It's not easy being a woman in Hollywood. Not only are female actors subjected to ridiculous beauty standards, relegated to roles that are often merely archetypes, and asked inane questions about their wardrobe choices rather than their work, they're often directed by men who may not be able to fully relate to the experiences of the characters they portray. Not so for Jenny Slate's new film, Landline, a movie about women, written by women, and her second project with Obvious Child director Gillian Robespierre. But Slate doesn't care who directs her — as long as they have a nuanced view of women.
"I don’t care who directs me as long as they honor my humanity," Slate tells Bustle at the New York premiere of Landline. "I don’t care what their gender is as long as they’re curious, and openminded, and just keep in mind that at the heart is a human and not necessarily a gender. And then go from there."
It's true that men are able to create stories that center on the complex lives of women. What's sad is that they often don't choose to. A study conducted by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University found that in 2016, only 29 percent of protagonists in the top 100 films of that year were women. The study also found that films with at least one female writer or director were more likely to feature female leads than films written and directed exclusively by men. Yet only 7 percent of the 250 highest grossing films of 2016 were directed by women. So, women are more likely to create films with female leads, but men dominate the field. Is it any wonder there are so few female protagonists?
This lack of equity bothers Slate. "I think it is important that women are given just as, like, equal amount of space in our world as men are allowed to have ... And I don't think we are equal yet or that it's there," Slate says.
This sentiment is shared by director Gillian Robespierre. "I’m shocked and saddened by the amount of women in the industry, especially as a director," says Robespierre at the premiere. She also shared that she found her desire to be a director somewhat impractical. "I worked at the DGA [Director's Guild of America] for many years behind the desk, looking at the statistics, and thinking that I would make a movie, but always being very practical about it and knowing that the chances are highly unlikely," says Robespierre. "I haven’t had many role models to show me the way. And I kind of decided to just f*ck it and go for it anyway."
The result of that rebellion? Indie darling film Obvious Child, starring Slate and defying genre expectations as a comedy about abortion. The product of a second Slate/Robespierre partnership, Landline, has a similar focus on the female experience. Set in 1995 and centered on the friendship that develops between sisters Dana (Slate) and Ali (Abby Quinn) when they discover their father might be having an affair, Landline tackles the sexual, familial, and romantic struggles of women young and middle-aged (Edie Falco's Pat) and is refreshingly free of the male gaze. Even when we see sex in the film, it's often an unglamorous portrayal: a dispassionate outdoor romp that leads to poison ivy, or a teenage tryst interrupted by a skipping CD. Landline isn't afraid to be genuine and unapologetic about how women experience romance and sex.
This authenticity is what Slate wants from female roles. "What I want when I see women on screen is to see all parts of themselves," she explains, growing animated, "and I think a lot of times women [in films] are softened, or made harder than they ever are because people can’t really deal with having a balanced view of what a female experience is."
Slate's Dana embodies the polarities that really do exist in women, and make for a nuanced female portrait: She's at once hopelessly square and engaged in a reckless affair; simultaneously in love with her fiancé and sexually bored by him. These dissonant traits come together to form a whole person, unbounded by female archetypes. For Slate, this is paramount. "I think it’s just about, you know, shining a light on as much parts of that woman’s experience that you can shine," she says, "because the more we see, the more we want to be a part of something. "
Women are still searching to see portrayals of their whole selves, complex and messy and confusing, on screen. Slate and Robespierre's work is a good place to start.