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More Leading Ladies, Please!

This week, the New York times featured several pieces about women in film. There was the collection of clips about the Star Wars women, all of whom can wield light sabers and/or pass the Bechdel test. Roslyn Sulcas explained how Netflix’s new series The Crown, about Elizabeth II, came to the screen. And Octavia Spencer, star of The Help, finally got to show her nuance in a warm profile piece written by Katrina Onstad.

There are lot of successful women in  Hollywood, but the roles in which they can achieve success are usually pretty narrow. There are very few female producers, writers, or directors. Only two women have directed major blockbuster action films. The NYT reported that “in 2014, 95 percent of cinematographers, 89 percent of screenwriters, 82 percent of editors, 81 percent of executive producers and 77 percent of producers were men.”

Octavia Spencer’s profile is probably the best example of the “soft power” ways in which women are categorized and minimized on the silver screen. Ms. Spencer is a curvy, middle-aged African American woman with a wide, warm smile, which isn’t Hollywood’s formula for a leading lady. She told the NYT, “I played Mother Earth so much that I can probably whip up some moss for you right now.” She’s played dozens of nurses, maids, and moms. Her upcoming role as a supervisor in Hidden Figures, a film about the black women who programmed computers at NASA in the 1950s, is a bit of a breakout role.

Speaker Naomi McDougall-Jones is all too familiar with this pattern: the use of Hollywood typecasting that keeps women out of bigger,  more interesting roles on screen. Naomi is a beautiful, talented, and well-trained actress, but her agent told her bluntly that she was too smart for most of the roles available for women. She isn’t a helpless damsel or a scantily clad sidekick, and this kept her boxed out of most major motion pictures.

But Naomi doesn’t accept this limitation. Instead, she’s working make more films with, by, and about women.

Studies have shown that in fact movies that tell women’s stories do very well in the box office. (This makes sense, since half the audience is, well, women.) More importantly, the movies we shoot and the stories we write help define us as a culture and a society. If we leave women out of this cultural creation, then we’re missing half the story, and we’re sending a message to girls and women that their stories aren’t the main narrative, that they don’t matter as much.

Naomi is working on her own films and speaking out against this trend. We’re proud of her for making a difference to women in film, and we can’t wait to see what she has to say to us in November!