitment to watch at least one film by a female director per month. If you need help finding such movies, there are a number of great resources listed on my website to help you.
What is your best advice to women seeking to break into the industry? Are there watch outs specific to women in midlife and beyond?
Please, please, please read my book. I’m genuinely not saying that because I want to sell books – you can buy one copy and share it with all of your friends or borrow one from your local library – just please read it. By the time I began to research and write this book, I had already been a speaker and leader in the women in film movement for many years. I thought I knew what there was to know. But the full scope of what I learned in the research process, which I was then able to write down in this book, knocked me to my knees all over again.
It is one thing to have a vague or even educated idea of these issues. It is quite another to sit down and see all of that information in one place, with concrete numbers, in black and white. It is different to hear story after story, link those human experiences to the statistics, and understand with depth and nuance the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which women and other groups have been and continue to be systematically excluded from an industry that claims to be the height of forward-thinking liberalism.
Even though The Wrong Kind of Women has only been out a couple of months, I have received so many notes, emails, and social media messages from women who have been working in the film/tv industry for decades. These notes have all said variations of, “Oh my goodness. I have been blaming myself for my lack of success for ten/twenty/thirty years and it wasn’t until reading this book that I truly understood what I was up against all that time.
I am heartbroken now thinking about how many hours and decades I have wasted in blaming myself for things that were very simply not my fault. What could I have done with all that energy instead in that time?!” I want so much to save us all from those wasted years and decades of self-doubt by simply offering you the truth here and now. Once we know the truth, we can begin channeling that saved self-flagellating energy into moving forward, finding solutions, ways around, and building different futures.
Gaining this understanding is critical for all women, but it is particularly critical for midlife women who are now, in addition to the sexism they’ve been facing for decades, likely running into the ageism that rages so strong in Hollywood. That ageism will now begin to further flatten the trajectories of their careers unless they set themselves free from belief in that system.
Connect with Naomi McDougall Jones
Book: The Wrong Kind of Women: Inside Our Revolution to Dismantle the Gods of Hollywood
Naomi McDougall Jones is an award-winning writer, actress, producer, and women in film activist. Her second feature film, BITE ME, with producers Jack Lechner (The Fog of War, Blue Valentine) and Sarah Wharton (That’s Not Us), which she wrote and also starred in opposite Christian Coulson (Harry Potter, Love is Strange, The Hours), Annie Golden (Orange is the New Black), and Naomi Grossman (American Horror Story) premiered at the Cinequest Film Festival, followed by a 3 month, 51 screening, 40 city Joyful Vampire Tour of America that took the country by storm. Naomi’s first feature film, which she also wrote, produced, and starred in, was the 12-time award-winning Imagine I’m Beautiful. The film received a theatrical release and is now available on Vimeo (www.imagineimbeautiful.com). She is currently at work on her third feature film, a magical realism piece about a 7-month pregnant woman’s unexpected interaction with the brilliant, eccentric, and deceased inventor John Hays Hammond, Jr., and for which she received the honor of being the first artist in residence at the final home of Ernest Hemingway in Sun Valley, Idaho. Naomi is an advocate and thought leader for bringing gender parity to cinema. She gave a virally sensational TEDTalk, What it’s Like to Be a Woman in Hollywood, which has now been viewed over 1 million times and can be seen on TED.com. Naomi’s first book, The Wrong Kind of Women: Inside Our Revolution to Dismantle the Gods of Hollywood, published by Beacon Press, is now available as hardcover, e-book, and audiobook wherever books are sold. More at www.naomimcdougalljones.com.