Rising Star Naomi McDougall Jones: “Storytelling”

The good news is that we have at our disposal an incalculably powerful tool custom-built to produce precisely that kind of transformation in people’s brains: storytelling. Specifically, at this moment in history, we have movies and television shows, which are the most-widely-consumed version of storytelling that has ever existed. According to a 2018 Nielsen survey, […]

Thrive Global invites voices from many spheres to share their perspectives on our Community platform. Community stories are not commissioned by our editorial team, and opinions expressed by Community contributors do not reflect the opinions of Thrive Global or its employees. More information on our Community guidelines is available here.

The good news is that we have at our disposal an incalculably powerful tool custom-built to produce precisely that kind of transformation in people’s brains: storytelling. Specifically, at this moment in history, we have movies and television shows, which are the most-widely-consumed version of storytelling that has ever existed. According to a 2018 Nielsen survey, US adults now spend an average of ten and a half hours consuming media in some form. A big chunk of that is film and television content and an impressive stack of scientific studies have shown that watching the same affects our hobbies, our career choices, our sense of identity, our judgments of other people, our relationships, our mental health, our brain chemistry, and, most definitely, our biases.

As part of my series about “the five things we need to do to close the gender wage gap” I had the pleasure of interviewing Naomi McDougall Jones, an award-winning writer, actress, producer, and Women In Film activist based in New York City. Her second feature film, BITE ME, with producers Jack Lechner (The Fog of War, Blue Valentine) and Sarah Wharton (That’s Not Us), which she wrote and also starred in opposite Christian Coulson (Harry Potter, Love is Strange, The Hours), Annie Golden (Orange is the New Black), and Naomi Grossman (American Horror Story) premiered at the Cinequest Film Festival, followed by a 3 month, 51 screening, 40 city Joyful Vampire Tour of America that took the country by storm. Naomi’s first feature film, which she also wrote, produced, and starred in, was the 12-time award-winning Imagine I’m Beautiful. The film received a theatrical release and is now available on Amazon Prime (www.imagineimbeautiful.com). She is currently at work on her third feature film, a magical realism piece about a 7-months pregnant woman’s unexpected interaction with the brilliant, eccentric, and deceased inventor John Hays Hammond, Jr., and for which she received the honor of being the first artist in residence at the final home of Ernest Hemingway in Sun Valley, Idaho. Naomi is an advocate and thought leader for bringing gender parity to cinema. She gave a virally sensational TEDTalk, What it’s Like to Be a Woman in Hollywood, which has now been viewed over 1 million times and can be seen on TED.com. Naomi’s first book, The Wrong Kind of Women: Inside Our Revolution to Dismantle the Gods of Hollywood, will be published by Beacon Press on February 4, 2020 and is available for pre-order everywhere books are sold. More at www.naomimcdougalljones.com.

Thank you so much for joining us Namoi! Can you tell us the “backstory” that brought you to this career path?

I’ve wanted to be an actress for as long as I can remember. I pursued this desperately, with a laser-beam focus towards getting myself out of Colorado and to New York City, since that is where, I had been told, real actresses lived. In my early 20s, I graduated from The American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City, and did indeed become a real-life actress. However, following two years or so of pounding the pavement, auditioning, and working, I became disillusioned and disheartened by the utter dearth of interesting roles for women. I had not, after all, spent my whole life dreaming of being an actress so that I could play the super supportive girlfriend, the stripper with a heart, or partially nude corpse # 5. When I was 23, an agent told me that he thought I wouldn’t work as an actress until I was 35 years old because “You’re too smart to play most roles written for women your age and not quite pretty enough to be the hot one.” I decided I had to figure out a better path forward. With a friend from acting school, I set out to make my first feature film, naively assuming that the problem must simply be that people weren’t writing good enough roles for women. I figured that I could write good, interesting, complex roles for women. I wrote a script centering on two of them, Imagine I’m Beautiful, and we set out to make our feature.

It was in the course of getting that film made that I began to understand the true depths of sexism that are alive and thriving in Hollywood. My (female) producing partners and I were told, “Well, girls, you know that you’re going to need to get a male producer on board at some point? Just so that people will trust you with their money.” Over and over again we were told, “People just don’t want to see films about women. You’d better think about making something else. Unless…is there a lesbian angle you could explore? Or could you add more blood?” Coming from the privilege of being a white woman raised by a feminist mother to believe that I could do anything in my life regardless of my gender, I was genuinely stunned by what we were experiencing. This was in 2012, for Pete’s sake!!

