You may be asking: Why is a man reviewing a documentary about gender inequality in Hollywood? But then you may as well ask: Why did a man direct such a film in the first place?
Representation is an issue that affects all of us, on-screen and off, and while it’s inspirational to see women directors such as Natalie Portman and Maria Giese on the front lines of the 2017 Women’s March — as we do in Tom Donahue’s “This Changes Everything” — there’s something to be said for solidarity shown by those who have nothing to gain from their support beyond the advancement of the greater good. So, like white people at a Black Lives Matter rally or straight folks at a Gay Pride parade, Donahue deserves credit for proactively going out of his way to make a movie that tells it like it is — and paints it as it could be.
Chances are, if you work in Hollywood, “This Changes Everything” won’t teach you anything you don’t already know. But that doesn’t mean it’s not helpful to hear it articulately communicated by some of the most respected women in the business — people like Jessica Chastain, Reese Witherspoon, Cate Blanchett, Lena Dunham, Portman, and Meryl Streep — and backed by hard data and the threat of a looming ACLU investigation. Marshaling a sprawling subject into a relatively streamlined package, editor Jasmin Way smartly blends talking heads, low-key reenactments, and damning clips from throughout film history, capitalizing on the fact that it’s increasingly difficult to watch classic movies (heck, even many being made today) without the retrograde gender politics slapping you in the face. Some, like Alison Bechdel, have been pointing this out for years, though many a (male) critic let it go by unquestioned.
Produced in close collaboration with actress-turned-advocate Geena Davis (who questions yet again why the success of “Thelma & Louise” didn’t do more to change Hollywood), “This Changes Everything” appeals to the general public while functioning primarily as a memo to the entertainment industry itself, echoing what the Time’s Up movement has been saying since the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke — not so much about abuse of power, though that’s a topic of conversation here, too, but about the absolute necessity of sharing what power there is equally between the genders.
One actress after another shares stories of misogyny on set (Sharon Stone recalls one director who would ask her to sit on his lap when giving notes), citing how few opportunities there have been to collaborate with women behind the camera. Portman gets a laugh when she says, “I’ve worked with two female directors on features, and one is myself.” But that’s hardly an amusing statistic. If anything, it goes a long way to explain why this absolute necessity is still being treated as a “minority” issue — grouped with efforts by queer and nonwhite artists for visibility — when women make up more than 50% of the population.
That paradox has been called out by the 50/50 by 2020 movement and serves as the basis of “Half the Picture,” Amy Adrion’s looser and more essayistic dive into the same subject earlier this year. Where Adrion seemed to be calling for a more violent revolution, Donahue advocates for a more peaceful awakening: Women shouldn’t have to storm the castle, if Hollywood simply let down its drawbridge. Of course, if the system were working as it should, women would already be better represented on both sides of the camera. “Grey’s Anatomy” producer Shonda Rhimes (who appears here) has used her position to fix that imbalance somewhat, emphasizing diversity across the board. But other high-profile women, such as “Star Wars” super-producer Kathleen Kennedy (who isn’t mentioned), surround themselves with men.
Following a whirlwind history lesson in which film scholar Jeanine Basinger reminds that women were nearly equal partners in the film industry at its origins (see Pamela Green’s documentary “Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché” for the story of just one of these pioneers), “This Changes Everything” describes how things changed for the worse: In 1979, half a dozen female members of the Directors Guild known as “the Original Six” found that during the previous three decades, only 0.5% of all assignments were given to women, and they sued the studios for discriminatory hiring practices, with surprising results.
If “This Changes Everything” is short-sighted about anything, it’s in the false (or at least incomplete) assumption that hiring more female directors will immediately change the content that studios produce — not because they can’t, but because the sexism runs deeper than that, into the very foundations of Hollywood storytelling. In a revealing montage, Marisa Tomei describes the widespread practice of hiring women to punch up the girlfriend role as “spackling” — little more than filling in the cracks. The takeaway: It’s not enough for a woman writer to do a pass on a male-centric script. By creating better roles for women on-screen from the ground up, we create them for women in society as well.
As Witherspoon — who went from child actress to being a powerful producer of “Big Little Lies” and other female-centric projects — explains at the outset, “The basis of your values is determined by the first images you see.” When young people see positive representations of themselves on-screen, they are inspired and empowered, which can be seen in something called “the CSI Effect,” wherein the simple fact of featuring actress Marg Helgenberger in a starring role as a forensic investigator has led to gender parity in that field. Tiffany Haddish hilariously recalls how seeing Diahann Carroll play a rich black woman on “Dynasty” convinced her, “Oh, I can be anything.”
If the characters featured in children’s programming are disproportionately male — as a study by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media found — then “we are teaching them that girls and women don’t take up half the space in the world,” as Davis puts it. If the few female characters we do see are marginalized — or worse, sexualized — that sends an even clearer message to audiences about what is expected of women in society. And if white men have a near-monopoly on access to the mechanisms for making (or reviewing) films, then the world needs not only more female voices steadfast enough to fight their way into a chauvinistic system, but more Tom Donahues to help ensure that they’re heard.