17 Hollywood Women Share Their Advice For Breaking Into A Male Space

Designed by Janet Sung.
In 1926, Dorothy Arzner became the first female director in an overwhelmingly male Hollywood studio system. With 20 credits to her name, including 17 feature films, she remains the woman director with the largest oeuvre in the history of the industry. And as an openly gay woman, she was a trailblazer in more ways than one. Still, her career, which spanned until 1943, when she came down with pneumonia and was unable to continue working, went largely unrecognized until the late 1970s. A dusty star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame bears her name, and as the first female member of the Director's Guild, she was honored in a 1975 ceremony. At the time, legendary actress and contemporary Katherine Hepburn sent Arzner a telegram, congratulating her on the momentous occasion. It read: "Isn't it wonderful that you've had such a great career, when you had no right to have a career at all?"
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Fast forward nearly 100 years after Arzner's directorial debut, and women are still woefully underrepresented behind the camera. To this day, a mere five women have ever been nominated at the Academy Awards for achievements in directing, and only one — Katherine Bigelow in 2009 — has won. According to a study conducted by the University of Southern California's Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, women made up only 4% of directors for 1,100 top grossing films of the past 11 years. Of those 36 total women, only 7 were women of color.
But the director's chair isn't the only area where women are facing a seemingly bullet-proof glass ceiling. In 2017, women accounted for only 11% of screenwriters, and 19% of executive producers. And as for the movies themselves, they're still overwhelmingly male. Men made up 76% of protagonists, and 66% of speaking characters. And yet, the top three-grossing films of the yearBeauty and the Beast, Wonder Woman, and Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi — were all female-led projects. There is a fundamental disconnect between what Hollywood is selling, and what audiences actually respond to.
March marks Women's History Month, but also the end of an awards season characterized by its unprecedented dedication to highlighting the role of women in Hollywood, an industry that has had to face some hard truths in recent months. What started with a call to wear black in support of the nascent Time's Up initiative at the Golden Globes culminated with Frances McDormand's rousing endorsement of inclusion riders in the final minutes of the Academy Awards.
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The red carpets may be back in storage for another year, but the point has been made: Women are done waiting for permission. We've been quietly chipping away at a systemic power imbalance for nearly a century; now, the sledgehammers are coming out.
In honor of the only month dedicated to celebrating half the population, we asked 16 Hollywood women to share their hard-learned advice on how to carve out space in a male-dominated industry.
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Designed by Janet Sung.
Heather Graham, Writer and Director (Half Magic)

"My acting teacher had this great piece of advice. He said, 'Have the heart of a baby and the skin of a rhino.' You want to keep your vulnerability, but you have to also not take in some of the negative things people say. In the past women that were trying to make it in this male-dominated world, this male-dominated business, became really hard and tried to act like men to fit in. And I think now we're thinking about 'How can I be feminine, and still be successful and still be productive in my work? How do I keep my sexuality and feel good about it, and not let someone judge me?’"
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Amy Adrion, Director (Half The Picture)

"The fact of the matter is there are so few working women directors — there are not few women directors, we are legions, there are thousands, and thousands of us, but as far was women directors who are actively working within the system, those numbers are so low. For a very long time, it was an asset for women directors to say 'I'm not a woman director, and I don't pay attention to gender, and don't label me.' And on the one hand sure, true, it is somewhat reductive. But I think you can't not look at the context of who's working in the industry, and to kind of deny that you're a woman filmmaker is, in a way, to pretend that this imbalance in the industry doesn't exist. And it does period.”
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Angela Robinson, Writer and Director (Professor Marston & The Wonder Women)

"I don’t think there’s a lot of explorations of female desire. I think it’s always looked at from the male POV. Female desire is basically erased, or seen in the context of what the man is feeling. I decided to look at it from the women’s point of view. They’re guiding the action. I became really obsessed with consent as foreplay. They’re always asking each other, ‘Is this what you want? Do you want this?’ They’re always checking in, and I found it more erotic the emotional leaps they were making with each other."
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Sophie Brooks, Writer and Director (The Boy Downstairs)

"I went about it a slightly different way in that my brother is one of the producers [of the movie], so I had the advantage of family on my side and having that support from the beginning. It was never a question of having to fight for the right to direct it. I wrote this movie, and I wrote it to direct it. [But] actually making the movie, I was definitely wary of making sure I hired people in terms of heads of departments and just general crew that [weren't] going to be weird about me being a women and also quite young. (I was 26 when I made the movie.) I felt I was preemptively protecting myself from having to deal with some of that stuff by sussing it out, and being really particular with who we brought onto the movie.

