A few months ago, I found myself riveted by an appearance Melissa Harris-Perry made on Real Time With Bill Maher. Harris-Perry had recently left her show on MSNBC, an essential hour of viewing in an otherwise bland cable-news landscape, under controversial circumstances. Harris-Perry’s desire to incorporate substantive discussions on race were met with resistance by the network, who wanted her to instead focus on the sensational aspects of the presidential primaries. As a fan of her show, I was eager to see her voice back in the trenches of political dialogue on Real Time. The Melissa Harris-Perry I was used to seeing and listening to had the MSNBC sheen — suit jacket, glasses, neutral colors. The Harris-Perry I saw on Real Time had an entirely different look — a casual cotton T-shirt with the word “FLAWLESS” emblazoned on the front, diamond bling on her neck that nearly caused Star Trek-level flares on the camera lens, a red lip, and no glasses. For the record, she looked great and she crushed that appearance on the Real Time panel. It was clear that hers is a necessary voice in media, and I relived my disappointment over the cancellation of her show. But still, I found myself very aware of her choice in costume — it took up about as much of my mental space as my absorption of the words she was speaking. And since I was on the brink of a summer during which I would be promoting a film I directed called Equity, I found myself provoked by a question that I know plagues women with voices of authority: Can I look at and listen to her at the same time? I know why this dual sensory experience is so hard for us when we are confronted with a women in a position of power and authority — there simply are not many models on which to draw. Not enough women have been elevated to positions of power, celebrated for it, and subsequently registered as the norm. Especially in this country. My family is from India — a place with staggering statistics of violence against women, yet a place that also has incorporated women within its political system since its inception as a free and democratic society. In Kerala, where my family is from, the inheritance of property has historically been traced through a matrilineal system known as marumakkathayam. And, of course, images of the feminine divine have pervaded the culture through Hindu iconography for thousands of years.
Yet, in the United States, this ragtag promise of a perfect union, we have a funny discomfort with feminine authority. Jonathan Franzen found Oprah’s book club label on his novel to be delegitimizing (the joke was on him, I know). Sarah Palin was dismissed as a “Barbie” — when to me, her most egregious flaw was her completely lack of curiosity about the world, and frankly, Barbie has proven to have quite the opposite. Gloria Steinem provides this framing device for our discomfort: “Female authority is still associated with childhood, and the last time a lot of powerful guys saw a powerful woman they were 8, and they feel regressed to childhood by a powerful woman in a way that they don’t feel with a man.”
We have a funny discomfort with feminine authority.
In Equity, we took this issue to task. Amy Fox (the screenwriter) wrote a brilliant bit at the top of the film, where Anna Gunn’s character Naomi is obsessing over a recent failure she’s had in the world of IPOs. In wondering what went wrong, she quips, “Didn’t you read the tweets? Apparently I wore the wrong dress.” On set, Anna and I talked a lot about the tenor of Naomi’s voice — how her authority sounded, when she would have to carefully modulate her voice around her male clients as to not seem too threatening, too soft, too uncertain, or sin of all sins, too certain. We talked about how easily misinterpreted one step in the wrong direction would be in the room, and how fragile Naomi’s claim to authority over her male coworkers and male clients would be. Amy and I were inspired by the messiness that is found in our cultural attitude around women in positions of leadership. We were inspired by it precisely because we knew we were on the brink of the most tested moment we’ve ever had about this issue in this country. We have an insatiable hunger to know more about the private lives of public people. Now more than ever, when we can access everything at the click of a button or swipe of the finger, we feel entitled to it. And while that can seem ugly, demeaning, and often violating, it’s also irreversible. Access to information has also given us tremendous power, the ability to unearth and dismantle systems when the cause seems fit. So what does this mean for the first viable female presidential candidate in this country’s democratic history? What does it mean for she who will quite likely be the first female president?
It does seem that the hunger to know what’s really going on with Hillary is on overdrive, much more so than it would be for a male political figure. Part of that is the ever-present sense of secrecy and privacy around her. On the one hand, it is frustrating to see her campaign create bigger problems for itself in the way it handles things (rather than the thing itself), but on the other hand, it is an understandable product of surviving the political limelight for over three decades. Still, I am most interested in how our hunger to know more is fed by the “she”-ness of it all. I wonder if we are driven particularly mad by female discretion — in fact, as a filmmaker, I know we are. See Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, Lauren Bacall in Young Man With a Horn, Kim Novak in Vertigo, Ava Gardner in The Killers. An entire genre of film banked on the assumption that women hide things, and it leads to the downfall of men. As a result, we have inherited a belief that there is a hidden truth to be excavated from a woman, and we must do so to protect ourselves from her secrets. Politics makes a sport out of humiliation. Put a woman at the center of that sport, and we are twice as likely to participate because of these associations we have with just the image of a woman. So it brings me back to my question: Can we look at and listen to a woman of authority at the same time? I think it will be hard to untangle everything we have been taught to feel about her. The only solution is to remap the image of a woman entirely, to create an entirely new set of associations with that image. The more women we see and hear in positions of power, authority, and leadership, the more we can collectively shift this iconography. It is a mountain of a task, but it is the only way to dismantle a history of images made by men looking at women. It is what wakes me up every morning, ready to fight the fight, a battle I am waging by simply being the one who is looking and hitting record.
Women accounted for only 13% of the directors on the 700 top grossing films in 2014 — and only 7% of the top 250 films. Refinery29 wants to change this by giving 12 female directors a chance to claim their power. Our message to Hollywood? You can't win without women. Watch new films every month on Refinery29.com/Shatterbox and Comcast Watchable.
We're celebrating the biggest movies of the year with a new series called Blockbust-HER. We'll be looking at everything film-related from the female perspective, interviewing major players in the industry, and discussing where Hollywood is doing right by women and where (all too often) it is failing them. And now...let's go to the movies!