You have certainly heard the statistics about women in Hollywood. You know: Women have only 30 percent of speaking parts in the 250 top-grossing films in the US. Actresses are routinely paid less than their male co-stars. Women of color direct only two percent of TV episodes. The thing about these stats is that they’re not only bad—they’re not getting better. The number of women working on major films has not budged in nearly 20 years. On this episode, we talk about how the lack of women in the top-tiers of the film and TV industries isn’t just a Hollywood quirk—it’s systematic discrimination.
We start off this episode by talking with a lawyer from the ACLU (which recently issued a letter calling for government agencies to investigate Hollywood hiring practices) and talk with filmmaker Destri Martino, who launched The Director List—a brand-new database of hundreds of female directors. We hear from filmmaker Christina Choe about what it’s like to work on indie movies—including her current film Nancy—and from producer, writer, and actress Alex Borstein about her long career working within Hollywood writers' rooms. Plus: the best of Shit People Say to Women Directors. Tune in.
HOW HOLLYWOOD DISCRIMINATES
THE BEST OF “SHIT PEOPLE SAY…”
INTERVIEW WITH NANCY DIRECTOR CHRISTINA CHOE
INTERVIEW WITH ALEX BORSTEIN
Check out the film set we visit at the beginning of this show: Sista in the Brotherhood. Also, big thanks to Devyn Manibo for interviewing Christina Choe.
This episode of Popaganda is sponsored by Blue Buddha Boutique. Join the handmade revolution! Blue Buddha Boutique is the leading innovator in original chianmaille designs, tutorials, and projects. We are an independent, woman-owned boutique based in Chicago, and we help people all over the world create beautiful works of art! Check us out online at www.bluebuddhaboutique.com. Happy weaving!
This show was generously transcribed by volunteer Edith Tita. We're proud to make Popaganda accessible to people with auditory disabilities.
FULL SHOW TRANSCRIPT
Hi. This is Sarah Mirk and I’m on the set of a film being shot in Southeast Portland. Right on the banks of the Willamette River, a small crew of people are gathered around, as Director Dawn Jones Redstone tries to get the perfect shot of a construction worker being chewed out by her boss. It’s a simple scene—just two actors and a couple lines—but on a film shoot, nothing is simple. Right next to me, sound recordist Marjorie Decocampo is wearing big headphones and wielding a huge, fuzzy microphone—she has to try to catch the actors dialogue while contending with a train that’s running on the tracks to our right and gravel barges barreling through the river on our left. Meanwhile, Director of Photography Kia Anne Geraths is carrying a camera on her chest supported by a huge harness that goes over her shoulders.
KAG: Yeah, this is a great shot! So, we’re doing an over-the-shoulder really shallow focus, we’re going from one person to another. So, everything’s all nice and pretty… Diffused, ‘cause there’s clouds, and that’s what were were hoping for, so…
This film is called Sista in the Brotherhood, it’s a short film about a young black woman who struggles to prove herself in the male-dominated field of construction work. The story may hit especially hard for the all-female film crew because, the film industry, too, is male dominated. Recent studies show that for every woman working in the film industry, there are five men.
Director: Ready? All right. Places! Quiet on the set! Roll sound… Roll cameras! Scene 41a, take 2. Action!
Man: She fucked up the whole pile, Red!
Woman: That’s not true! That’s not true, I didn’t cut that wood— Man: You— SHUT UP! YOU! Come with me!
SARAH: The gender inequality in film and TV has been a huge conversation recently. I am sure you have heard the statistics about women in Hollywood. You can pick any of the statistics, they’re all depressing, whether you’re talking about women on camera or behind the camera. You know: Women have only 30% of speaking parts in the 250 top-grossing films in the US. Female actresses are routinely paid less than their male co-stars. Women of color direct only 2 percent of TV episodes. The thing about these stats is not just that they’re bad, but that they’re not getting better. The number of women working on major Hollywood films has not budged in nearly 20 years.
Usually, the discussion goes like this: Why aren’t there more women in Hollywood? Why aren’t there more female directors? We need to encourage women to get into film.
Of course, we should encourage women to get into film. But actually, there is a lack of women in the world who want to make film. There is a lack of women who want to make film BEING HIRED by the studios and production companies that make the big budget films.
Destri Martino is a writer and director in Hollywood. Last week, she launched a website, The Director List. The site highlights the work of female directors from around the world and also hosts a searchable database of over 850 female directors.
