Amy Richards met Jim McKay as he was getting ready to release his first film, Girls Town, in 1995. McKay was kind (and political) enough to offer his film to the Third Wave Foundation, which Richards cofounded, for a benefit screening. Though Third Wave has had dozens of events since then, none has come close to matching its success, in terms of sheer dollars raised in one sitting (over $20,000), the number of new donors and allies attracted to the organization’s work, and the unparalleled visibility that comes when you combine social justice and Hollywood.
Since their introduction a decade ago, Richards—coauthor, with Jennifer Baumgardner, of Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future and the recently released Grassroots: A Field Guide for Feminist Activism—has seen McKay every few months, walking the streets of New York City with his family, at events like the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, or, more deliberately, through their mutual interest in and commitment to social-justice work; McKay and his wife and business partner, Hannah Weyer, produced a film for Scenarios USA, a youth-produced media organization that Richards works closely with. When Bitch approached Richards about contributing to our masculinity issue, she could think of no better subject than McKay.
Amy Richards: How do you describe yourself, and how did you get involved in filmmaking?
Jim McKay: I’m a filmmaker, writer, director, husband, and father, in no specific order. I’m in my 40s—it’s hard to remember [that] sometimes. I got into film basically by watching films; I wasn’t one of those kids who was shooting Super 8 at the age of 8. Music was the art form that enticed me first, not film. In college, I started realizing that there were interesting stories out there. I spent a good four years watching films, then gradually entered that world. I didn’t go to school for film—I studied secondary education—but I did get tons of help from people around me.
Two of your films—Girls Town and Our Song—have been described as emotional and political coming-of-age stories with girls as their subjects. Was there a reason you focused on girls rather than boys?
When I got out of school, I was becoming a political being. I became interested in every “ism” that wasn’t my experience in order to understand the world in a fuller way. I studied feminism, but not in a formal way, and through that I saw the need for the stories of real women. When I started making films, I was trying to fill that specific void.
It’s been a challenge to tell girls’ stories, but it seems like a greater challenge for me to confront the story of a boy. In a strange way, I’ve always felt less comfortable exploring masculinity.
When you’re a political person, it seems natural to tell the less powerful person’s story. It seems silly to tell the rich person’s story or the white person’s story, though those are instructive too.
Exactly. People often say, “Why aren’t there conservative voices in documentary films?” The reason that conservatives don’t make documentaries is because they make the mainstream films. If the mainstream was liberal, conservative voices would be in the art houses.
Also, focusing on girls explicitly doesn’t necessarily exclude boys. In what way does your work directly or indirectly take on masculinity?
Actually, the film that I just finished, Angel, focuses on a young man, and my third film, Everyday People, has many male subjects. Angel is about a kid and his social worker, a 38-year-old woman, and they are both at turning points in their lives. The film deals with issues of family, fatherhood, and motherhood.
How did you come to do Angel?
I often take a minor character in one film and explore their story further in another. Girls Town fed into all of the other movies I have done. When you immerse yourself so deeply in something, there is bound to be one part that you didn’t get to tell, or it leads you to a parallel or emerging story. After Girls Town and Our Song, I wanted to rise to the occasion of telling a male story. Everyday People focuses on two young females and one young male, and my venturing into that character gave me the background to develop Angel.
In both Girls Town and Our Song, the protagonists are young women with a conspicuous absence of fathers or father figures. What shaped that decision for you? You must have a more personal relationship to this subject now that you’re a father, though you weren’t when you made those films.
I’m certainly dealing with family and fatherhood now that I’m a father, but I don’t think I would have done the films any differently. One of the moms in Girls Town is not present either, and I actually completely don’t deal with moms at all. With Our Song, I was confronting an unfortunate reality, which is the absent father. When you do work that comes from a certain social background, it’s a challenge to make things honest but not exploitative. I had to push myself—and actually Hannah pushed me, she said, “It’s okay to make [the father] a fuck-up.”
The subject of fathers is very personal to me, since I don’t know my father—my mother left him two months before I was born and I have never met him. It’s not fair that we tend to have different expectations of our mothers than we do of our fathers.
The norm is different now. My mom was a teacher before she had kids; she took a lot of time off, and then she went back to teaching. She was living in a time when there was little questioning of being a full-time mom. What I notice today is that parents have another life beyond parenting, and that makes parenting [more] challenging. I wish I had a blank slate and could just create these roles. For mothers, it’s especially problematic because so many more moms have full work lives before they have kids. When they spend more time with their kids, they are very aware of what they are missing.
Having spent so much time with the girls in your films, developing their characters and hearing their stories, has it been helpful in shaping your thoughts on how you want to raise your children?
My daughter is 3 and a half years old, and my son is four months. I feel no security at all about what I’m doing. I turned out okay and I can only worry so much about whether or not they are going to be in a good school or are going to be picked on. That’s life. You have to keep reminding yourself that it’s the lack of perfection that makes them into full human beings.
I am constantly trying to check myself. A Barbie found its way into my daughter’s hands, [and] it tripped me out for a couple of days. She was obsessing, “Daddy, look at her hair.” I made snide remarks and told her that I didn’t want to play Barbie, I wanted to play something else. After about four days, I delved into a very adult discussion about how Barbie is not like a real person. Then I realized that my daughter doesn’t need this, and she certainly doesn’t want it. It is horrifying what is out there that’s defining the culture. [But] that’s the world, and I have to trust that my kids will learn how to think.
I spend a lot of time on college campuses, and I’m shocked by how often students just want to know what “the” answer is. They ask me: “Is this a sexist ad?” Or, “What’s feminist about Mean Girls?” They’ve forgotten how to analyze the world for themselves; they expect the answer to be obvious.
Media and critical thinking are the most important classes. If you take today at face value, without interpretation, what are you getting?