Meryl Streep is arguably one of the most successful women in Hollywood, but even she has felt the sting of sexism rampant in the business. Now she and Selma director Ava DuVernay are talking about today’s version of feminism in a very male-dominated industry.
Streep and DuVernay appeared with Pakistani documentary filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy on a panel called “Story Power: Three Great Women in Film” as part of the Sixth Annual Women in the World Summit, presented by Tina Brown Live Media. Moderated by Daily Show host Jon Stewart, the chat quickly becomes an a-ha moment when Streep says she believes one reason female directors who want to tell women-oriented stories get so little support from male studio heads is that men lack the imagination to empathize with female characters — because they have never had to before.
“The women who have been directors have been, largely, they’ve had a really rough time breaking in, in our business,” Streep said. “But a lot of it has to do with imagination. This act of empathy that women go through from the time we’re little girls — we read all of literature, all of history, it’s really about boys, most of it. But I can feel more like Peter Pan than Tinker Bell, or like Wendy. I wanted to be Tom Sawyer, not Becky!”
Basically, girls are forced to empathize with male characters because there are so few meaty female characters — and boys never have to identify with female characters because they see strong male roles in pretty much every movie.
“Women are so used to that active empathizing with the active protagonist of a male-driven plot. That’s what we’ve done all our lives,” Streep explained. “You read history, you read great literature, Shakespeare, it’s all fellas. But they’ve never had to do the other thing. And the hardest thing for me, as an actor, is to have a story that men in the audience feel like they know what I feel like. That’s a really hard thing. It’s a very hard thing for them to put themselves in the shoes of a female protagonist.”
In fact, Variety reported that according to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, only 12 percent of the top-grossing films of 2014 featured female protagonists — even less than in 2013.
Because of this, DuVernay said, moviemaking has become a hugely feminist move. “When a woman makes a film, that is a radical act,” she said.