by Sheree L. Ross
Thanks to the opportunities created by Peak TV, the once-elusive female gaze is beginning to emerge on the small screen. Below, directors, writers and producers reflect on the female gaze in their work and the challenges of working in a medium in which the male perspective has reigned for so long.
Melissa Rosenberg, creator, “Jessica Jones”
On not writing “female characters:” “It’s not like Jessica is a ‘female detective’; she’s a detective. When it’s a guy, you don’t say ‘male doctor.’ That’s really how I approach this. Certainly, her character is informed by her gender. You go through the world as a woman, you have a different experience, but I never approached it as ‘this is a female character.'”
Rashida Jones, executive producer-director, “Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On”
On absorbing the male gaze: “We all have this internalized, unconscious bias because we live in a world that has primarily been seen through a male gaze. So we have also inherited a lot of that, and it’s really hard to break that habit. We live in a patriarchy and it’s really hard to escape that.”
Emma Frost, showrunner, “The White Princess”
On the male gaze: “The audience ought to be able to identify with a protagonist of either gender as long as that character is written as a human being. The problem has been, historically, the characters that have been constructed as human have always been the male characters. Female characters have been constructed as man’s other, a problem to be solved, a trophy to be won. Everything is about showing off the male prowess in relation to the woman.”
Jennie Snyder Urman, creator, “Jane the Virgin”
On objectifying men: “If we objectify anyone, we kind of make fun of ourselves for it. The humor is that we’re doing it to the men because it’s so often done to women. If we’re doing a slow-motion shot over [hunky male lead] Rafael’s body, it feels jarring because that’s something you normally see done to a woman. You’re so bombarded with what men think of beauty.”
On hiring women to direct 75% of this season’s episodes: “I always talk to the directors and I say this show goes through Jane. Covering Jane and how she reacts to everyone else is as important as what everyone else is saying because it’s filtered through her. … I hired the people who I felt understood that the most. A lot of them happened to be women.”
Moira Buffini, co-creator, “Harlots”
On sex scenes: “We feel a great responsibility towards actresses — and actors too. It is so intimate and invasive. You’ve got to be really careful and respectful of people. With female directors, we sort of knew without having to have the conversation that they would understand that delicacy.”
Ava DuVernay, creator, “Queen Sugar”
On the right way to think about women behind the camera: ”I can’t say what these women brought based on their gender. I just know that women have not historically had the opportunity to bring anything. The fact that they’re there and they’re bringing it is the story.”
Update 7:35 E.T.: A Marvel representative reached out to say that the nature of the relationship between Danai Gurira’s Okoye and Florence Kasumba‘s Ayo in Black Panther is not a romantic one and that specific love storyline from the comic World of Wakanda was not used as a source.
Whether or not he had the approval of Disney when he did so, Beauty and the Beast director Bill Condon caused quite a stir in the April issue of Attitude—both of hopeful expectations and of conservative pushback—when he touted Josh Gad’s character LeFou and his “exclusively gay moment.” Though Condon surely had his heart in the right place, the phrase overpromised on what the film ultimately underdelivered: the moment comes when LeFou ends the movie by dancing, briefly with a man. O.K. However, early footage of Marvel’s upcoming Black Panther screened for journalists Monday night movie promises much more.
The scene in question features Walking Dead star Danai Gurira dancing on a boat with her fellow Dora Milaje, i.e., Black Panther’s personal female bodyguards. These women—first introduced to moviegoers in Captain America: Civil War— are the warriors who watch over Chadwick Boseman’s royal family. In Civil War, Uganda-born actress Florence Kasumba made an instant impression on audiences as one member of the select group when she curtly ordered Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow to “move” aside for T’Challa.
In the rough cut of this Black Panther scene, we see Gurira’s Okoye and Kasumba’s Ayo swaying rhythmically back in formation with the rest of their team. Okoye eyes Ayo flirtatiously for a long time as the camera pans in on them. Eventually, she says, appreciatively and appraisingly, “You look good.” Ayo responds in kind. Okoye grins and replies, “I know.”
