Women in Film: A Conversation with Naomi McDougall Jones

When I first started doing research for this project, I was unaware of quite how overbearing the inequality within the film industry is. Continually, it proves near impossible for women to even get their foot in the door when it comes to film production and direction. In the early stages of my researching, I came across a TED Talk called “What it’s like to be a woman in Hollywood” by actress, screenwriter, and director Naomi McDougall. Her TED talk is engaging and funny, and effectively highlights the issue within the industry that can be changed by us, the audience.  

She revealed alarming statistics: 50% of film graduates are women but only 18% of the smallest-budget films, only 12% of indies and only 5% of big budget films are being directed and made by women. There isn’t a lack of female filmmakers in the world; they’re just not being given the platform and the opportunity to turn their ideas into profitable films. 95% of the films we have seen in our lifetime, she claims, are told by men. She quotes, “Stories – and movies are just modern stories – are not frivolous. They’re actually the way that we understand the world and our place in it. They’re the way we develop empathy for people who have experiences different than our own. And right now, all of that is being funnelled at us through the prism of this one perspective. It’s not that it’s a bad perspective, but don’t we deserve to hear them all?”  

Having been so impacted by the TED Talk she gave, I managed to get in touch with Naomi and we set up a Skype call so that I could ask her some further questions. We were joined by another two female filmmakers and it became a really interesting conversation.   

Many would agree that female representation on screen has become so much better, not only with more female produced and directed material, but with the increase in interesting and complicated female characters. Naomi was of the opinion that things are moving a little bit, but that in the great scheme of things, the number of films made by women is still very minimal. She noted that there is a danger in believing in incremental change because now that things are sort of changing, everybody relaxes and thinks that there is no more to do. There needs to be a persistence in the movement for a change like this. What is the point in stopping the effort immediately after it has begun to make some progress?

Interestingly Naomi pointed out that streaming websites such as Netflix and Amazon have access to granular data of viewership in a way that studios don’t have and never have had. The streaming services understand and know what content the public want and enjoy; which is evidently more representation for everyone. They are basing their decisions on that data and so are making more inclusive choices. I think this proves that audiences are ready to be shown different perspectives, but it is the studios who don’t want to budge. 

 Throughout our podcasts, Lola and I spoke to our guests a lot about how a lot of female writers and directors now feel an added pressure to represent “Women” as a whole. This pressure usually becomes apparent once their film or TV show has been released and they receive a load of backlash. Notably, this negative reaction is mainly from women. I wondered whether Naomi felt this pressure too. She responded with a wholehearted “100%” and elaborated on the fact that this is happening across all historically underrepresented voices. She mentions a trans friend of hers, a fellow filmmaker, who receives the same sort of criticism from the trans community. It seems that anybody who breaks through gets torn to shreds by their own community, which Naomi suggests is a result of so much pent-up pain. Not being heard for so long is a really difficult thing to navigate because the stakes are so high. She points out that there are several bad movies made by white men that don’t receive the same sort of criticism for being bad models of the white male experience.

Naomi suggests that we all need to practice a lot more kindness, especially towards those who are starting to gain a voice they didn’t previously have. Eloquently she notes that “it’s tough because we are coming out of this culture of scarcity where it feels like we’re all starving” but that we must “begin acting from a place of abundance and love and not from scarcity and fear.”  

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