“Have A Clear Intention and Do Your Fucking Work”: Women Creators Talk ‘The Female Lens’ at SXSW

Jenny Slate, Gabourey Sibide, Janicza Bravo, and Danielle Macdonald discuss the challenges of representation in mass media.

AUSTIN, TX: The panel discussions on the film track of the SXSW conference tend to focus on logistics – industry professionals advising upcoming filmmakers by focusing on the nuts and bolts of the business. That’s part of what Saturday’s Glamour-hosted talk “The Female Lens: Creating Change Beyond the Bubble” is so refreshing, presenting women who are facing the considerable challenges of representation and inclusion talking openly about that struggle, addressing big ideas and pressing concerns in a way that both informed and inspiring.

Moderator (and Glamour editor-in-chief) Cindi Leive accurately described her guests as “four creative powerhouses who are making real change in how people look at race, gender, and body image onscreen and off”: Obvious Child star Jenny Slate, Precious star Gabourey Sidibe, fellow actor Danielle Macdonald (whose tiny breakthrough film Patti Cake$ is playing SXSW after a big success at Sundance), and director Janicza Bravo (whose oddball comedy of manners Lemon is also running the Sundance/SXSW circuit).

Leive began the discussion with a fairly simple question – the earliest work of television or film to inspire each of them – that opened up the gates to the day’s most recurrent topic: representation. As Macdonald put it, “I never thought about who I was seeing on TV, or why. And I think that it affected me without me realizing it; I look back on the shows that I really related to, and that I loved, and I realize they were all people I could see a little bit of myself in. And we need to see more of that – when we’re growing up, we’re not thinking about it, because we’re kids. But what we see really does affect us, and our thoughts, and our views on the world.”

Most of the panel talked about works they saw when they were young and impressionable, but Sidibe pinpointed a more recent phenomenon: Girls. “It made me feel like I wasn’t some alien,” she said, explaining the ongoing pressure she feels as a young woman to “be nice,” a responsibility pointedly eschewed by the characters on Lena Dunham’s show. “It made me feel like I wasn’t weird for not thinking I was nice enough. I could see myself in that way, and I kind of wanted to be more like them, and be less concerned about it.”

Slate mentioned a more obscure title: the 1988 film Crossing Delancey, a small-ish New York-based comedy/drama, but one concerning Jewish women who looked, in a way unfamiliar to her mass media intake, like her mother, her aunts, and other women in her life. “I felt a feeling of wholeness, that once I got it, I started to look for it again,” she explained, remarking that seeing those images reflected back at you is “like seeing an open door in outer space. It feels really good. You’re like woah, okay, so it is infinite, there are many options, but something is telling me that there’s something very specific that I can do. And I want the power to do that.”

“You see a lot of work that you’re not represented in,” Bravo noted. “And there’s plenty of that work that I love, and that I gravitate towards, that I’m completely absent from… I think that right now, today, I don’t get to exist in the world without considering white people, ’cause when I walk outside, they’re there. So it is unsettling or upsetting to me or hurtful when I see work that doesn’t consider me, and when I say me I mean people that are non-white, to have the luxury of existing without that kind of consideration must be really nice. But I think that’s over.”

So what does she want to see instead – or at least in addition to – that monochromatic picture? “I want to see work that is inclusive – and I don’t mean just in front of the camera, I also think behind the camera,” Bravo said. “That feels really necessary now; right now when we’re in the world that we are in, and in the direction we are headed in, it is really important to be creating stories that are inclusive of races and sexes. Because that’s the world that I want to see for myself, and I think for most of us; we talk about seeing this kind of world, but then we’re not actually including people. We’re not writing those stories.”

As Sidibe notes, that sort of exclusion is common not just to women of color, but women in general. Pay close enough to attention to the way women are situated in mainstream entertainment, and it’s most often in relation to the male characters the work is most obviously about: “We’re born into this world, but we are zero, we are nothing until some man comes along and verifies us.”

And that verification can come in disturbingly personal forms. “As a woman in a different body,” Sidibe said, “I get a lot of scripts and I get a lot of offers where, like, somebody has to make mention of my body immediately. Someone wrote a script with me in mind, and the first time someone was talking about my character, it was like, This hippo, this elephant. And I was like, are you serious? You wrote a thing for me, and you’re calling me a hippo and all of the animals? This is my body, this has been my body my entire life, and in real life, my friends and my colleagues and anyone I know is not constantly talking about my body. But most of the roles I’ve ever had, somebody has to make mention of it.”

Those aren’t the only troubling recurrent tropes. Slate has a particular pet peeve: “There are a rash of comedies where the way that they show that women are free is that you read the script, and it’s like, She wakes up, who’s that next to her, she doesn’t care, rolls out of bed, takes a hit from the bong, see you later, calls her friend, like hey dude, and it’s a woman that she’s calling… It’s like, why do you have to show that this woman is unreal, reckless, and really really overcompensating, to show that she’s free?” The specific titles she might be referring to aren’t hard to guess, but they speak to a more general problem: “There’s a weird thing, I think, when men write women, they make them be cruel to show that they’re tough. That is just a real misunderstanding. And I think if you can’t write a woman correctly, then you should, um, not.”

But that asks a larger question: until there are more women making films about women (or, and this is the harder part, more women in positions to get those films made), are the white men who write most of the scripts and direct most of the movies responsible to present more women and people of color? Or is that equation fraught with the problems of appropriation and misrepresentation? Bravo has heard their objections before: “I don’t know if I can write in these kind of voices. I call bullshit on that. Because if you as a writer can write an 80-year-old man or a nine-year-old girl, then why can’t you write a black woman of your age? That doesn’t make sense.”

Slate sees the risks, but also sees the solution. “When you are writing about someone who isn’t you, you certainly run the risk of doing something to them: objectifying them, infantilizing them, exoticizing them, whatever. But sometimes that’s part of the art, and that’s okay. What I feel is, have a clear intention and do your fucking work. Just do your work. If you’re gonna do it, just do your work. I don’t care who you are – just get specific and do your work.”

Ultimately, it comes down to the question of who you’re making the work for, and sometimes, you have to take a flyer on that one. “I’m only making the work for myself,” Bravo shrugged. “It’s my own exorcism. It’s the thing I have to expel from my body that is like rotting inside of me, that is the work. And I think that even me in my body, and the stories I am telling, I do feel are universal, because they’re about broken people who feel misplaced or feel like victims. And I think a lot people feel like victims right now.”

Of course, it can feel like filmmakers who want to make a difference are fighting a losing battle in the marketplace. Slate pointedly encouraged considering that product for what it is. “Some movies are made to be consumed,” she shrugged. “McDonald’s is the most popular restaurant in the United States. Like, some people just wanna eat garbage and take in garbage and some movies are made to make the very most money, so they take the least risks, and they have the most beautiful people, and the least offensive imagery, and the stuff that you just don’t have to think about. And that’s okay too – sometimes you just wanna zone out and that’s fine. And when you’re writing stuff like that, you remind people of what they have already consumed or enjoyed, so that they’ll give you money. But that’s not really the way I want to make art or be a human.”

So what does an artist do when they feel the same way, and want to act accordingly? Sidibe – who, incidentally, just published her own book and directed her own short film – puts it simply: “It’s 2017. We all either have a Samsung or an iPhone. If you have a piece of art that you need to get out, if you have something to say, you don’t need somebody to give you a ton of money to do it. You don’t need Universal to sit on your lap and tell you you’re pretty so you can make your art. You can do it by yourself, with yourself, and put it out. Just do it.”

Photos credit: Jason Bailey / Flavorwire.