This quick moment between two warrior women on their way to T’Challa’s coronation leans into a current very popular run of the Black Panther comic. A 2016 spin-off called World of Wakanda by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Roxane Gay, and Yona Harvey is all about the relationship between two members of the Dora Milaje. The official description:
A Wakandan love story—its tenderness matched only by its brutality.
You know them now as The Midnight Angels, but in this story they are
just Ayo and Aneka, young women recruited to become Dora Milaje, an
elite task force trained to protect the crown at all costs. What happens when your nation needs your hearts
and minds, but you already gave them to each other?
Other footage from the film screened early for reporters centers more closely on T’Challa, including scenes of a traditional and elaborate Wakandan ceremony, and a shoot-out in a South Korea casino featuring Andy Serkis’s Claw and Martin Freeman’s Everett K. Ross. For fans of Lupita Nyong’o, there was also a pair of scenes showing her character dancing (she gets her own boat) and taking out several armed guards.
The costumes in Black Panther—especially the ones worn by the Dora Milaje—are truly dazzling, with a lot of bright colors and elaborate patterns. Angela Bassett, as T’Challa’s mother and Queen of Wakanda, sports a jaw-dropping coiffure of snow-white dreadlocks. According to the production team, director Ryan Coogler was interested in giving Black Panther—the star of which debuted in Civil War—an updated look that was more faithful to the current run of comics. And though Marvel didn’t screen any footage of Michael B. Jordan in costume—he’s playing villainous Erik Killmonger—concept art tacked to the Marvel office walls revealed a fearsome mask compete with horns and mane.
In other words: even if Marvel and superhero fatigue is setting in, rest assured that Black Panther isn’t going to look like anything you’ve seen from them before.
Filmmaker Crystal Emery aired her documentary “Black Women in Medicine” Thursday, April 13, as part of her campaign to attract more people of color and women to careers in science, technology, engineering and medicine.
Emery, a quadriplegic who has directed two feature films, written a book, written and directed a play and founded a non-profit, encourages others to defy the odds. She has two odds in mind: African-Americans receive 7.6 percent of all STEM degrees in America, and less than one percent of all scientists and engineers are black women.
The film shows rarely seen footage of African-American women practicing medicine during critical operations, emergency care and community wellness sessions.
“It’s all about exposure. It’s crucial to introduce young people to ideas and careers early on so that they can begin thinking seriously about their higher education and work life during their formative years,” said Emery.
“We hope this film and Emery’s ongoing work inspires more minority students to pursue careers in medicine to help meet a growing demand for doctors across the country,” said Mary L. Wilson, executive medical director of Kaiser Permanente of Georgia.
Never mind the criticism President Trump recently aimed at Meryl Streep: A new study has found that admiration and respect for Hollywood women such as Streep is at an all-time high, marking a shift in attitudes that crosses geographical and demographic lines.
So, good news to mark Wednesday’s International Women’s Day, according to the University of Southern California’s indefatigable Jeetendr Sehdev, the expert on celebrity branding and marketing who churns out regular examinations of Americans’ attitudes toward celebs and their doings. Example: His new book,The Kim Kardashian Principle: Why Shameless Sells (and How to Do It Right).
Sehdev’s latest survey (of 10,000 people in North America, Europe and Australia during February) found what he called an “extraordinary shift” in attitudes, especially obvious among Millennials and Gen Xers, in which strong Hollywood women such as Oscar winners Streep, Viola Davis and Patricia Arquette are perceived to have outperformed men in a variety of areas, including risk-taking, tenacity and digital savvy.
“Hollywood women have found their voice, are demanding attention and respect from their audiences, and are finally getting it,” Sehdev says.
Despite the routine and widespread criticism of female celebrities in the media — the recent body shaming of Lady Gaga after her Super Bowl performance comes to mind — “audiences have actually developed a greater compassion toward female celebrities through their public failures and insight about the ‘pain of fame,’ ” Sehdev says.
There’s “an overwhelming perception” among those surveyed that women have to work harder than their male counterparts to succeed in Hollywood, he says. Plus, female celebs get more respect than male celebs from those surveyed because they are perceived to show “less competition and more camaraderie” among themselves.