"My default as a human being is to be kind and be nice, but at the same time, if I feel I need to stand up for myself or stand up for my opinion, I need to do that. And if someone's gonna say that I'm a bitch because of that, then that's kind of their issue. I think it's important for women to not worry too much about what people think. As long as you respect how you conduct yourself, that's what you do."
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Laeta Kalogridis, Showrunner (Altered Carbon)

"I reject only one thing, which is the idea that people can be reduced to male filmmaker vs. female filmmaker. We are the multiple intersections of the many lenses of our experience. It's something that we should embrace.

"When you start talking about all the different influences that come into a creator's desire to create, I think that there is absolutely nothing wrong with saying: 'Steven Spielberg is Jewish, that's part of his identity as a filmmaker.' It does not diminish him, nor does it make it bigger; it's simply part of who he is. I would say that the American immigrant experience is a very big part of who I am. Being female is a very big part of who I am. Falling outside of the heteronormative life experience is a very big part of who I am. I am a big believer in 'if she can see it, she can be it,' so it's important for people to know that I'm female because at the moment we currently exist in time, this kind of material does seem to be more often executed by men. It's important to not see that as prescriptive. I personally am drawn to this material so that is the material I'm going to do.

"Part of why intersectionality has meaning [is] because the larger range of experience you bring into every room, the more likely you are to create something where the way that you choose the creator is based on their affinity for the material, not based on their plumbing.”
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Jordana Spiro, Director (Night Comes On)

"I have a lot of things that I’ve needed to tell myself pretty consistently. One is: ‘Jump in.' Don’t wait until you’re fully ready, because you’ll never feel fully ready. You will make mistakes. And don’t back away from something that you believe is necessary to your story because you’re afraid you might be a nuisance, or you’ve already asked for too many things. Certainly there’s a lot of compromise that needs to be made in film — logistical, budgetary — but I think in your heart, you know the ones you have to compromise on because they’re smart choices in the overall making of the film, and the ones you’re compromising on because you don’t want to be a bother. Bother people."
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Lesley Manville, Actress (Phantom Thread)

"You have to be very clear as to who you are, and what your goals are, and deal with the stuff along the way with all of the gumption that you can summon. And not take any nonsense. You don’t have to take stuff that isn’t right anymore. There’s no excuse for it any longer, nobody, just because they’re a woman, should be deterred from doing anything that they want to do. Keep going, until you’ve gotten where you want to get to.”
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Maika Monroe, Actress (The Tribes of Palos Verdes)

"One of the reasons I wanted to kite[board] was because there was no other girls doing it. I wanted to be the girl kicking butt on the beach, and I knew I could be as good as the guys, and that’s why I started. I think it’s super important. It’s really kind of incredible to see this massive change that’s happening and be part of it."
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Amber Tamblyn, Writer and Director (Paint It Black)

"I hate to say that having a thick skin is so important, but I believe that’s true. You need to be able to come to an understanding with the word, ‘no,’ because you’re going to hear it all the time. You need to accept ‘no,’ as your new best friend. Rejection is sort of a part of any experience for women, and whether or not you’re being told it, you also believe it of yourself, because it’s so ingrained in us. And so I think it’s important to push through that, and if you really have a vision and a belief in something, you need to keep seeing it through until it happens. Because only then are you going to know truly what you’re made of. And there will be every obstacle in your way, but you just have to remember how many women have done it before you, and how many will do it after you. And more importantly, as far as looking forward to your own future, don’t forget to sometimes look to your left, and your right. Look at other women that are also looking at their futures and raise them up. I think that’s the most important thing we can do for our own futures — to support the futures of others. “
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Dominique Fisback, Actress (The Deuce)

"It was my first time being directed by a woman, so I was pretty much in awe of [Michelle MacLaren]. The world of The Deuce is so big, it has so many aspects, so to direct the pilot and create a world that’s going to be here for the rest of the season is such a big responsibility. She handled it with such knowledge and poise, it’s really inspiring to watch. From that perspective, I felt women can really do anything, with is really exciting. The first episode was also my first time being topless, and I’m glad I got to do it with her because she was so considerate and aware. When I first had to take off my shirt, it was a closed set, but still she had everybody turn around."
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Jenna Coleman, Actress (Victoria)

"The time was very different then — or was it? For [Queen] Victoria, what she really had is a really deeply rooted sense of self. And she’s hugely insecure, about her education, and apparently, she was always asking questions about artwork because people would come to the palace and she wouldn’t know things, and that was very hard for her because she wasn’t as well-educated as some of the great thinkers of the day. What she did have was a rooted sense of self and that’a good thing to try to find no matter what field you’re in. And realizing that everybody’s in the same boat."
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Liz Hannah, Screenwriter (The Post)

