PARK CITY, UTAH — The five women were introduced by Sundance Film Festival director John Cooper as the “dream panel” at this year’s fest, and the crowds outside clamouring to get in attested to that.
Inside the tiny Egyptian Theatre on Saturday were some of the most popular and talented women in film, TV and journalism: Lena Dunham, creator and star of Girls; Kristen Wiig, a Saturday Night Live comic turned movie star (Bridesmaids, The Skeleton Twins); Mindy Kaling, writer/star/producer of The Mindy Project; Jenji Kohan, a comedy writer (Sex and the City, Gilmore Girls) and creator/showrunner of Orange Is the New Black and Weeds; and Emily Nussbaum, award-winning TV critic for The New Yorker magazine, who moderated this “Serious Ladies” panel.
They are all at the top in their fields, but all had stories about how tough it was to make it in a Hollywood still dominated by male decision-makers and talent.
Kohan, 45, said when she first started writing for TV, straight out of Columbia University, she found herself vastly outnumbered by men in the writing rooms where ideas are brainstormed. One Neanderthal told her, “If God had meant women to be in a writer’s room he wouldn’t have made breasts so distracting.”
Wiig said she’s never liked the phrase “female comedy” because it has no gender opposite: “I’ve never heard the phrase ‘male comedy’ in my life.”
The situation is a lot better today, all agreed, but Nussbaum raised an issue that seems unique to successful women in showbiz. She called it the “go girl problem”—as in the phrase, “You go, girl!” — and it refers to the pressure that women feel to be not just entertainers, but also role models to other women.
Kaling, 35, agreed it’s a concern, and being of South Asian descent, she has the added burden — and also pride — of being expected to represent all women of colour.
“When you’re a feminist, there’s a side of you who wants to have a character who is very prescriptive and an ideal for all woman, even though American women are not representative of all women,” Kaling said.
“But then you’ve got a really f---ing boring character, in that she’s just very perfect and Pollyannish. And I’m also a contrarian and an artist, so I also want her to say things that could maybe offend. It’s about striking a balance.”
Dunham, 28, who recently published the bestselling memoir Not That Kind of Girl, said the phenomenal popularity of her series Girls has seen her tagged with the dreaded “voice of a generation” label, something she’s uncomfortable with, especially since her character, named Hannah, is very free with her opinions and she often makes dubious choices involving sex, drugs, men and career.
“People have trouble differentiating between me and my character … I don’t think that Larry David or Woody Allen or anyone else (male) playing some version of themselves is walking around with a million people who think that they know (you) or that everything they say in their films … is stuff that they do.”
Kaling said she doesn’t worry about whether her characters are “likeable” or not, another issue more common to women than men.
“Likability is not remotely important to me. Relatability is very important to me.”
But on the other hand, Dunham added, you have to be careful not to let success go to your head and lose touch with your audience: “You really want to avoid an ‘It’s hard to communicate with your maid’ story,” she said, to appreciative laughter from the mostly female audience.
Kohan said she still has to fight the pigeonholing in Hollywood, where women are expected to write, star or produce in shows about “weddings and moms” and nothing more serious — although she’s proving that mindset wrong with her current hit Orange Is the New Black, which is set in a women’s prison.
Wiig, 41, said she has trouble convincing people she can do serious roles as well as funny ones. She stars in two dramas premiering at Sundance 2015: Nasty Baby and The Diary of a Teenage Girl, but even at the festival she’s had to remind people that she’s not the same person they seen on the screen.
“It’s a movie, it’s a character!” Wiig said, sounding exasperated.
“They do always ask you, ‘What do you have in common with your character?’ And sometimes, I don’t really want to say. Because I also don’t want anyone to know anything about me!” That last remark was greeted with audience laughter, but the mood turned serious as Wiig and the other panellists talked about the loss of privacy that stardom brings. Everybody has a cellphone camera now, and demands a “selfie” at every turn.
“There’s no privacy anymore, and sometimes it really bums me out,” Wiig said.
A problem both women and men face, the panellists agreed, is the rising tide of conservatism and censorship, not only in fundamentalist countries abroad but also at home. All of the women have to negotiate with censors over jokes about such hot-button topics as premarital sex, birth control and gun control. They’ve also had to address the use of nudity on screens big and small.
Sometimes you win the censor battle, sometimes you lose.
“You just have to pick the hill you’re willing to die on,” Dunham observed.
But she lamented how many people seem to have trouble getting the joke: “In some ways, America is at its most puritanical. People are forgetting that humour is a tool for debate and humour is a tool for expression. When people say things that offend you, you have the power to turn off your television. You have the power not to buy that book.”
All the women agreed that giving up isn’t an option.
“I’m driven by, ‘I’ll show you, f—k you … Whenever someone says, ‘You can’t,’ it seems to fuel me. I just kept coming back,” Kohan said.
Added Kaling: “I have a personality defect where I refuse to see myself as an underdog … My parents raised me with the intelligence of a tall, blond white man.”
That prompted another big audience laugh, but Dunham had the line of the day with her hope that women would one day outnumber and outrank the Hollywood boy’s club.
“That would be my favourite, if guys some day were to say, ‘It’s impossible to get into Hollywood! It’s a women’s club!’”
The world is burning: Saturday also brought the world’s premiere of Racing Extinction, a doc by environmentalist and filmmaker Louie Psihoyos that takes the aquatic concerns of his 2009 Oscar-winner The Cove to a global level.
In his previous film, Psihoyos and other activists exposed the appalling abuse by fishermen to dolphins and their young trapped in a cove in Japan. As a result of that exposure, the treatment of dolphins has become more humane, Psihoyos said, as he introduced his new film to a sold-out audience at the MARC Theatre.
The former National Geographic photographer said he hopes his new film will also galvanize the public, because the failure to do so would be catastrophic for the planet.
Racing Extinction documents, often with gruesome and sickening images, the widespread devastation of ocean life that has been going on for decades but has accelerated almost to the point of no return.
The hidden cameras of Psihoyos and his team reveal how the black-market trade in whales, sharks, manta rays and other valuable sea creatures is happening despite laws banning the practice. One segment takes us inside a backstreet Hong Kong market Psihoyos calls “the Walmart of endangered species trade,” where the camera pulls back to reveal a rooftop where thousands of shark fins are spread out to dry in the sun.
Fishermen often just lop off the fins, considered a delicacy by the Chinese, and toss the animal back in the water to slowly die. There is horrific footage of a finless nurse shark desperately trying to swim but facing certain death.
There have been five global extinctions in Earth’s history, the film notes, and the sixth is rapidly approaching. We get half of our oxygen from the oceans, but global warming is heating the oceans and destroying plant and animal life on a mass scale.
It gets worse: the polar ice caps are melting, and releasing methane gas trapped for millions of years, gas that likely caused previous extinctions. If enough of that gets released into the atmosphere, the world will burn and we’ll all be choking to death.
Racing Extinction is a sobering film, but not all gloomy. Psihoyos also shows positive steps being taken to fight impending disaster, including a recently passed international ban on the commercial exploitation of manta rays.
“There’s no other generation we can count on to save us,” Psihoyos said. “It’s us.”