I’m getting a vibe from La La Land, low but detectable: Could it be … hope? After decades of working mostly for men, talking mostly to men, in dialogue mostly written by men, women on screens large and small are finally talking to each other, in words they’ve written and directed. And they’re doing it with an almost giddy honesty.
On the Netflix series Dead to Me, created by Liz Feldman, two new friends (Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini) dangle their feet in a hot tub and exchange raw, funny truths about their lives, as women who feel the thrill of mutual recognition often do. In the film Booksmart, written by four women and directed by Olivia Wilde, two nerdy high-school seniors (Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever) make it through because they have each other, because they say things like, “How are you so beautiful right now, you’re like the sun,” and mean it so much, the other can believe it.
And the new film Wild Nights with Emily, written and directed by Madeleine Olnek, overturns the ultimate female punishment myth – that the poet Emily Dickinson (Molly Shannon) may have been a genius, but she was also a weirdo who never left her room and no one loved her – with one kiss. With her brother’s wife. (The film opens in select cities on Friday.)
It took a woman writer-director, working with a woman historian, Martha Nell Smith, to tell the true story. “Dickinson was a queer hero,” Shannon said in a phone interview, “a rebel, a trailblazer, a hungry, aggressive poet, fighting her times. The narrative we’ve all been fed about her is not unlike what women today go through, with tabloid covers that read, ‘Julia Roberts is dying!’ or ‘Jennifer Aniston is heartbroken!’ Why are we still buying these fake stories? They’re not good for women, and they’re not true.”
And there’s more. The Netflix series Russian Doll, created by Leslye Headland, Natasha Lyonne and Amy Poehler, takes us deep into the life and mindset of a modern New York woman (Lyonne). Season two of both Fleabag and Killing Eve, created by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, centre on electrifying women (Waller-Bridge and Olivia Colman; Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer) in the throes of wildly complicated relationships with one another. The new film Late Night, written by Mindy Kaling and directed by Nisha Ganatra, stars Kaling and Emma Thompson as women who push each other to be better. (It also opens Friday.) Watching these things, I feel simultaneously thrilled – where have they been all my life? – and worried: Can this moment last?
The statistics are still dreadful. According to the advocacy group Women in Film, the number of films by and about women has remained stagnant over the last few years. In 2018, fewer than 33 per cent of film protagonists were women, and women directed less than 4 per cent of the top earners.
But 2019 looks a tad brighter: Geena Davis will receive a Governor’s Award this October from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, for founding an institute that studies gender discrepancies in film and television. Eighteen per cent of studio films will have a woman director this year, and though that is a lot lower than the 50 per cent it should be, it’s still a record number. And things are better in television, because there’s much more product to go around.
So while calling this a turning point is premature, I am feeling a shift in attitude. And that attitude is glee.
Watch how Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and Laura Dern light up when they talk about bringing Meryl Streep (!) to television for season two of their series, Big Little Lies. Watch how those actresses revel in doing scenes with one another, especially the adult, cliché-free mother- and daughter-in-law relationship essayed by Streep and Kidman.
Watch Waller-Bridge’s face, in an early scene in Fleabag season two: Fleabag and her sister, who have little in common, sit staring forward in a taxi, until the sister breaks the silence with, “The priest was hot.” The look of happiness that flashes on Fleabag’s face communicates so much about sisterhood in a split-second of screen time.
Watch how closely Kaling’s script for Late Night hews to Cinderella, with one crucial difference: The “prince” is her job. Molly Patel (Kaling), a pauper – and an underqualified comedy writer – nonetheless goes to the ball (job interview), and catches the eye of the Queen (late-night host/institution Katherine Newbury, played by Thompson). Eventually she reveals who she really is, and runs off. But the Queen goes looking for Molly, in her squalid neighbourhood, and crowns her with legitimacy: She’s earned her spot. Kaling and her director, Nisha Ganatra (a veteran of TV), know this is not how comedy jobs work, but they don’t care. It’s their fairy tale.
Now, it’s true that most of these female-relationship stories contain pretty traditional drama. One or all of the women have to kill someone and cover it up (the premise of Big Little Lies, Dead to Me and Fleabag), or be dead (Russian Doll), or be enslaved by a theocratic patriarchy (The Handmaid’s Tale). But for me, those big plots are just excuses to get into the real drama, the interpersonal stuff.
Because what women want to see on screen is what they have IRL: long-term, meaningful relationships with other women that are loving, messy, fun, fraught, loyal and life-sustaining. Pretty much the opposite of the relationships we’re used to seeing in entertainments crafted solely by men.
Real female relationships aren’t dangerous because we might kill each other. They’re dangerous because we might hurt each other. That’s why the cat-versus-cat dynamic of Killing Eve is so intoxicating, and why the twisty, multilayered relationship between Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) and June (Elisabeth Moss) will dominate Handmaid’s third season. Even Renée Zellweger’s luridly goofy Netflix series What/If (which I think of as Cheese/Ball) understands that every female relationship contains multitudes.
The giddiness in these films and series mirrors the glee of their creators, the women writers, directors and actors who are finally working, finally unleashed, finally getting to show their own stuff. “I know it sounds weird that we have fun on set, but we do,” Strahovski told The New York Times. “It’s a dream come true to play June and Serena, these super-powerhouse female roles that are so layered and complex.”
“Susan wasn’t just Emily Dickinson’s lover, she was also her primary reader, her creative collaborator,” Shannon says of Dickinson’s sister-in-law. “People resisted that idea – that Dickinson had a creative partnership with a woman – even more than they resisted her being gay.”
“The idea that my movie should be reverent, because it’s a story of female oppression,” Olnek says in a separate phone interview. “No! I’m going to make fun of that repression, because it’s so ridiculous. Comedy is the right form for looking at where our society is, with Donald Trump as the U.S. President.”
Creators are trying to keep this #TimesUp momentum going by hiring other women – Waller-Bridge, for example, will name a new female showrunner for each season of Killing Eve; for season two, it was Emerald Fennell, 33, a novelist and actress. And Shannon, in a way, owes her career to Olnek: When they were at New York University drama school together, it was Olnek who helped Shannon hone her Mary Catherine Gallagher character, and encouraged her to try out for Saturday Night Live.
But everyone acknowledges that the gains are fragile. When Booksmart earned only US$8.7-million in its crucial first weekend, director Wilde tweeted a plea for people to go: “Don’t give studios an excuse not to green-light movies made by and about women.”
“People wonder, ‘What’s the big deal about women directors?’” Olnek says. “Well, a director is the person who controls how we see things. How women are seen, the perspective they’re seen from, how they’re spoken about – all those things that account for how we think of women, and what they deserve, all come from the movies and TV. Even how women think about themselves.
“It’s been shown that when you dream at night, there’s no difference between images from your life and images from a movie you’ve seen,” she continues. “So [these entertainments] literally go into your subconscious. The only way things will really change is if the images and stories about women change. We can’t have them always told from a perspective that doesn’t include them.”