‘Shape of Water’ Screenwriter Vanessa Taylor: ‘No Such Thing as Being Unaffected By Sexism in Hollywood’

Normally, when I’m approached with a project on which they’re “looking for a female writer,” I pass. Oftentimes when they say they want a woman to write a particular story, what they really mean is that it’s a story about a woman or girl that they believe only women or girls will ever care about. And you never hear they’re “looking for a male writer,” despite the fact that often only male writers are being considered for a job. 

Now I’ve been asked to write about how Hollywood has changed, “from a female screenwriter’s perspective.” You see my problem here. But I think it’s a question worth weighing in on, particularly now. I’m not a journalist so, based purely on my own experience, I’d say in gender terms, Hollywood has “changed” only at the margins and only very recently. If you’d asked me this question a year ago, I’d have been grasping at straws.

When I was starting out in the business, two (enormously talented) female friends and I discussed the problem of gender discrimination. Our solution: to be undeniable, so talented our gender would be irrelevant. Hence my oft-repeated mantra to my representatives: I want to be the Kathryn Bigelow of writers. You never hear anyone say “we need a woman for this, call Kathryn Bigelow.” What you hear is something more like, “this is a muscular story, it needs a Fincher or a Kathryn Bigelow.” She is, in this context, beyond gender.  (Recently, another female filmmaker moved in down that block: Patty Jenkins. She did this, notably, by telling a story about a woman initially believed to be primarily FOR women. It wasn’t. It broke records and made money.)

When I worked in television, where writers are also producers, gender didn’t feel hugely relevant to me. When asked, I told people I didn’t feel personally affected by sexism in Hollywood. (I think partly what I meant was that as the exception to the rule – the woman in the room – the problem didn’t seem as real to me.) When I crossed over to the film side, it all felt different. In the beginning, I only got offered “chick lit” adaptations. All the books had a department store in the title. For the first time I felt the hovering presence of a glass ceiling. Tellingly, there is no screenwriter equivalent to Kathryn Bigelow.

What finally opened more varied opportunities to me in film was my work on “Game of Thrones,” the forceful tone and complicated nature of which defied stereotyping. One of those opportunities was working with Guillermo del Toro on “The Shape of Water,” of which Guillermo has said, “a lot of people assume I did the tough parts and Vanessa did the romantic parts but it was exactly the opposite.”

It was on behalf of ‘The Shape of Water” that I was privileged to attend this year’s Golden Globes, where I was glad to wear black and be part of a movement on the cusp of a sea change. Oprah insisted, in her inspiring speech, that “a new day is on the horizon.” Then Natalie Portman reminded us with one cutting descriptor that a horizon is defined by distance. It can be anywhere vaguely up ahead, the one place it isn’t is here.

To get to that horizon – a state of mutual respect and equal participation, creatively and financially – I think we have to be undeniable in a different way – in our unity, demanding that we ALL be treated equally, not that some of us get a special pass.

I read an article commenting how little women had to risk to wear black “in protest” to the Golden Globes and I had to laugh – I was thrilled to wear black! Getting dressed for these things can be daunting if you’re not a performer. But it’s not exactly true, about the risk. To be identified with this movement is to risk your status as an insider, the “cool girl” who gets it and is fine with the status quo because you individually have profited from it. It’s a status I personally don’t find that easy to give up. But it’s a price we’ll have to pay. Because none of us can truly move beyond gender until we all do. Ultimately there is no such thing as being unaffected by sexism in Hollywood. We are all affected by the paucity of women in our ranks.   

For a second on Sunday night I tried to imagine a Hollywood beyond gender, where women made up fully half of the writers, directors, producers, executives, actors, crews… It was almost vertiginous to imagine, like standing at the edge of a skyscraper. I realized I was afraid to hope, the disappointment would be so great if we fail.

We can’t fail. It’s not just that the Time’s Up for tolerating predatory bulls—. The time has come for all of us to take our seats at the table.

Vanessa Taylor co-wrote the screenplay for “The Shape of Water” with Guillermo del Toro and has also penned episodes of “Game of Thrones,” “Everwood,” and co-wrote Disney’s next live action feature, “Aladdin.” 

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