What the database makes clear is that while are literally hundreds and hundreds of female directors wanting to work, it’s very rare for women to even make it onto the lists of potential directors that studios would consider for the project. We saw this, for example, with the 2014 movie Selma.
[clip from Selma starting here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x6t7vVTxaic] Man: We will not tolerate agitators attempting to orchestrate a disturbance in this state! Man2: It is unacceptable that they use that power to keep us voiceless!! *applause*
SARAH: Selma was one of the only three major studio-released films last year that directed by a woman. But the studio behind the film reportedly went through five male directors for the project—Stephen Frears, Paul Haggis, Michael Mann, Spike Lee, and Lee Daniels—before the film’s star, David O-yellow-o, argued strongly to offer the gig to Ava Duvernay.
Ava Duvernay went on to be nominated for Best Director at the Oscars for her work on Selma. Just two years before, she’d won the Best Director award at Sundance for her feature film Middle of Nowhere. So when the studio was looking around for a director to work on Selma, why wasn’t she on the list to begin with?
That’s part of why Destri Martino made the Director’s List—to literally put women on lists of potential directors. For her master’s thesis, Destri Martino researched the question of why film studios don’t hire more women, when there’s lots of qualified women out there.
DM: It’s more complex than I can just say, you know, in a simple sentence, but of course there’s institutionalized sexism and cultural barriers that keep women out. There is the idea that women only direct a certain type of genre, so that would exclude them from a lot of studio films. There’s that impression that women don’t direct action or that there aren’t any women that have experience with action, which is also wrong. You can search on ‘Action’ in the Director List database now and find people who have the experience. And then I also talk to people all the time who have the interest in it. It’s just a lot of mythology that keeps women out — just beliefs that are incorrect.
So let’s get this straight… There are thousands of women working in film, but they appear to be systematically not hired for jobs by film studios and production companies—and we have data that shows that this problem has persisted for at least twenty years. That is not just a quirk of a Hollywood boy’s club. That’s discrimination. Likely, gender and race-based discrimination that’s against the law.
That’s why in May, the American Civil Liberties Union decided to step into Hollywood.
ACLU INTERVIEW MG: Hi, my name is Melissa Goodman and I’m the director of the LGBTQ Gender and Reproductive Justice Project at the ACLU of Southern California.
SM: Despite film companies and Hollywood stars coming out to say that sexism is bad and we should support women in film, not a lot has changed in recent years. That’s why, Melissa says, it’s time for a formal investigation of how discrimination occurs in the film industry—and how we can end it.
MG: We decided that the time was now to change the conversation a bit and try something new. Because it seems like this is not a new problem — this is in fact quite an old problem and a problem that has existed very openly for decades.
The state and federal rights agencies have a great deal of resources and experience tackling industries that have hard systemic bias issues, and they know how to do it, and frankly we’re hoping that they’ll take a look and really either look at some of the worst employers, or look systemically at everyone and pull people in and try to come up with some new solutions.
Because what’s needed, I think, at this point is external oversight. Year after year it’s well known, within the industry and without, that these gender disparities occur and though there’s been internal industry efforts to address the problem, the problem has not gotten better. The numbers have not changed; if anything, some of them have changed for the worse. So, that means that internal actions are not working and something else is needed.
The takeaway here is that women are working on lots of films—they’re just not likely to be the big-budget films. The word “indie” gets thrown around a lot in pop culture, but in film and it actually means something: a film project that’s created without support from a major studio or distributor. In part because of rampant sexism in the studio industry, women are MUCH more likely to make indie films than ones big-budget ones. For examples, remember the film Sista in the Brotherhood whose river-side set I visited?
Director: Quiet on the set. Roll sound. Roll cameras!
That film isn’t financed through any kind of Hollywood studio. The people behind the project fundraised thousands of dollars to being production on Kickstarter and got a local arts grant, too. Researcher and filmmaker Destri Martino explains that indie films made by women often tell stories that are different than what you’d see out of major studios.
DM: You know, a lot of times when women create stories, it’s from their experiences, and you see a more authentic female experience on film. And if that’s not getting into the larger stories that are seen by the audiences that studio films get to, then we’re having a very skewed version of the female experience, and that’s really obvious when you look at a lot of the studio films that come out where women are more sexualized, there are fewer significant female characters… A lot changes when you start looking at studio films compared to independent films.
The message I hear is this: there are many, many capable and creative women working in film. But it’s still so rare to see a major film set where there’s more than a handful of women. Major studios and distributors need to recognize what we already know: women are great at making films. Y’all need to get on board and hire them to make movies.
