Happy Women’s Equality Day, everyone! By the way, did you know that women in the United States still don’t actually have equality? Don’t feel bad — at least a vast majority of us are equally deluded!
In a new poll, it turns out 96% of Americans believe that men and women are equal, and over 80% of us think these rights are already guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
When I first realized that I was going to make a feature documentary film about American women, their rights in the United States, and the impact that not having federal equality in our Constitution has on their everyday lives, I knew it would land in Hollywood like a shipment of mink ear muffs in Miami. No one would want a thing to do with it.
Frankly, I wasn’t chomping at the bit to do it, either. Let’s face it: It sounded like the cinematic equivalent of cod-liver oil. I knew I was in for a helluva long slog between the concept, the research, the interviewing, the transcribing, writing, cutting, and endless shaping of the material.
My husband Joel and I were in Washington D.C. showing our film A Single Woman at the Smithsonian Institute, and I was walking across the lobby when I saw a woman dressed as a suffragist. She came directly toward me and said, “I am Alice Paul and I have come back to haunt you because you have done nothing to pass the Equal Rights Amendment.”
Although I knew this information on a theoretical, academic level, for some reason, in that moment, I now understood this on a visceral level, and my entire being rose up against the idea that it could be true.
There is the problem of 'feminism' itself — how difficult and unappealing that word is to our poor, delicate Seth MacFarlane- and Marky Mark-trained audiences.
1. First of all, there was the problem of “feminism” itself — how difficult and unappealing that word is to our poor, delicate Seth MacFarlane- and Marky Mark-trained audiences (something about hairy, strident armpits causing ED). And as a corollary, there was the nasty fact that the film wasn’t sexy. Despite that it dealt almost exclusively with women (who, as everyone knows, are sex incarnate), had tons of them in there, analyzed them, and focused on them, there was nothing particularly salacious to promote unless your thing is rape or child sex-trafficking.
2. Then there was the issue of the Equal Rights Amendment and how it was a fusty, dusty piece of hippie memorabilia that also had baggage, and that baggage had been lost in transit along with any recollection the public ever had that it A. existed, B. was never was ratified, or C. means that women, technically, never got equal rights under the law.
3. Simultaneously, people were pretty much unanimously adamant that I was making a horrible mistake by looking at how multiple issues and systems (dozens!) worked together to hurt women and children, instead of focusing on just one or two. Everyone kept pointing to The Hunting Ground and The Invisible War and saying that the existence of these films dictated that I couldn’t discuss rape in my film because that had already “been done.” One person dropped out of the production team because he declared that I was “intellectually greedy.”
As a woman in Hollywood, one expects her projects to be generally met with indifference, if not downright condescension.
I had started my own production company, Heroica Films, in 1995, upon selling my first big spec script as a writer and booking a national commercial as an actor. My goal had always been to make movies by, for, and about women, and to use as many of us in front of and behind the camera as possible. A noble ambition, to be sure. But one that has unfortunately remained more of an aspirational mission statement than a reflection of any actual reality — and I am 100% sure I’m not alone.
I’m not even going to let you entertain the notion that I didn’t try. I tried my ass off. I tried day in and day out. I didn’t sit around and whine about how the white man in a suit was keeping me down. As president of Heroica Films, I pitched and met and lunched and wrote and got optioned and prayed and auditioned and got re-optioned and re-met and cried and rewrote and pitched again. But I never got the funding for my own projects and, despite 30 leads and supporting roles in mainstream feature films and over 60 episodes of network television over the years, I have never been cast in a role that could pass the Bechdel test.
So, screw it. I wrote and produced and shot and directed and cut and scored and mixed my own films, and did that over a dozen times with shorts (once digital made it doable), all self-funded on half a shoestring. And then I shot A Single Woman (a full feature film) over a three-day weekend for $60K cash and a massive hustle.
For the past 20 years, I have watched as men my junior, in multiple ways, have been elevated to the pinnacle of all branches of the industry — whether as actors, directors, writers, producers, showrunners, or executives — and I have remained, to some degree, in stasis. I've been relegated to the muted palette of short films and re-envisioned plays. Meaning I’ve made the entirety of my film oeuvre with the bagel budget from my old flame’s last feature.
I could tell you stories of conference rooms at studios overstuffed with male executives where my script is being discussed, my characters are being analyzed, and the only person ever addressed is my male co-writer. Stories of how hockey songs (apparently there are such things) are sung in such rooms and that conviviality builds bonds that lead to drinks and deals and shows and going on trips together with your wives and then maybe doing another show together or hell, let’s make it a feature!
Imagine the entire fate of the new women’s movement, the hopes of ERA supporters across the nation, rejected because of me and my lack of swagger.
I was politely and compassionately told by multiple “industry insiders” that my presence in the film degraded the message. That I was distracting, and it just “wasn’t done” in a proper documentary. The implication was that, because I am an actress, I was trying to horn in on the material and ride on its coattails to stardom. They told us that a first-person narrator wasn’t something that they were prepared to pick up. So sorry. Not in our wheelhouse. Love, love, love the idea of this movie. Any way to take you out of there?
Wait a minute, I thought to myself — what about Michael Moore, the most successful documentarian of our time and my role model? He does all those things that they are saying are ruining my movie. And people like his movies! They love his movies! And what about Morgan Spurlock?! He’s narrating too! And Werner Herzog for Chrissakes! How come I don’t get to be in my own movie and they all do?
A really powerful music producer saw a cut of the film and called to tell me how incredible it was. How it was a genuinely important piece of work and how it could be a game-changer in securing equality for women under the law. Real-world impact. There was just one thing. One thing wrong with it. She hated to say it, but she had to be honest: “It’s you. You just don’t have the…” she paused and then said, with a certain faux reluctance, “swagger."
Imagine. The entire fate of the new women’s movement (these delusions begin to take over one in the wee hours of sleepless nights), the hopes of ERA supporters across the nation, thousands and thousands of hours of work rejected, because of me and my lack of swagger. Not my writing or my directing or my producing or cutting or even my acting. Just me. Taking up space in this important film without the requisite “very confident and typically arrogant or aggressive gait or manner.” I had spent almost eight years with no pay on a project that my very existence was now apparently going to torpedo.
I’d like to say that I told all the haters to go fuck themselves. But I didn’t. I felt terrible. I didn’t want there to be a chance that my ego was the issue, so I tried to take myself out of the film. I cut and cut and cut but I was still in there — there was just no way around it.
Turns out that’s as it should be. It’s taken me a while to recognize that their response to my presence in the film is itself part of the raison d’être for Equal Means Equal. That rather than take the rejection personally, I’ll take it for what it is: an example of the social pressure on women to maintain their positions — at least publicly. We are acculturated to play down our power, to be coy about our competence and embarrassed of our intelligence. Given today’s stakes, we can no longer afford that indulgence — it’s dangerous.
The time is now for women to use their voices and demand their due. Without equivocation. Without apology.
At our world premiere, at the great Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival in Michigan, audiences debunked the haters in spades. Our screenings sold out; our audiences gave us standing ovations. People wept and hugged and stood up to thank us for taking the time and care to make this film that meant so very much to them. They thanked me personally for going the distance for women, and guess what? Equal Means Equal won the Audience Award for Best U.S. Documentary at the 2016 TCFF.
I don’t know about you, but I’d call that some pretty major swagger.