"We’re living in a time now where you have to use your voice no matter what, and no matter how hard it is. You have to stay true to yourself, and you have to stay very true to what your convictions are. If I’ve learned anything from this last year, but also specifically from the last six months, it's [that] no one can be quiet anymore, and no one can let their voices be silenced. It almost the responsibility of every woman now to speak up and speak out."
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Moira Buffini, Showrunner (Harlots)

"You just know when you’ve got female directors that it is sort of less of a conversation that you have to have then if, this particular conversation that you have to have with male directors when you’re directing sex scenes. With female directors you don’t have to, so it was actually a sort of short hand that you just knew people got how those scenes should feel and be because they were women. It was actually, the conversations didn’t have to be had, they didn’t have to be had in the same way that I very awkwardly on occasion tried to explain to a male director how you sort of want, how you sort of think it should be, and it’s not, he just doesn’t get it. It was brilliant to have female directors because it’s all just there.”
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Naomi Scott, Julie Rudd, and Alethea Jones, Producers and Director (Fun Mom Dinner)

NS: "I think it takes just one to start getting out there, and then it cracked open opportunities. Also, writers are realizing there's not just one mom movie. There are a number of them. Just like there isn't just one movie about a guy who happens to be a dad. It's just confidence, and also opportunities from financing companies like June Pictures. Obviously, they saw a universality of the story. Truthfully, you just have to have the confidence in doing it. You see one story and you go 'Oh, my story is not the same, but it could be as well-received as that.'"

JR: "I was just thinking also, maybe it's about how there's always this talk of how there's not enough women working in Hollywood. Not enough executives. I think we may be riding a little wave where there are some really amazing female producers and people in Hollywood that are taking a chance on female directors, female producers, female writers. So, naturally, they're telling their own stories or stories that they want to tell. I think we're just seeing it in this moment."

AJ: "It's interesting that you said 'blowing off steam.' That's a really interesting analogy because we've been waiting and banging on the door for a long time. A few years ago, was it the ACLU that was threatening legal action against Hollywood for not including women, female directors? My friends said 'But nothing happened.' Hollywood is a big industry and it takes a long time to shift around. I have seen it slowly happening over the last two years, and I keep saying to my friends back in Australia, 'It's happening! It's happening. I'm getting a lot more meetings.' So, now, it's really happening. It's been in the works for so long, and all of these films that have been trying to get through have suddenly come into fruition.”
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Trish Sie, Director (Pitch Perfect 3)

"I think my best advice is be a woman. Don’t feel that you have to be a dude. Sure, you have to have thick skin; it’s a tough world out there. it’s definitely a tough business, but you can be a woman, you can feminine, you can do things the way you do them, and sometimes that’s different than a man. I don’t want to paint with a broad brush, but I know that my leadership style, and my management style, and the way that I interact with people is decidedly feminine. And I had a bunch of people on the cast and crew say, ‘Wow, it’s different working with a woman.’ And there were some people on our crew who had never worked with a woman director before. The set just felt really different. I’m nice, and I’m nurturing, and I’m kind, and certainly those aren’t qualities that are limited to women, but sometimes women suppress those to look tough enough, or compete with guys, and for me, it’s been the opposite. There’s a woman touch sometimes that’s really strong and really effective. And the world is slowly coming to realize that it’s not necessary to be macho to get ahead. There’s a toughness to women, and I think we’re all starting to get used to that. It’s a different flavor of toughness."
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Riva Marker, Producer (Stronger)

"I was lucky enough to mentor with a woman who was so generous and so kind, so I would say surround yourself by people who challenge you but who also support you. And for myself personally, it’s very important to feel supported, to have voice in whatever field you are. Stay focused, and create real authentic relationships with people, and be loyal. I think loyalty always wins and shines through in the end. Be loyal and have a group of people around you who you trust, and whose artistry you admire. Have your squad, whether it’s men, women, whatever. Have your squad, and have confidence.”
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Gwendoline Christie, Actress (Star Wars, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi)

"We live in a world where people want to see themselves reflected in our entertainment. We live in the age of the internet, [where] everyone has an equal voice. And what we're learning is that people want to be heard. The world is an incredibly diverse place, with so many unique individuals, and people want to see that in their stories. It's only through really showing our humanity, in all of its different forms, that we can really connect to the human experience. The idea is that the Star Wars films are starting to reflect our society. It's modern, it's progressive, and it's exactly as it should be."
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