SEGMENT TWO: SHIT PEOPLE SAY TO WOMEN DIRECTORS
You’re listening to Popaganda, the feminism and pop culture podcast. Today we’re talking about women working in film and TV. Sometimes women who work in the film industry have to hear some ridiculous stuff from their coworkers. Some frustrated industry set up a an anonymous blog to catalogue some of this stuff; they called the blog Shit People Say to Women Directors. Women who work in the film and TV industry in any capacity—whether as directors or writers or animators or camera operators—submit stories of real things people have said to them. A few weeks ago, A-list director Elizabeth Banks read a couple excerpts from the blog:
[audio from this video: http://bcove.me/rxgqk6qo] EB: Um, this is kind of cute: “You can’t get in this van, honey, I’m waiting for the director.” I AM the director *laughs*. Everyone on my set knew I was the director so I didn’t deal with a lot of this. “Ah, she’s good, but I only want to hire someone I can have a beer with at the end of the day.” I’m here to tell you, I’m Irish and I drink whiskey.
We got people in the Bitch office to read other real-life, anonymous stories from the site. Here’s the Best of Shit People Say to Women Directors:
Woman1: ‘I’m a Directors Guild Award Director with Primetime Network TV Credits. I’ve been told: “We already hired an African American so we’re TOTALLY covered for diversity this season. Sorry!”’
‘“We had a female director last season and it didn’t work out, so we aren’t hiring any women this year. Maybe next year!”'
‘“The show has a lot of special effects, and we just can’t find any women who have the experience to pull it off.”' —- Woman2: ‘I’m an animator. I was sitting with a male creative director and some other women we work with, and he says loudly to all of them about me: “This is the only woman I know who can/should work in 3d animation.” Then looked at me smiling as though I’d take it as compliment that he had approved of me.’
Woman3: ‘I was working on a comedy. I sat and listened to our Executive Producer rank the actresses on the show in terms of “fuckability.” One of the staff writers called him out on it, to which he replied, “Writers’ Room! Safe space to brainstorm.” The show we were working on was for Disney Channel. The actresses were all underage.’
Woman4: ‘I’m a colorist. An Engineer said to me, upon hearing I still use my maiden name, “You’re not one of those, are you?”’
- - -
Woman5: ‘I am Directing/Producing a Feature Film. I’ve had some upsetting experiences.
Editor #1 was a veteran film editor and very talented man but would not take ONE note I gave him on MY film. Which resulted in Editor #2, who, when I confronted him for unprofessional behavior, sent me a slew of disrespectful emails. When I told my producers and I wanted to fire him, all three men sat down to talk about his behavior. They told him he had to treat me with respect.
I guess it had to come from a man.
Woman6: ‘I am an aspiring female Director currently working towards a degree in film. In one of my English classes, we were assigned a Position Paper covering a societal issue we felt deserved more attention. For my topic, I wrote about gender inequality in the film industry.
In his written feedback, my professor explained that, even though my argument was excellent:
“You should have picked a more important issue.”’
Woman7: ‘Young producer here. I recently met with a writer/director to decide on whether or not to take on his feature. In my collaboration agreement with him I stipulated that men and women need to be portrayed equally in the film. He told me that he didn’t want to work together unless I took that out. I dropped the project, even though it would have supported me for a couple of months because it already had the funding. We have to keep on fighting, no matter how hard it is.’
SEGMENT THREE: CHRISTINA CHOE INTERVIEW
You’re listening to Popaganda, the feminism and pop culture podcast. Today we’re talking about women working in film and TV. One of the big things we’ve been talking about is that women are much more likely to make indie films than big-budget ones that are supported and paid for by big Hollywood studios. A perfect example of this kind of bold, interesting, indie filmmaker is Christina Choe. Christina is a filmmaker who grew up in a small town in New Jersey where she was the only Korean American kid in town. She’s always felt like an outsider. And that point of view has informed the films she’s made. In 2011, she made a short film called I am John Wayne about a young Black man who loves horses and is struggling with the death of his best friend. It’s a quiet, meditative, gorgeous film—Christina describes it as an “existential western—with unforgettable scenes of this young guy riding on horseback through the streets of his city.
