Hollywood’s Small But Powerful Army of Women Shows That Stories Matter

Hollywood's Small But Powerful Army of Women Shows That Stories Matter

If you were to scan the cast lists and plot synopses of the top 100 grossing films of 2018, you would think that a woman’s place in Hollywood was only to act as an enticing piece of arm candy for the dashing, almost inevitably older, leading man. Even more, a cursory glimpse of filmographies and television line-ups would seem to suggest that the only interesting women, the only women whose stories were worth hearing, were white women under the age of 30.

And these women were certainly not the ones telling the stories, either — because if the state of quality film and television roles for women over fifty — or even over forty — was bleak, the outlook for females in leadership positions behind the camera was abysmal. The simple fact is, film and television are suffering from what seems to be a perpetual famine of female writers, directors, producers, cinematographers, etc. But how did we get here, what does it mean, and how can we change it?

Women in Hollywood: Exceptions that Prove the Rule

It would be wrong to suggest there are no older working actresses, no actresses of colour, or no women succeeding behind the camera.

A few examples probably immediately come to mind as you’re reading this: Meryl Streep and Judi Dench, but also Julia Roberts, Jennifer Lopez, and Halle Berry are into their fifties. Mature women have spearheaded some of the longest-running and most acclaimed television series of all time, from Mariska Hargitay in Law and Order SVU to the incomparable Golden Girls. And let’s not forget Kathryn Bigelow’s groundbreaking win for Best Director with the 2010 war movie, The Hurt Locker.

But once you get past this handful of storied examples, you start scratching. And that’s the problem. Because for every woman over 50, every actress of colour, every television series led by mature women, every female writer, director, producer, or cinematographer, there are a dozen men or more. That’s not the way life really is in America — or around the globe, for that matter. But watching television and films sure makes it feel that way.


Actor and co-writer Jacqueline Kim stars as Gwen, a woman trying to secure a future for her daughter, in ‘Advantageous‘.

It’s Just Entertainment: Why Should It Matter?

If you’re at home trying to figure out how to put together this month’s mortgage, figuring out little Johnny’s college tuition, or how to pick up extra work hours and still get Susie to volleyball practice on time, fretting about the representation of women in Hollywood is probably the last thing on your mind. But it shouldn’t be, because it has an effect, especially on young girls.

Specifically, studies show that female students consistently underrate their own intelligence.

And that can have a disastrous ripple effect, not only shaping girls’ academic lives but also their future careers. For example, while women make up the vast majority of healthcare workers in the United States, encompassing nearly 80% of the healthcare workforce, the number of women in leadership positions in healthcare is appallingly low, with fewer than 30% at the level of chief executive.

The Power of Stories – And Who Tells Them

The fact is, stories teach us how to understand ourselves and the world around us. They teach us who we are and what our place in the world is. There’s a reason, after all, that even the 5th edition of the Dungeons and Dragons Player’s Handbook was recently revised to be more diverse and inclusive, including facilitating the inclusion of female, gender fluid, non-binary, and LGBTQ characters. Simply put, stories matter.

Ian Alexander as Buck Vu in ‘The OA’. A trans actor playing a trans character.

Who tells these stories and about whom they are told also matter. We need more women’s voices, and more trans and non-binary voices. As audiences, we thirst to see more actresses of a certain age on the big scree. We need mature black and brown characters. It’s vital that we have female storytellers of every stripe in front of and behind the camera. We need women thought leaders of every age, sexual orientation, gender, socio-economic status, and racial and ethnic background.

We need the magnificent plurality of womanhood to shine through in podcasts and blogs, novels and non-fiction, in public speaking and in RPGs, and, yes, we need them in film, television, and music. Only then will we see ourselves as we truly are — a swirling mass of contradiction and collaboration, of complexity and human simplicity, a oneness formed from the embracing of multiplicity.

Change is Coming

As the saying goes, we are not where we should be; we are not where we’re going to be, but, thank God, we are not where we were. Change is happening. Perhaps too slowly for many, but it is happening. Women’s voices are increasingly being heard, recognized, and honored — and although many may not have been recognized in recent movie awards, women are still making an important splash in the film industry.

Consider 2019’s Booksmart, directed by multifaceted talent Olivia Wilde, about two girls who fear they’ve missed out on the best of their high school years and try to make up for it over a single night. There’s also The Farewell, directed by Asian-American Lulu Wang in 2019 that explores the complicated relationship between growing where you’re planted and going back home where you recognize your roots.

Other notable women-directed films include:

  • A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, directed by Marielle Heller
  • Frozen II, co-directed by Jennifer Lee
  • Knock Down the House, directed by Rachel Lears
  • Hustlers, directed by Lorene Scafaria
  • Little Women, directed by Greta Gerwig

With these women rising in the film industry, girls are starting to see their past, present and future stories reflected on the big screen. It is incumbent upon the present generation to keep striving to provide all women with an image of themselves they can be proud of. An image through which to develop their self-worth and build their dreams.

Main photo: Ava DuVernay, director of Wrinkle in Time and the first black woman to win the directing award at the Sundance Film Fesitval in 2012. Photo by Stephanie Moreno/Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communications for Peabody Awards/University of Georgia (some rights reserved)