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The Hollywood tide is turning but this trailblazing woman has been calling out sexism for a decade

Women And Hollywood founder Melissa Silverstein talks to Rachael Sigee about 10 years of shining a light on gender inequality in the film industry

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By Rachael Sigee on

Timing is everything. A year ago, a tweet about skimpy costumes worn by Amazonian women in the new Marvel film Justice League would probably have enraged a few people. Elicited some eyerolls from female friends, or maybe a blog post in a sympathetic corner of the internet.

But when Melissa Silverstein tweeted side-by-side shots of the costumes in Justice League (directed by men: Zack Snyder, then Joss Whedon) and in Wonder Woman (directed by Patty Jenkins), her timeline blew up.

Silverstein, the founder of influential blog Women And Hollywood, got over 42,000 likes and generated global headlines. For her, it was confirmation that times are changing: “[The tweet] resonated with people because Wonder Woman resonated with people so much. But why this became what it did was because of all the conversations we’ve been having about sexual harassment. So people were just attuned to gender in a much more intense way than they had been previously.”

And as Silverstein hosts a string of events celebrating 10 years of Women And Hollywood, she could not possibly have predicted that she would do so as the industry she has been calling out for a decade begins to crumble. In her words, the timing “is actually insane”.

When Silverstein started Women And Hollywood, it wasn’t a topic that was getting much interest: “It took a lot of years for people to pay attention to this issue and I was shouting into the void for a really long time,” she says. Publicists were surprised when she asked to interview female directors and the conversation about gender disparity in film hadn’t begun in earnest.

“Understand: there was no beat. This did not exist. Now everybody writes about this. Jezebel was born the same year but none of these other things that existed solely focused on women were around. There was no playbook for how these things worked.”

Nowadays the Bechdel test crops up in almost every discussion of women in film but for Silverstein, it is a low bar: “My issues are that I just feel that I don’t want to hang my hat on just having a woman who is named in a movie and talks about something other than a man. I want a woman to have agency and I want her to drive stories and be the centre of the world and the heroes of our stories.”

Photo: Melissa Silverstein (Getty Images)

After events in LA and New York, Silverstein is hosting a third 10th anniversary celebration in London on Monday night which will honour women with Trailblazers Awards. 

Recipients include director Gurinder Chadha, producers Alison Owen and Elizabeth Karlsen, BFI London Film Festival director Clare Stewart and Bechdel Test Fest’s Corrina Antrobus and Simran Hans. The event will also be paying tribute to Zelda Perkins – the first women to break her nondisclosure agreement with the Weinstein Company.

Having covered the dearth of powerful women in Hollywood for years, what (if anything) has surprised Silverstein about the allegations coming out of the industry?

“Just the breadth of it. How in depth it is, how manipulative, I mean specifically the Harvey Weinstein one, how much time he spent in hiding all his abominations. Imagine the energy that went into this. It’s mind-boggling. There’s not enough hours in the day to do what we want to do right? It’s like you spend half your time harassing women; you spend the other half covering up your shit.”

But she is feeling the sea change: “We’re seeing something unprecedented happen. Angela Robinson, the director, said something at our event in LA. She said ‘there was always this line and women would go up to the line and the line would hold and they’d be pushed back from the line. And they would go up to the line and be pushed back and the line would hold. Now women are saying fuck it, that line is gone and they’re pushing through and there is no line anymore, and now it’s just like everybody’s infiltrating the beach and what’s going to happen now?’ And it’s super exciting. It feels like – it was just a hashtag but the future is female? This could be it.”

I think all these gendered terms about what men do – the “auteurs” and the people who are in “the canon”, it’s all so male-centric and so white and we need to move beyond these things that we’ve been told are the norms

But she also sees much room for improvement: “Women don’t get second chances. You cannot fuck up. And men can fuck up and move their way right up the ladder. And part of that is because of the layers and layers of sexism, the toxic masculinity, that men have all the power and that men believe their stories are central to the world. These are the things that we need to shift.”

Silverstein sees some evidence of that. She adores Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird – “just wonderful” – and hails Mudbound by Dee Rees as “a fucking brilliant movie. I mean, one of the best.” She is delighted that her young nephews are excited about Star Wars because Rey is a Jedi, not because Rey is a girl Jedi.

But what she really wants to see is systemic transformation in how Hollywood and all of us who consume culture interrogate what and how we view.

“I think all these gendered terms about what men do – the ‘auteurs’ and the people who are in ‘the canon’, it’s all so male-centric and so white and we need to move beyond these things that we’ve been told are the norms. All the norms we are brainwashed with… We have to undo our thinking on these types of things and really challenge ourselves to look at everything differently. Without our lenses, our rose-coloured lenses, that the thoughts and the stories that men put forward are the arbiters of our culture.”


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