The film went on to win the Grand Jury Prize for Best Narrative Short Film at the 2012 Slamdance Film Festival. Although she’s had some critical success, for her next project, Christina is still going the indie route for making a film: she’s currently raising much of the budget for a feature film on Kickstarter. The movie is called Nancy, it’s a psychological drama about a woman who lives at home with her mom—she’s so desperate for connection that she creates elaborate lies to get sympathy and support from people. It’s rare to see stories about female antiheroes onscreen and the idea for Nancy comes from Christina Choe’s interest in stories of imposters, including someone who deeply impacted her own life. A few years ago, it turned out that one of Christina’s writing professors had been lying to everyone about his work. As she explains in her Kickstarter video, that started Christina on her path to making Nancy:
[ INSERT1:18 “so when it came out that his entire career” to 1:37 of this film: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1217251582/nancy-a-feature-film-about-an-imposter] CC: So, when it came out that his entire career was a lie, I was totally shocked. Who was this person, you know? What part of him was real? Was he, or wasn’t he, still the most brilliant teacher that I’d ever had? These were the kind of questions that I really wanted to explore with this film.
So what’s it like working as an indie film creator on your first feature film? Writer Devyn Manibo, who’s volunteering as a film intern on Nancy, talked to Christina Choe about the film and how feeling like an outsider has influenced her work.
DM: So you talked a little bit about your experience as an outsider in your Kickstarter campaign video, and the way that impacts the work you make. Do you want to talk about that a little bit more? CC: Yeah, it’s kind of funny, ‘cause I didn’t really realize that’s what I was doing until I’d made a bunch of short films. And when I was trying to tie it together, I was like “Oh!” I realized: What do these things have in common? They’re all these characters that are living on the outside, feeling on the outside of society… And I think growing up as Korean American in this small town where I was literally the only Asian person I ever saw, y'know, and subconsciously, just, that psyche of feeling on the outside and relating to people that have gone through that, you know? And it’s a very broad thing, but it’s also very specific. Like, I think when you come from privilege — when you’re the status quo or whatever — you don’t even know what that’s like, y'know? M: Yeah, totally. C: So I think it’s like, I can’t even help but tell these outsider stories. It’s not like I’m consciously thinking about—
M: It just happens. C: Yeah, it just happens. And I don’t know, I guess that’s what I’m drawn to, y'know? I’ll feel like I’ve really “made it”, or whatever you wanna call it, if I get to just tell whatever stories I wanna tell, and not [be] put in this box of ‘Oh, you’re Asian American, you should tell Asian stories’ or ‘You’re a female film-maker, you should tell only female stories.’ M: Right. C: Because I feel like that sort of identity-based expectations— M: It’s pigeonholing. C: Yeah. And it’s kind of like old-school, I feel like it’s super 90s (!): ‘You must make this kind of film!’ and I think if we’re really gonna progress it’s like, ‘Yeah, I can make a sci-fi movie. I can make whatever I want!’ y'know? That’s what’s cool about what’s happening now, because it [feels] like there’s so many possibilities. M: What sort of hurdles have you faced in terms of receiving support for your project? Whether that’s monetary support, or social support, or…? C: Yeah. You know, independent film in America *laughs* especially when you have a female anti-hero kind of character who’s morally ambiguous — that’s not considered a commercial thing, y'know? And it’s really frustrating because I feel like maybe if this film was starring Matt Damon *laughter* as an impostor — you know what I mean? Like, would things be a lot easier? Of course. But I don’t wanna blame everything on that. The fact is, it’s very hard to make independent film in this country. There’s not really any government support, it’s very much like who you can get to give you money, you know? And we’ve been really lucky to have a lot of support from film institutions like Film Independent and IFP, the Venice Biennale, and a lot of great places, so that’s been really great. I think at the end of the day what makes change is [deciding that] you just need to tell these different stories. But of course you need the money to tell these different stories and to bring these complex female characters to the screen and it’s not like there is a shortage of people wanting to tell them — and, I think, to see them. As soon as things get made then people will realize that there is an audience for it. C: Right. And how have you experienced feeling overlooked, being overlooked…? M: The reality is that you don’t know. You don’t know if you’re getting turned down for a job, you don’t know if somebody’s not recommended you, you don’t know if someone’s not giving you money because of that — y’know? It’s just like, the proof is in the pudding. You just look at the statistics, and the people who are making decisions about this, the gatekeepers, are really not allowing women to tell their stories. It’s funny ‘cause I did an HBO directing fellowship a couple of years ago which was amazing and I was shadowing on a bunch of shows like Girls and Boardwalk Empire and Looking and I probably saw… So there was one time when I was on set of Looking and I saw a female director, a female DP, and I just kind of teared up, which is so silly (!) But it was literally so rare! It’s like seeing a unicorn. I’d never seen that… That’s crazy! That’s just crazy! Like, are you kidding?! What is this, 1950? *laughter* So I just think, how do we get those percentages to change? How do we get more stories being told? And I think ultimately we need financing to make the stories. And we’ll make them, you know… and that’s it. No one’s gonna just like… roll the red carpet down for you and open these doors for you! *laughter* You kinda have to just barrel through it, you know? C: Yeah, absolutely. M: With a smile. *laughter* C: Never without a smile. M: You have to lean on people sometimes. You have to be like, ‘Okay, I need your help!’ and like build a little village, or a community of people that believe in you and wanna help each other… (mockingly) Koombaya! *laughter*
That was writer and film intern Devyn Manibo talking to director Christina Choe about her in-the-works feature film Nancy. You can watch the film’s trailer and donate to the project—their rewards include awesome tote bags emblazoned with the names of female directors—at Kickstarter.com, just type in “Nancy” and you’ll see the film.
