Naomi McDougall-Jones – TRANSCRIPT
Hello. I’m going to begin today with a story and end with a revolution. Are you ready?
Here’s the story. All my life I wanted to be an actress. From the time I was very small I could feel the magic of storytelling and I wanted to be a part of it. So, at the ripe age of 21, I graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and ready to take my rightful place as the next Meryl Streep.
That’s my grandmother, not Meryl Streep. Now, it’s important for this story that you understand that I was raised by a raging feminist. I mean, just to give you some idea, when I was five or six years old and obsessed with “The Sound of Music,” and running around singing “I am 16 going on 17” all day, every day, my mother sat me down for a very serious conversation, and she said, “Okay, look I’m not going to say that you can’t sing that song, but if you are going to sing that song, I do need you to understand the extremely problematic gender constructs that it reinforces.” So that’s where I come from.
So it just honestly never even occurred to me that I would be prevented from doing anything in my life because I’m a woman. Okay, so I graduate and start auditioning, and I get work, slowly, but I just start noticing that the parts available for women are terrible. I mean, remember, I came here to play smart, willful, complicated, interesting, complex, confident female characters, right? Like Meryl. And all of the sudden I am wrestling with 300 other gorgeous, talented women to play “[Female] No dialogue. The character only needs to stand on a balcony, look forlorn, and walk back inside the house. Only partial nudity.”
“[Sarah] Brian’s love interest. Attractive, cute, and flirty. She is the ‘ideal girl’ and Brian’s prize throughout the entire film”
“[Mom] A proper Southern belle, who is making peace with the fact that her only purpose in life is to tend to her husband”
“[Abby] Must be okay with a tastefully shot gang rape along with performing 19th century dance”
Those are actual casting notices. And so I just mention this to my agent one day and I say, “I feel like I’m not really going in for parts that I’m actually excited about playing.” And he said, “Yeah, I don’t really know what to do with you. You’re too smart for the parts that are being written for women in their 20s, and you’re not quite pretty enough to be the hot one, so I think you’ll work when you’re 35.”
And I said, “Oh, that’s funny, I always thought that when you were 35, you were kind of like over the hill as an actress, that you were relegated to playing 20-year-olds’ mothers.” And he said, “Yeah.” It’s just the way it is. So, maybe a year or so after this, I’m having lunch with an actress friend of mine, and we’re talking about how insane this is, and we decide, you know what? We’ll just make our own movie. And I’ll write it, and then I’ll write it about two complex female characters. So we do. We set out to make this movie and sort of accidentally we end up hiring an all female production team: the writer, director, producers.
And it’s a film about two women. And so pretty soon we’re sitting in the office of a successful male producer, and he goes, “Okay girls, so you do understand that at some point you are going to have to hire a male producer on board, right? Just so that people will trust you with their money.” Over and over again people tell us, “Yeah, but people don’t really want to see films about women, so maybe you should think about making something else.” It’s just the way it is. So we make the movie anyway.
We scrape together $80,000 and we make it, and it does so well. It gets into tons of festivals, and we win a lot of awards, and it’s big and exciting, but these experiences I’ve had just keep rubbing at me, and so I just start talking about them, first at Q and As after screenings of the film, and then I get invited to be on panels and talk at conferences. And the really amazing thing is that to begin with, when I’m just talking to audiences and other people, you know, coming up in the film industry, the universal reaction is, “Oh my God! This is terrible. What do we do about this?” But in the bigger panels I get on, suddenly an Oscar nominee tells me, “Look, I totally agree with everything you’re saying. You just need to be really careful about where you say it.”
An Oscar-winning producer tells me that she doesn’t think it’s a good idea to play the “woman card.” It’s just the way it is. And I think this is how sexism continues on in 2016, right? For the most part, it happens casually, unconsciously even. It happens because people are just trying to get along within an existing system. It happens, maybe, out of a genuine desire to teach a young woman the way that the world just is.
The problem is that unless we do something about it, that is the way that the world will always be. So why should you care about this? Right? We’re facing some rather significant problems in the world at present. What does it really matter if I can’t get a job, or you’re stuck watching “Transformer 17,” right?
Well, let me put it to you this way. The year that “Jaws” came out, Americans suddenly started listing sharks among their top ten major fears. In 1995, BMW paid the James Bond franchise three million dollars to have James Bond switch from driving an Aston Martin to a BMW Z3.
That one move caused so many people to go out and buy that car, that BMW made $240 million in pre-sales alone. The year that “Brave” and “Hunger Games” came out, female participation in archery went up 105%. In fact, studies show that the movies you watch don’t just affect your hobbies, they affect your career choices, your emotions, your sense of identity, your relationships, your mental health, even your marital status. So now consider this: If you have watched mostly American movies in your lifetime, 95% of all of the films that you have ever seen were directed by men. Somewhere between 80% and 90% of all of the leading characters that you have ever seen were men.
And even if we just talk about the last five years, 55% of the time that you have seen a woman in a movie, she was naked or scantily clad. That affects you. That affects all of us. We actually can’t even imagine how much it affects us because this is all we’ve ever had. Stories – and movies are just modern stories – are not frivolous, they’re actually the mechanism through which we process our experience of being alive.