Whether it’s Adele’s shout-out to Beyoncé at the Grammys or the number of female celebrities seen marching arm-in-arm at the post-inauguration Women’s Marches, “a more open idea of sisterhood among Hollywood’s top stars has changed the perception of female celebrities,” Sehdev says.
Streep, Davis and Arquette, for instance, all have taken strong public stands in favor of more diversity in Hollywood, more women in positions of power and closing the pay gap between male and female stars. In the case of Streep, who has three Oscars and a record 20 nominations, she denounced Trump policies at the Golden Globes, which earned her one of his signature tweet insults as “overrated.”
On the issue of pushing for more women in leading roles before and behind the cameras in the entertainment industry, Sehdev found that 50% of the women he surveyed believe having more women-led movies would improve the overall perception of women within society, and another 28% of women say this would positively impact all women’s lives.
Compare this, he says, to responses by men he surveyed: Only 15% of men said that having more women in leading movie roles would do a lot to impact the perception of women, while 31% say this would improve women’s lives to a degree.
In terms of leadership, Sehdev says he found that most people surveyed (74%) perceive female celebs as the same as men in leadership qualities. Younger people are especially likely to hold those views.
“Millennials are the first generation to believe female celebrities are every bit as capable of being powerful leaders as male celebrities,” Sehdev says. “They are the most gender-blind generation we’ve seen. This in combination with the fact that more women in film are unafraid to speak up is causing an extraordinary shift in attitudes.”
Female celebs are also perceived to be more tenacious, more willing to take greater risks, more passionate and compassionate on human rights issues, even more intelligent about connecting with younger audiences.
“Female celebrities are seen to be more digitally savvy and more active in social media, and that increases relevance with younger audiences,” he says.
All demographics surveyed agreed that female celebs over 40 and female celebs of color can be considered desirable and sexy, but Millennials and Gen Xers were especially more likely to agree.
“A turning point for attractiveness, Hollywood women of color and those over 40 are perceived as increasingly desirable as definitions of what is considered sexy continue to change,” Sehdev says.
If these attitudes are increasing among audiences, why does the entertainment industry place the most emphasis on box office returns? Sehdev says it’s inevitably a losing position given the changing attitudes he has found.
“Strong female characters have always been good business at the box office,” he says. “Hollywood has no choice but to recognize this and reinvent itself or it will continue to lose relevance among younger audiences.”
Black Voices’ associate editor Taryn Finley and senior culture writer Zeba Blay sat down with Murray, who was also joined by Buzzfeed entertainment reporter Sylvia Obell, to share her perspective as an entertainment insider.
Here are five women Murray said should be on your list of Hollywood up-and-comers to watch in 2017:
1. Gina Prince-Bythewood
Best known for her 2000 romance film “Love and Basketball,” starring Sanaa Lathan, Gina Prince-Bythewood is no Hollywood newbie. Prince-Bythewood will be directing the upcoming fictional Fox series “Shots Fired,” which is centered on police brutality in South Carolina. Lathan will also star in the series.
2. Dee Rees
In a $12.5 million deal, Netflix recently bought director Dee Rees’ critically acclaimed film “Mudbound.” The film, which follows soldiers returning home from WWII, stars Carey Mulligan, Jason Mitchell and Mary J. Blige.
3. Stella Meghie
Stella Meghie’s name may not ring a bell just yet, but the Toronto native may soon be at the center of Hollywood’s attention when romance film “Everything, Everything,” starring Amandla Stenberg, is released this May.
4. Jessica Williams
Former “Daily Show” correspondent Jessica Williams should have been on your radar yesterday. One half of the “2 Dope Queens” podcast, Williams will be starring in Netflix’s “The Incredible Jessica James,” about a young playwright living in New York City.
5. Yvonne Orji
Yvonne Orji is everybody’s bestie as Molly in “Insecure.” But Orji really won our hearts with her realness when she opened up to “The Breakfast Club” in November about being a virgin at 32 years old and having experienced bullying when she was younger.
Look out, Hollywood. All this black excellence ain’t here to play.