SEGMENT FOUR: INTERVIEW WITH ALEX BORSTEIN
You’re listening to Popaganda, the feminism and pop culture podcast. On today’s show, we’re talking about gender dynamics shaping our film and TV industries. We’ve talked about indie filmmakers, women working really hard to create their own films outside of the male-dominated, Hollywood system. But what is it like to actually work within that system? What is it like for the women who don’t go the indie route and instead wind up working inside that boys’ club? A good person to talk to about this is Alex Borstein. She an actress, comedy writer, and producer with a long career in Hollywood. She’s worked on all sides of the camera, as a writer for MADTV, a producer for Showtime’s Shameless, and currently as nurse Dawn on the HBO show Getting On, a really interesting comedy about the people who work at a rather rundown hospital. But Alex Borstein is maybe best known for her work as the voice of Lois Griffin, the mom on animated show Family Guy—a show that we’ve written about many times at Bitch for its offensive jokes and what I would call demeaning humor. I called up Alex to talk about these contrasts in her work and what it’s like for someone who identifies as a feminist to be working within the world of raucous, mostly male TV comedy.
I: OK so Alex, you’ve had a rather long and varied career in Hollywood doing voice acting and on screen roles in everything from MadTV to the Cartoon Network show Robot Chicken. One of your first roles though, I read, was writing for the WB show Pinky And The Brain, and then also the Power Rangers. Is that true? AB: Yeah, yeah! You know, Power Rangers was like the first thing I did. I mean, there was one commercial I did prior to that, but I didn’t make the actual cut; they shot like a bunch of us for this Bank of America commercial, and then when it aired you just saw my shoulder. So… *chuckle* the very first thing I ever did that was kind of successful was Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and it was a voice playing the evil Queen Machina. And I got it by meeting a guy who cast the voice which is this background voice for Power Rangers. He was also a performer himself and we met at the Jewish Community Centre doing a play. *laughter* I: I think both an audition room and a Hollywood writers’ room would be such intimidating places to be! So, I wonder, how do you feel differently about being in those creative, but often very critical, places — now, after so many years, compared to when you were just getting your footing 10 or 15 years ago? AB: It’s still terrifying— I: Oh, yeah?! AB: —I mean, in the best way. I just went to Disneyland yesterday with my kids, and my son - it was the first time he could go on Indiana Jones - and I love Disneyland, I’m obsessed with it. We’d been talking it up, and so excited[ly]… And he went on it and he was terrified! And he felt really awful about being scared afterwards, and I said, No no no no no, fear is like the best part of life! Fear is what keeps you alive. Fear is what makes sure you don’t die on a daily basis - ‘cause you’re not gonna do things that are way too fearful - but it’s exciting enough to keep life fresh! That’s kinda how I feel— I think that’s what I’m addicted to about this business: being in the writer’s room and having the bar raised; being surrounded by really smart people and constantly wanting to make sure you’re on top of your game; and then going to an audition and you’re “on” and that’s it, and it’s do or die…! There’s just something [about it] like tight-rope walking, without actually feeling like you could lose your life. I: Is it the same kind of fear now as it was when you were first getting started, or do you feel like what you’re afraid of, or the way that you feel, has changed? AB: In some ways, you’re more confident. It’s kinda like your sex life too, as you get older… I think it’s a woman, like… In so many ways you’re so much more confident! You know what you do, you kinda know what you do best – here is what I have to offer and either they’re gonna like it or not. So you’re no longer fearful of ‘Am I right?’ and ‘Am I going to be rejected?’. But then, there’s this different fear that sets in as ‘Do I still have it? Can I still do it? Are people going to compare this to past work?’ and ‘Now I have something to be compared to’. So it’s a different fear. But I kinda like it, I think it’s fun. A lot of people don’t; after they’ve worked for a while, they refuse to read for parts or they don’t want to or have to audition, they feel like they should just be offered… I don’t mind auditioning at all, I get it. I: So, I was hoping you could tell me about what it’s like to be in the role where you’re deciding the shape of the show, rather than just hoping that you can land a role on it? AB: I’ll tell you: doing both helps - they each help the other, and it’s eye opening. Back in 2002 I was doing my own pilot and auditioning people for that, and that just kind of blew my mind open about really how the process works - and then Shameless, even more so.
