Actress, activist and author Naomi McDougall Jones discusses her ‘revolution to dismantle the gods of Hollywood’
Naomi McDougall Jones
259 pages, hardcover: $26.95
Aspen has been following the rise of Naomi McDougall Jones since her days as a local kid with head-turning performances in school and community theater productions, and as she popped up on “Boardwalk Empire” in 2011 and came back for hometown screenings of her 2014 indie psychological thriller “Imagine I’m Beautiful,” which she produced and wrote and starred in, and last year’s vampire comedy “Bite Me.”
But it hasn’t been the Hollywood fairytale she dreamed of when she left home in 2004. Her career has also been a bitter and often brutal education in the systemic sexism of the film industry. She’s evolved from wide-eyed optimism to fearless activism, while charting a path as a writer and producer outside of the Hollywood system.
In a 2016 TED Talk titled “What it’s Like to be a Woman in Hollywood,” she outlined the systemic barriers to women working behind the camera and how the limited depictions of women on screen shape society, calling for a “women in film revolution.”
Nearly a year later, when the allegations against Harvey Weinstien broke and the #MeToo movement launched, Jones’ talk went viral. To date, it’s garnered some 1.15 million views.
Among the thousands of emails that poured into her inbox as the TED Talk blew up was one from literary agent Mark Gottlieb, who had watched it and wrote “I think you have a book in you.”
The result is Jones’ “The Wrong Kind of Women: Inside Our Revolution to Dismantle the Gods of Hollywood,” which will be published by Beacon Press on Feb. 4, a potential bombshell publication landing during an Oscar season when film lovers are again frustrated by the lack of recognition for female directors and as Harvey Weinstein stands trial in New York (Jones is boycotting the telecast).
The book is deeply researched and passionately argued, with the author telling her own story of disillusionment in Hollywood, detailing the bittersweet tale of how she came to be cast in the tiny role of “Screaming Secretary” on “Boardwalk Empire” to her thwarted efforts to raise funds for films made by women through her nonprofit 51 Fund, the history of sexism in Hollywood and why “Wonder Woman” isn’t the feminist victory you might think.
It’s a scorching read, undergirded by meticulously compiled data showing how women have historically been sidelined in Hollywood and offering a step-by-step plan to empowerment for both creators and viewers.
I caught up with the author recently from her home in Atlanta.
AT: You’re still a working actress, writer and producer. How has your activism and “The Wrong Kind of Women” and affect your career?
NMJ: The book will either become big enough that Hollywood won’t be able to ignore it and they will have to address some of what’s in there, or it won’t and they will be able to squish me like a bug. I can say that it’s already actively hurt my career within the system and that it has not affected my ability to make work outside of the system, which is mostly what I’ve been doing anyway. The path I’m walking is littered with the bones of women who have tried to speak out before me, so I know what I’m up against. But I don’t think it matters. I think this is important enough to whoever reads it that it is worth whatever it ends up costing me.
AT: Stylistically the book is an amazing hybrid of history, film criticism, investigative journalism and memoir. How did you pull that off? Is this the book you set out to write?
NMJ: It’s definitely the book I set out to write. But it is unusual because there are not other books my editor and I could use as examples that try to do all of that in one book. What helped is that the book deal came out of the TEDTalk, so we kept going back to the question of, ‘What was it about the TEDTalk that hit people?’
The entry-point is that I am this everywoman stumbling into this conversation.
The data is important, too, because without the data I would just sound crazy. And the history part I didn’t anticipate, but doing the research and learning how many times we’ve been through this before, that felt so important. The real danger is that we have this big conversation about it and there are so many articles and speeches but, no, there is no guaranteed outcome. In fact, this has happened before and things have not changed.
AT: How did you go about gathering all the statistics and stories here?
NMJ: When I got this opportunity I felt like what I’d learned about the topic had been colored by my own experience and the hodgepodge of knowledge I gained when I went out speaking. So I started from square one. I did over 100 hours of interviews with people from all over the industry and tried to do that in a journalistic way, not coming in with preconceived notions, just asking simple and straightforward questions that would allow their stories to emerge organically.
So I learned a lot and I finished writing it (in late 2018) and I’ve been so antsy for it to come out because I feel like my perspective on this thing shifted so much in the writing.
AT: How did your perspective shift?
NMJ: I think the book radicalized my thinking. It brought me to my knees all over again, just how unbelievably entrenched it is. I hoped going in that I might find three or four things where I could say, “OK, if we fix these things it will get better.’” But I realized it was actually everything. That felt really depressing and made me think much more radically about what does have to happen in order for change to occur. It gave me the confidence to step out of the system for the release of “Bite Me,” and do this thing that people in the system told was never going to work. Because the system wasn’t going to work for me anyway.
As long as we continue playing by their rules, we are going to lose. Because they wrote the rules. We don’t need to. There is a mindset shift required to step off their gameboard.
AT: The statistics you highlight here are astounding. You cite data showing that 97 percent of working cinematographers are men, that one in 25 films is directed by a woman, that for every 164 directed by a white man just one is made by a woman of color.
NMJ: Those studies bring it down to the human level. Even if they are astounding, it’s hard to conceive the human cost.
AT: You also note that films made by women and about women turn a profit more consistently than those made my men. For example, that 53 percent of films written by women turn a profit while just 18 percent written by men do. Why doesn’t that hard business data translate into more female-made films?
NMJ: The most basic answer is that people in power like to stay in power and are fundamentally uninterested in learning anything that would threaten their power. And because the gatekeepers are so predominantly white and male, when they read a script about white men, it resonates more with them and clouds their decision-making. But it is crazy. It drives me insane when I’m having these conversations and there is still this pervasive feeling that women are a charity case or that ethically it is the right thing to do, but we need to make good business decisions. I’m like, ‘No. You are ignoring the business facts and ignoring an opportunity!”
AT: Who do you hope reads “The Wrong Kind of Women”?
NMJ: I hope that women who are currently or ever want to be involved in the film industry will read it. And I hope it will produce in them what it produced in me writing it, which is to get extremely clear with that is actually happening and allow that to heal the wounds they have felt personally. And also to inspire them to take more radical action.
I hope audiences who love film will read it, because it will help them understand how what they are watching is programming their brains. And I hope people who disagree with me will read it. I still have conversations with people all the time who say, “There is no bias against women anymore,” that Hollywood is a meritocracy. I hope that people who read the book can understand that is very basically untrue.
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