By Valerie Kalfrin
The documentary “This Changes Everything” carries irony in its title and fire in its heart. Part history lesson, part call to action, the film packs enough statistics and anecdotes from top names in the industry about gender inequality in Hollywood to prove eye-opening, even to those who support women in film and television.
Geena Davis (“GLOW”) executive produced the film, which had a limited release in July and is now available via streaming services, including those for library users. The film uses statistics from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which Davis founded in 2004, and Davis herself provides some of the narration. But she’s not the only voice here.
Meryl Streep, Jessica Chastain, Tracee Ellis Ross, Rashida Jones, Sandra Oh, and Taraji P. Henson are some of those sharing their experiences and observations. Others such as directors Patty Jenkins, Mira Nair, and Jill Soloway; former Paramount Pictures CEO Sherry Lansing; showrunner Shonda Rimes; film historian Jeanine Basinger; and Brandeis University professor and noted sexual harassment whistleblower Anita Hill chime in, making for a frustrated, disturbing chorus.
Directed by Tom Donahue (2016’s “Davi’s Way”), the film starts with some preaching to the choir as several women explain how powerful seeing someone like yourself onscreen can be, especially for children. “It’s devastating to be a little girl and not see yourself onscreen,” said former DreamWorks Animation chair Mellody Hobson. “You start to believe there’s something wrong with you.”
“Davis became more of an activist in 2004 after watching children’s television with her daughter. She sponsored the largest research project ever undertaken at the time on gender in children’s entertainment at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California.”
It finds more momentum and focus once Davis talks about how her debut in 1982’s “Tootsie” came about because she’d modeled for the Victoria’s Secret catalog and looked good in her underwear. Her Oscar-nominated role in 1991’s “Thelma & Louise” “changed the course of my life,” she said, awakening her to how women are portrayed in the media and making her more selective of future roles.
Although she was touched to hear from young girls interested in sports after seeing 1992’s “A League of Their Own” (which inspired ITOL’s name, to be honest), Davis became more of an activist in 2004 after watching children’s television with her daughter. She sponsored the largest research project ever undertaken at the time on gender in children’s entertainment at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. The result? Fewer than one out of three of the speaking characters in 101 of the top-grossing G-rated movies were female.
The data encouraged others to point out gender disparities, as well as do their own research. Among them are critic Maureen Ryan of Variety, whose calculations analyzed who directs TV shows at the major networks, and producer and director Maria Giese (“When Saturday Comes”), whose research into female directing jobs instigated both the American Civil Liberties Union and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to examine industry-wide discriminatory hiring practices.
The film ties this research together with the history of women in film, highlighting how during filmmaking’s silent era (roughly the early 1910s to the late 1920s), women thrived as directors, producers, and in other above- and below-the-line jobs. Opportunities changed once sound entered motion pictures, along with financing from male-run banks.
Peppered throughout are anecdotes from women like director Kimberly Peirce, whose acclaimed “Boys Don’t Cry” didn’t yield another directing job for nine years, and actress Rose McGowan (“Scream”), who said she doesn’t watch many of her films. (“When I think I’m acting, they’re panning across my ass,” she said.) Instead of a seeming like a litany of abuses, these bits form a wave of underlying righteous anger that many admit they were afraid to express because they felt as if they were alone. Not anymore.
“When it’s one [woman speaking out], you can say she’s crazy and ruin her career. When it’s more than 100, it’s undeniable,” said Natalie Portman (an Oscar-winner for “Black Swan”). Portman noted that since acting professionally as a teenager, she’d worked with two women as directors—one of them herself.
“The film ties this research together with the history of women in film, highlighting how during filmmaking’s silent era (roughly the early 1910s to the late 1920s), women thrived as directors, producers, and in other above- and below-the-line jobs.”
A title card notes no studio heads agreed to be interviewed, but producers and directors Paul Feig (“A Simple Favor”), Judd Apatow (“Trainwreck”), and Glen Mazzara (“The Walking Dead”) are among those who support the film’s thesis: that an unconscious bias exists, and it’s long past time that it didn’t. John Landgraf, chair of FX Network and FX Productions, admits he was gobsmacked when Ryan’s data showed 89 percent of white men directed the network’s episodes; he’s since instituted more diverse hiring practices.
Not everyone sees the moral or economic value in inclusion, said Howard Rodman, former president of the WGA West: “There are people doing quite well now who feel like there’s something being taken away from them.”
Ultimately, whether “This Changes Everything” changes anything depends on getting everyone on board. “Progress will happen when men take a stand,” Streep said. “It’s the chivalry of the twenty-first century.”