Forget the boys' club — it's time to make our own

What we can learn from Selma director Ava DuVernay's amazing speech about women in Hollywood.

“I invite us to think of this room as a village,” Selma director Ava DuVernay told a gathering of her peers earlier this month in Los Angeles, “one that fights for change on the outside, but one that recognizes that an equal part of that fight is keeping ourselves strong and joyous and sane in a really insane industry.”

DuVernay was one of several women being honoured at Elle magazine’s annual event celebrating female talent in Hollywood. Opening the night, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Robbie Myers, fended off potential criticism, saying “Every year, someone gets up on this stage and says, ‘Do we even need a night for women? Why can’t we just be people in Hollywood?’” She then noted how far women had to go to reach anything close to parity: Senior movie studio execs are 93 percent male, and only four percent of studio films are directed by women.

DuVernay, who was snubbed at last year’s Oscars, pointed out in her speech that of the 100 top-grossing films last year, two were directed by women (herself and Angelina Jolie). To remedy that, she suggested “push[ing] at every turn necessary” and, in tandem, to continue celebrating women and people of colour and everyone else who was “outside of the centre of Hollywood.” Her rationale? “Because our conversation shouldn’t be consumed with what he’s not doing or what they don’t value. We value us. We build our village. We grow stronger.”

Director Ava DuVernay. Photo, Wikimedia Commons.

Director Ava DuVernay. Photo, Wikimedia Commons.

All of her speech was terrific, but it’s that part about building our village and valuing ourselves that struck me as the most necessary and inspiring point. Very few of us work in industries as weird and rarefied as Hollywood, but a lot of us — anyone outside of the centre of any field or endeavour because of our gender, race, sexual orientation, ability — can relate. When we know the game is rigged against us, when we don’t get equal opportunities, or equal salaries, or don’t see ourselves reflected in politics or culture, we can despair or become very, very angry. And that’s important, because despair and anger lead to movements for change and justice.

But equally important, as DuVernay says, is to create networks of support for one another: “While we focus on the outward measures, while we focus on our rights, we have to focus on our spirits and our fortitude and our courage and our bravery, and we do that by lifting up each other.” (In addition to her own filmmaking, DuVernay runs Array, a film distribution and advocacy organization dedicated to promoting work by people of colour and women.)

We don’t always have to rage against the power structure. We can become our own power structure. If the old, white, straight boys’ networks won’t let you in, create new ones. If you’re fortunate enough and experienced enough to have attained some power and to have developed connections, use them to promote and recommend and mentor people who might be overlooked.

Related: Serena Williams and Angelina Jolie, women who redefine femininity

This doesn’t always happen: Early in my career as a journalist, it was tough to find female mentors. There was often a sense that there was only room for one woman on a particular beat, or on a TV panel, or on a magazine masthead. Instead of championing one another, women were often pitted against each other — or felt that way. But that’s changing — in no small part to the Internet and social media allowing more people to find a platform for their work and to network outside of the established channels and traditional structures of power. And it’s also changing because of a generational shift: So many of the young women I see, in my industry at least, have reinvigorated the idea of girl power, by creating feminist-minded podcasts and magazines that amplify their voices and address their concerns. They aren’t waiting for the world to catch up with them: They are creating a world (or at least a village) of their own.

As DuVernay put it, “there are multiple ways we can attack the problems that we face as women in this industry. And fortifying one another and being food and fuel and fire for one another is one of those things.”

More columns by Rachel Giese:
The women who influenced the outcome of #elxn42
Hillary Clinton proves you don’t have to be nice to be likeable
To the LGBT community, the niqab debate sounds mighty familiar