Shameless really solidified writing an episode; and then being in a room casting other people for the parts you’d written really proved to me that it’s nothing to do with you going in that room and being rejected. The second you walk in you kinda know if the person’s right or not - for that role. There’s so many people that would come in and you just knew: ’Oh, no no no, this is not a fit at all, but wow, they’re super interesting for this other thing!’ and you keep them in mind.
And you really want everyone to succeed, that’s what I wasn’t aware of. You want the next person that walks in the room to be perfect, so that your search is over and you’re fulfilled as a writer and as a producer. It was really eye-opening! I: I’ve always imagined the life of an actor to be filled with constant rejection… *laughter* Like, if you’re doing it right, maybe, you’re going out and auditioning for lots of parts – and then ninety percent of people [tell] you no. So it’s funny to hear that actually being on the other side of that made you feel more better about the roles you don’t get. AB: It’s just a question of something fitting right. It’s like trying on jeans, really. There’s lots that you can get on and that will cover your ass, but there’s very few that fit just right. But there is a lot of rejection, there’s definitely— ohhh, there’s times when you just feel… You feel like everyone else knows something that you don’t know, you feel like you’re old and washed up, you feel like you’re irrelevant – and then in one day that can all change by booking something. For women, the second you walk into a room the way that you look immediately is going to probably be 60% of whether you’re gonna have a shot at this part or not. Whereas I think for men it’s a little more ‘Oh, if a part calls for a guy who’s supposed to be the love interest of the main character and he’s supposed to be sexy’, and if a guy walks in and you don’t immediately find him sexy, there’s room for him to be charming [and] interesting and have the room afterwards say “Oh yeah, y’know, he was kind of an interesting-sexy…” Whereas if a woman comes in and is supposed to be playing a sexy part, the second she walks in the room many people are going to decide whether that is sexy or not and she can’t win it back.
At least that’s been the experience I’ve seen in a room. So there’s a huge difference, I think, in terms of how you look on the outside auditioning: gender-wise, you have to fit a mould physically many more times than men do. I: Well, that’s one thing I like about the role that you play these days. You play the nurse Dawn on the HBO show Getting On, and it’s kind of a dark show about nurses and doctors at this hospital. It’s more realistic than other [hospital shows]. I can’t believe that hospital shows are an entire genre *laughs* but there is like a genre of that kind of shows. I like Getting On both because it’s not glamorous at all in the jobs that you’re doing, and also [because] the people on the show I think look more like what nurses and doctors actually look… AB: Yeah, yeah. There’s no McDreamys on our show. Even Laurie Metcalf’s character Dr Jenna James sidles up to Paul, one of the other doctors on the floor she’s obsessed with, and wants to win his favour and finds him handsome, but he’s also like a very realistic doctor-handsome. Y’know, it’s not like a supermodel in a lab coat. I loved that too! I love that everything is so real and there’s real faces and y’know, our patients are elderly women, which are not allowed on television (!) Y’know, Laurie and Niecy and I are at certain ages that there’s just not that much room to play interesting characters and… Every day I kind of wake up that I’m working on that and I can’t believe [it], I wonder if it’s a dream. ‘Cause it really is unheard of to have such rich characters: we’re not searching for love — I mean, obviously Dawn is always stumbling through a relationship, but that’s not what it’s about, it’s not a show about finding Mr Right. It’s just real people who are three-dimensional characters, they’re not just wet-blanket moms or nags or… It’s just so invigorating to get to play her! I: Some other roles you’ve done before this are like sort of over the top or fantastical things that you wouldn’t see in real life. How does it feel to be playing somebody who [you think] could be real person out there in the world? Do you feel a different burden or a different responsibility there? AB: I do! I do on many levels with this show. This is like the most amazing experience I’ve had as an actress. It’s on all levels: the writing is so good, the group is so tight-knit, we have very little time, we have so much dialogue! Y’know, our last season we shot an episode in 3 days, which is unheard of (!) [And there is] very little turn-around time, so the pressure of wanting it to be great and live up to the writing and learn the lines is one huge burden. So there’s this constant fear that on the set, which is exhilarating. And also she’s so three-dimensional, she’s so real, and the opportunity to do that — I don’t wanna blow it: personally [I don’t want to] do a disservice to that whole world of nurses and care, and also I don’t wanna blow my opportunity as an actress. I really wanna do it right and kinda show the world [that] I can do lots of different things! I’m not just a sketch person or a voice-over person or a writer, I have all these different colours which has been — ah, it’s been so much fun! But yeah, there is definitely a burden to get it right, you know? We have someone on the set who is our medical advisor because we wanna make sure we do things right. ‘Would I really be doing this IV? Would I be doing this? Does this make any sense?’ and they’re very quick to tell us. They call bullshit if something looks fake or is not right. I: A lot of the work you’ve done before this has been voice-over work, and of course your longest running role has been on Family Guy as the voice of the mom in the family, Lois. I’m just going to be honest with you *laughs*, I often find the humour on Family Guy offensive. I’m not a big fan of the show, and the show has often been criticised for jokes that are sexist and transphobic. And I wanted to ask you, basically, what do you see as you role on that show, as somebody who cares obviously about sexism in society and identifies as a feminist - what’s you role on that show, and why does the humour often lean on the sort of issues that I find problematic?
AB: You know, I’ve both written for the show and I perform on the show, and I have been in the writers’ room when a lot of the most sexist things have been pitched and it’s hard! I’m in a very weird position because I love a lot of those jokes, I love a lot of that humour.
I’m a child of a Holocaust survivor and I think some of those jokes are the funniest there are: the Jew jokes and anti-Semitic stuff and fat jokes — y’know, I’ve always been a big girl — and it’s really interesting that I do have these two sides: I love that Getting On has women on there that aren’t allowed to be on screen anywhere else and it’s pushing the boundaries for women and gender-roles; and I also love Family Guy. And Ted and A Million Ways to Die in the West. So that’s one of the things I really like about Bitch Media and Bitch magazine: the idea of how you can find a way to live in this world with all of these things going on around you and still maintain what I believe is my core feminism and beliefs, and what I’m willing to take and what I feel is funny and what I don’t think is funny. So to me that’s kind of part of the battle, part of the game of being a woman — or anyone living in this world and trying to make it work for you.
It’s hard, it’s really hard for me, ‘cause I feel like nothing should be off-limits. Nothing should ever not be allowed to be said — but there can always be consequences for whatever is said. So, it’s tricky. I don’t know if that answers your question. I: Well, yeah I think that’s the argument that a lot of comedians make, they’re like ‘I should be able to say whatever I want!’ and the response to that is always ‘Yeah, you can, but we’re also allowed to say whatever we want in criticism to that or as a response to it’ *laughs*— AB: —absolutely— I: —and that’s something that has changed so much in our media culture. Now, whenever there is a sexist joke or a racist joke on TV, the TV writers are gonna hear about it, because people are gonna be talking about it on Twitter, they’re gonna be posting about it on their social media - and that’s such a big change from what it was 10 years ago. And so, I was wondering about sort of your experiences with that? Do you hear a lot of pushback on Family Guy, and what do you do with that criticism? AB: I do, you know, I wrote for the show for a long time and then I didn’t — y’know, I had my kids and I took a break from being in the room for a long time — I’m actually gonna go back this next season I think, I’m gonna consult — and I love being in the room ‘cause I love the opportunity to weigh in on stuff. I also keep trying every season to pitch things to get on the air, I’m trying to do an animated show that has a lead female character. It’s been very very hard to get something like that off the ground, but I want the same freedoms once I get there, to be able to slam everybody that I can slam. I would love to slam the Patriarchy, y’know, and play with a lot of that…
