This story contains spoilers for season 4 of Mozart in the Jungle.
In a scene halfway through the fourth season of Mozart in The Jungle, aspiring conductor Hailey Rutledge (Lola Kirke) is given some tough love by a competition judge after the only other female contestant is eliminated.
"You know that only four of the top 150 orchestras in the world are led by women. Four. Take the fucking Mahler, and ram it down their throats."
Directed by Aza Jacobs, who helmed two episodes this season, it's a scene that perfectly illustrates the tone of of a season that grapples with relevant and urgent themes of female representation in the arts, and gender equality in the workplace. In the end (spoiler alert!) Hayley doesn't win the competition, though she does get her moment to shine later on. But that's the point; her struggle is a vehicle to shine a light on a problem that plagues nearly every industry.
"The show really masters using the world of classical music as a device to talk about all art forms, and all industries," Lola Kirke said in a phone interview with Refinery29. "When you're an actor you're very much a member of an orchestra, and when you're a director you're kind of like a conductor. So, I think that it was important this season to talk about gender and equality in major industries."
Kirke couldn't have known, of course, that the show's release would coincide with a national conversation about how industries — and specifically Hollywood — can better support its women. ("We preempted that shit" she joked.) The Time's Up initiative, started by Hollywood powerhouses including Reese Witherspoon Shonda Rhimes, America Ferrera, Ashley Judd, Eva Longoria, Amber Tamblyn, Kerry Washington, Lena Waithe, Natalie Portman, and Emma Stone, and which seeks to provide a legal defence fund for men and women facing discrimination or harassment in the workplace, wasn't launched until January 1, 2018, months after filming ended. But in reality, showrunners Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzmann have been setting up this arc since season 3, when Hailey, originally an oboist subbing for the New York Symphony, discovers her real talent may lie in the much more male-centric field of conducting.
For Kirke, that just goes to show that our current reckoning with the systemic power imbalances in Hollywood and their consequences didn't just come out of nowhere. "Here's the thing about the conversations that are going on in Hollywood right now: They've been going on forever," she pointed out. "But it's a conversation that needs to happen. I'm grateful that the struggles that we're portraying on the show — which are very real struggles — will have even more traction because of what the world is looking at right now."
Like many, Kirke wasn't aware of the gender disparities in the upper echelons of classical music until she met her conducting coach, Eimar Noone, an Irish conductor and composer who impressed upon Kirke the importance of getting it right.
"She was really excited, almost to the point of tears, when she first told me: 'There's never been a woman conductor represented, ever! And for that reason you need to be really fucking good," Kirke recalled."It's a terrifying thing to hear in a way, because it meant more work for me, but I wanted to carry that torch as best I could."
Kirke learned the movements necessary to play a convincing conductor over Skype, while she was filming in Japan, and Noone was in Ireland with her family.
"She'd be holding her toddler on her lap, and I'd be waking up in Japan, and we'd be doing these very weird, almost choreographed dances to Mahler, or whatever the piece at hand was," Kirke said. "And what I thought was really amazing about her Skyping with her baby is that is such a facet of being a woman artist that is less present in the lives of male artists. I wish that there was a way that [motherhood] could be more celebrated as part of who we are as artists, rather than something we have to suppress in order to be artists."
The toll of those sacrifices is made clear earlier in the season, when Hailey visits the home of an eccentric classical collector and stumbles into an abandoned room filled with ephemera belonging to female composers throughout history.
And just as Rodrigo de Souza (Gael Garcia Bernal), the whimsical conductor of the New York Symphony and Hailey's boyfriend, has imaginary conversations with Mozart throughout the show, so Hailey develops her own back and forth with overlooked legends Isabella Leonarda, Nannerl Mozart (Wolfgang's sister, who some believe was the more talented musician in the family), and Fanny Mendelssohn, whose more famous brother, Felix, took credit for much of her own work in an era that prohibited women from entering artistic professions.
Together, they convince Hailey to use a piece by modern composer Caroline Shaw (the youngest winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Music) as her audition piece for the conducting competition mentioned above. For luck, a heavily pregnant Fanny hands Hailey her own personal baton. "Batons came into style when I was a child, but of course I could never have one," she sighs. "So I made it myself, just to dream."
Only yesterday, National Sawdust, a performance space in Brooklyn dedicated to highlighting women in music, announced the very first class of winners of the Hildegard Competition for up and coming female and non-binary composers. Emma O’Halloran, X. Lee, and Kayla Cashetta were chosen from among 140 submissions from around the world, and will receive a $7,000 prize, along with mentoring from the all-female panel of judges, and a performance in June.
The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media has a saying: "If she can see it, she can be it." Hailey may have lost the battle, but by competing at all, she's striking the winning blow in a much bigger war.
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