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“We decide when we feel sexy”: Alia Shawkat and others on telling their own stories in a male-dominated industry

At the Women’s Convention, Shawkat, Rose McGowan, Amber Tamblyn and other actresses shared strategies for fighting sexism and harassment.

Alia Shawkat in North Hollywood, California in May 2017
Alia Shawkat in North Hollywood, California in May 2017.
Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for TBS

DETROIT — “Hollywood may seem like it’s an isolated thing,” said Rose McGowan, “but it is not. It is the messaging system for your mind. It is the mirror that you are given to look into.”

That mirror, she explained during the opening session of the Women’s Convention on Friday, is constructed primarily by men. After all, directors of major studio movies, she noted, are about 96 percent male.

The effect of that inequity on women in and out of Hollywood was the subject of a panel later on Friday afternoon, in which actresses, writers, marketing professionals, and some women who had worn multiple hats talked about surviving in Hollywood and figuring out how to do the work they wanted to do. They painted a picture of an industry rife with abuse and discrimination — the allegations against Harvey Weinstein, they made clear, are far from an aberration — but one that may be slowly inching toward a reckoning.

Sarah Sophie Flicker, one of the organizers of the Women’s March who was also a child actor, recalls acting in a play with a male actor who wanted the girls in the production to sit on his lap. Eventually, other adults had to keep them separated. “I felt so much shame around that,” she said.

The actress, writer, and director Amber Tamblyn — who wrote earlier this year that the actor James Woods tried to take her on a trip to Las Vegas when she was only 16 — said she was disturbed by criticism of other actresses for not coming forward immediately to talk about the allegations and support survivors. “It kind of broke my heart,” she said — “this sense of coming after each other, of holding only women accountable to these perfection standards.”

She decided, instead, to reach out to male colleagues she trusted, asking them to speak up. She advised Quentin Tarantino to talk to the New York Times, she said. “You need to express your complicity,” she said she told him. “Just because you are complicit in something like this does not make you a bad person.”

Men taking ownership of their role in the problem of sexual harassment and assault, she said, is “the beginning of healing.”

The male domination of Hollywood affects not just actresses, but audiences as well, the panelists made clear. As Tamblyn put it, the industry essentially forces actresses to represent a false vision of womanhood to viewers — to “represent, to all of you, bullshit.”

Several panelists described taking control of their own film or TV projects as a way to tell more realistic stories of women. The actress and writer Alia Shawkat said one of her goals is “reclaiming women’s bodies. We decide how we want to look, we decide when we feel sexy.” It was important to her to include nonsexual nude scenes in her upcoming film Duck Butter, which she co-wrote. “No matter what, I have to be getting a beer topless,” she decided. “There’s nothing sexual about it.”

When she did shoot a sex scene with her female costar, the male director left the room. “We knew how it needed to feel,” she said. “He did not get to direct those scenes.”

Ultimately, she said, “it’s about us being able to tell those stories. I want to be able to have saggy boobs and be taking a shit on a toilet in a scene.”

The discussion on the panel soon broadened to include audience members, many of whom had similar experiences with bullying, abuse, and discrimination. One attendee from Pennsylvania said she’d just quit her job in TV sports on Wednesday because of harassment. Sometimes when she was operating the camera, she said, a male co-worker would say something like, “Camera 8, I need you to get the big-titty woman that’s going across the top of the concourse.”

“At the end of the day my boss would always say, ‘good work, gentlemen,’ and walk right past me,” she said.

The panelists’ advice for her and other women struggling in TV and media: Find male allies where you can, and make the work you want to see. “We just have to create our own content,” Shawkat said. “We have to make it for ourselves.”

Such solutions won’t be accessible for every woman in an industry where women can struggle to get funding, opportunities, and attention. But audience members were making strides in advocacy — one, who asked a question about making film and TV crews more inclusive of women of color, had recently gotten a job with her union.

And there was a sense, throughout the panel, of a long-overdue conversation finally being had.

Tamblyn said she believed the election of President Donald Trump actually made it possible for Weinstein to be exposed. “It took somebody as vile as Donald Trump to allow these things to start bubbling to the surface,” she said. “It took someone like him for us to point and go, ‘That. That is everything that is wrong with masculinity.’”

McGowan, too, made a connection between Trump and Weinstein in her morning speech. “From one monster we look away to another, the head monster of all right now,” she said. “And they are the same.”

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