I: I know this is kind of a tricky question, but I’m wondering like… So when you’re in the writers’ room and you’re reading through the script and you come across a joke that you’re like ‘This is just like, it’s not a funny joke, it’s punching down, it’s sexist, it goes against my politics and my opinions’, like, how do you respond to that? As somebody who’s a really funny person yourself, how do you proactively respond to that as a writer and as somebody who’s involved with the show? Do you say ‘I don’t think we should use this joke’? Do you say, like ‘I don’t think this joke is funny because of such-and-such’? Or do you like just let it slide and be like ‘Well, it’s not my job…’? AB: Well… Y’know, I’m so callused— I think from years of doing standup and being in writers’ rooms, my skin is very thick. So sometimes I’m not as offended by something as someone else is. But what I do have is a very strong sense of what I call ‘tonnage issue’, which we say in the room. So, if there is an episode that has Jew joke after Jew joke after Jew joke and they’re old and they’re tired and we’ve seen it and it’s cliche – that, to me, is offensive; I’m like, 'It’s not funny. It’s not funny, it’s not a new or a fresh way to say that.' Or if we’re slamming the same celebrity, it’s the same target everyone’s slammed and there’s nothing fresh or new about it – that’s when I say, 'Eugh, cut that. It’s not worth [it]. That’s just lazy, it’s not funny.' If there’s something that happens to be sexist in a way, or if it’s a prostitute joke or making fun of a stupid woman or something, let’s say — if there’s some fresh twist on it or something that I find funny or see the twist in, [so] that I get what we’re making fun of and who we’re making fun of… For instance if it’s a character in a show like Brian (he’s the dog) who has a tendency to like vapid women – if what we’re making fun of in the long run is men that like these vapid women, I love those kinda jokes. I love it. I love being able to slam that. So I don’t know if that answers your question, but to me, if it’s a tonnage issue, if it’s over and over and it’s the same thing, and there’s more than one in the script, and it’s not an intelligent or an interesting way to make that joke — that’s when I’ll weigh in. And that sometimes doesn’t mean shit; if I weigh in and say ‘That’s not funny!’, they might say ‘Too bad! We like it!’ But that’s usually when I pipe up, when I just think it’s [too much]. Or if it gets a groan— There are so many things that our table reads that are disgusting *laughs* There are things in the room that are so vile — areas that we would play with and attempt and see, ‘Is there’s comedy in this?’. And you know immediately when our table reads — if it gets a groan, if there’s no laughs, if it’s dead silence, you kind of know what works and what doesn’t work comedically. But after something airs, y’know… Twitter: that’s where we find out if people didn’t find it funny then. One of the things that I love about the character of Lois and why I love playing Lois is: the show may have sexist jokes, the show may punch down — we’re also kind of an equal opportunity offender, which I love — but I also love that I’ve been able to play a sitcom mother who likes sex, who has a dark underbelly, who can be vicious, can be friendly, can be loving, can be sexy, can be a lot of these things on her terms - and that’s fucking rare! That’s really unheard of. And y’know a lot of times you are just the voice of reason, you are just the moral compass and you are left to kind of be the the wet blanket in a way… I: As a sitcom mom or as a mom role? AB: Yeah, absolutely. So to me it’s kind of like, You gotta take the good with the bad. If you want an opportunity to show some other colors for some other characters, you gotta play in that sandbox. And you may occasionally get whacked in the head by a metal shovel — but I wanna be in the sandbox playing.
That was Alex Borstein, talking about her career in Hollywood. You can watch her as Dawn in the HBO show Getting On.
We’ve been discussing sexism in the film and TV industry for years—and I’m sure we’ll keep talking about it for another decade, these depressing statistics about the lack of women being hired as writers, directors, and producers, the lack of women with speaking parts onscreen, and the way many women are treated in the male-dominated industry are not going to change overnight. The sexism we see onscreen and behind the camera has deep roots and many causes—attacking sexism in Hollywood can feel like playing a game of whack a mole. But one thing to keep in mind is that there are women—thousands of them—working in film and on TV. Supporting their work sometimes means seeking them out, since the major studios are not dropping their movies into our neighborhood cineplexes. To help make better film and TV, one way to start is to look beyond the Hollywood lights to find the women making excellent media on their own terms. Who knows? Your next favorite movie might be just beyond the spotlight.
The songs on today’s show are by Canadian singer-songwriter Frazey Ford. Look up her amazing new video for her song “Done”—really, go google “Frazey Ford Done” you won’t regret it. Thanks so much to Devyn Manibo and Christina Choe for their work on today’s show and the crew of Sista in the Brotherhood‚—I’m very much looking forward to watching their final cut. Also thanks to Alex Borstein for talking with me and to the Bitch staffers—Patricia, Amanda, Amy, Kate, Kristin, Kjerstin, Katja—who read excerpts of Shit People Say to Women Directors.