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How Do We Break Out of a Box We Can’t Even See?

Thoughts on women in film.

I was nervous to meet my first college roommate. I wondered what sort of person she was, if we’d become besties at first sight or drive each other crazy. At our first meeting, we engaged in the standard, freshman conversation.

“So, what’s your major?” I asked.

“Film!” she replied.

“Oh, really?”

“Yes. I want to be a director.”

It’s funny how different thoughts flit through your head and you don’t always know where they come from. My tiny, bubbly roommate was telling me she wanted to be a Hollywood director. The thought that burst into my head wasn’t “Good for you” or “Wow, how interesting”.


“You can’t do that.”

It was 1999.

I knew a few things about film. Maybe more than other people my age, but still not a lot.

I couldn’t name a single female director. I didn’t know if there’d ever been one. I knew about Steven Spielberg and George Lucas and Tim Burton. But a woman? Making a movie? The odds were slim and my roommate definitely wasn’t going to be the one to do it.

They wouldn’t let her.

The fact she even considered it as a possibility was astounding to me. It was like having a conversation with someone who insisted Narnia was real.

Things have gotten better for female filmmakers since 1999, but it’s still tough out there. At the same time, I wonder why I reacted that way.

I grew up with the message that I could be anything I wanted and, while I didn’t examine the statement too critically, I accepted it as a vague sort of truth. “Feminist” was a bad word in my circles, but I knew I was every bit as smart and capable as the boys in my classes.

And it was 1999. Modern times, baby! Equality had been unlocked. Women could vote. They could hold all kinds of jobs. Theoretically, they could do any job a man could. We didn’t have to think about sexism, because there were other, more important matters swirling about. It was fine.

I wasn’t aware I was living in a box. I never realized my decision-making might be influenced by the circle of locked doors surrounding me. On the other side of those doors were options meant for other people. For men. White men, probably. You weren’t supposed to talk about those locked doors.

You certainly didn’t dream about opening one.

Until talking with my roommate forced me to acknowledge there might be options I hadn’t considered.

There’s a lot of buzz in tech culture about trailblazers. Trailblazers move industries forward, they’re bold and they get teams to think in new ways. One of the main qualities of a trailblazer is to imagine a possibility where others only see a closed door.

When I went away to college, I’d already spent a lot of time making art. Part of the creative process involves envisioning things that never existed and bringing them to life. Carving a path. Yet, I hadn’t applied that practice to my own life, to the way I thought about the world. I still wonder whether there might be other closed doors in my brain I’m not aware of.

The good news is, I’ve seen a lot of amazing films by female directors since then.


Kathryn Biglow
Sophia Coppola
Ava DuVernay
Greta Gerwig
Debra Granik
Patty Jenkins
Olivia Wilde

And many, many more.

I’m so glad those women could see a future I wasn’t able to, that they did the hard work to break the doors down when they couldn’t be unlocked. Each time it happens, it becomes a thing easier to imagine. Paths are laid.

I’d like to see something more, now. I’m manifesting it pretty hard. More films from more people in all walks of life. More voices. More characters. More stories. People of all backgrounds at the helm of big projects. Opportunities for every demographic. Oscar nominations for all!

Sure Oscars are stupid. But they matter.

If there wasn’t power in it, they wouldn’t be working so hard to keep us out.

It matters who gets to tell the stories. How they tell them. What stories they choose to tell. Movies shape our collective cultural narrative and you’re naive if you think that isn’t true. Cinema has the power to expand our dreams.

When our dreams get big, we don’t fit in those little boxes anymore.

Thanks for reading! If you like this, maybe think about connecting with me on twitter or (and?) subscribing to my newsletter.

Engaged in inadvisable wordsmitheries and other creative acts.

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