When the Academy Awards air on Feb. 9, more than two years will have passed since allegations of sexual assault surfaced against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. To actress, writer, and producer Naomi McDougall Jones, Weinstein is emblematic of a culture in which women are seen as “mostly inconsequential, sometimes bothersome, and, at worst, props to be used to the satisfaction of the men in power.”
In her book, “The Wrong Kind of Women: Inside our Revolution to Dismantle the Gods of Hollywood,” Jones argues that this poor perception is primarily due to the lack of women-driven storytelling and behind-the-scenes clout in the film and television industry. And this year’s Oscar nominations seem to bear this out. Despite 2019 being a banner year for movies directed and produced by women – some of which have been box office successes – industry awards seldom manage to bestow the critical acclaim and cultural importance they deserve.
“I don’t think it’s anything like a malicious rejection,” “Little Women” producer Amy Pascal said in a Vanity Fair article. Academy voters think, “These kinds of [male-centered] stories are important to me, and these kinds of [female-centered] stories are less important to me.”
Making these women-centered stories more possible is the focal point around which Jones shapes her narrative. She provides both raw data and personal experiences to show that this “male gaze” has a long history. She believes that ingrained power structures have permeated the film industry. And, she says, the moviegoing public needs to pay more attention to how women and people of color are portrayed on the screen and vote with their wallets.
At times, Jones repeats her central argument – “Women have the most buying power, purchase 52 percent of all movie tickets, yet have the fewest movies made for them.” Film industry executives counter this with the fact that, because of the high cost of making films, few studios are willing to risk financing something that might flop. This is one of the main reasons, Jones says, the industry is geared toward replicating those films that were big money-earners in the first place, such as the “Star Wars” franchise or “Toy Story” sequels. A former studio executive told Jones that the question is often “How can we replicate as closely as possible what was successful last time?”
To get a sense of whether change might be on the horizon, and to confirm Jones’ account, I spoke with Liz Ryan, a member of the Directors Guild of America. Ryan spent long years inside the industry working her way up from trainee through second and first assistant director to production manager. She is now in discussions with several producers and international distributors on a film she has written. As a member of DGA’s Diversity Task Force, she says “the industry’s mood today is different.” Not only are audiences becoming more aware of the need for different types of storytelling but also there has been an increase in the percentage of women working behind the camera in both film and TV.
Both Ryan and Jones attribute this progress to such factors as: women starting their own companies, such as actress Reese Witherspoon, whose media company Hello Sunshine is helping to advance equality in the way women are represented in entertainment; more affordable tools such as digital cameras and editing programs that can help democratize production; an increase in the number of film festivals for up-and-coming filmmakers; film schools with 50-50 male-female representation; and streaming services like Amazon and Netflix, which are on the lookout for fresh voices and stories.
At the core of this book is the question of how to measure gender parity. Kathryn Bigelow won the Academy Award for best director with “The Hurt Locker” – a 2008 war drama film that grossed nearly $50 million worldwide. Yet critics point out that not only is she a Hollywood insider (her former husband is James Cameron of “Titanic” fame) but the script was written by a man and had almost an entirely male cast.
Jones argues that the movies ought to include stories that reflect the whole of society, including race, gender, sexual orientation, and other aspects of identity. She believes that stories told from diverse points of view can be as popular and profitable as those that reflect the perspectives of white males.
Jones’ writing has an honesty and energy that make the book a real page-turner. I did wish for a more complete index so that I could go back and find the context for specific names or ideas, but that quibble aside, “The Wrong Kind of Women” is an outpouring of passion that will change the ways in which movies are seen.