When we did eventually manage to make Imagine I’m Beautiful (without a male producer, thank you very much), it went on to win 12 awards on the film festival circuit before receiving a theatrical and digital distribution deal. It turned out that what we had suspected was right: people did, in fact, want to see films about women. This makes a great deal of sense, given that women are 51% of the U.S. population and 52% of movie ticket purchasers and yet the entire Hollywood industry, to this day, continues to maintain that only stories by and about men are safe bets.

From my experiences making that movie, two truths became clear to me. The first was that I had to find a way to be a filmmaker for the rest of my life because it is the most magical job on earth, like being a wizard. I have been fortunate enough to, so far, be able to continue doing that. My second feature film, Bite Me, came out in 2019. My second realization following Imagine I’m Beautiful, was that in the rest of the time that I wasn’t making films, I was bound and determined to pour myself into trying to improve the overall situation of women in the film and television industry. In the intervening years, speaking out about the lack of women in film, the impact that has on audiences’ real lives, and action plans for changing the industry has led to a global speaking career that has allowed me to speak to filmmakers and audiences around the world about these issues. My TEDTalk, What it’s Like to be a Woman in Hollywood, went viral and has now been viewed over 1 million times. I have gotten to co-found The 51 Fund, a private equity fund dedicated to financing films by female directors. And my book on this subject, The Wrong Kind of Women: Inside Our Revolution to Dismantle the Gods of Hollywood, is being published by Beacon Press on February 4, 2020.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this career?

While I was on The Joyful Vampire Tour of America, a 3-month, 40-city, 51-screening, RV tour with my second feature film, Bite Me, this past summer, I, my husband, and a documentary filmmaker attended a dinner party at the home of a real-life vampire and dominatrix who is also a filmmaker. I would bet that there are a great many professions that would never result in getting to experience such an interesting event.

Can you share a story about the funniest or most interesting mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When my producing partner, Caitlin Gold and I set out to make our first feature film, Imagine I’m Beautiful, we really had no idea at all how to make a movie. We had both acted on a lot of people’s film sets, but we really didn’t know the first thing about pulling a movie into existence. Inexplicably undaunted by this, we began by creating a spreadsheet of every film producer we could find on the internet and cold-calling or emailing them to ask if we could take them to coffee and “pick their brain” about how to make a movie.

So broad was our ignorance on the subject of filmmaking that I remember frequently getting to these meetings and not even knowing the appropriate questions to ask. In one mortifying instance, I had somehow badgered a well-known film producer and producing professor at Columbia University into taking a meeting with me. My audacity level at that time being much stronger via email than in person, I was so nervous going to meet the producer/professor that, in preparing to meet with him, I was in a cold sweat, on the verge of vomiting, and so obsessively worried that my voice would go high and squeaky when I spoke to him that I kept testing it out on the subway ride. When I finally arrived in his office, he, looking professional and stern, swiveled in his chair to face me, looked me over and, unimpressed, fixed me with a hard stare. “Well, you’ve managed to get yourself in here. What do you want to know?” I was so paralyzed with nerves that it was all I could do to gasp out in a definitely-high-and-squeaky voice, “I just . . . wondered. . . if you could . . . tell me how to make a movie?”

I can’t remember what happened in the rest of the meeting because I’m pretty sure I blacked out, but I do know for sure that he was deeply unimpressed with this blithering nincompoop wasting his valuable time. I guess from that experience I learned that you can be a total idiot about a subject to begin with and still eventually come to know a whole lot about it; that even the most mortifying moments are almost always survivable; and that you really ought to make a list of questions to ask before taking anyone’s time. That day has also given me a deep well of compassion towards younger filmmakers who now come to me for advice.

Ok let’s jump to the main focus of our interview. Even in 2019, women still earn about 80 cents for every dollar a man makes. Can you explain three of the main factors that are causing the wage gap?

I can do it in one: institutionalized sexism.

We live in a sexist society, just as we live in a racist, ableist, and heteronormative society. Almost every structure and institution we have — from the government down to every single industry — was dreamed up and built by men who were also, overwhelmingly, white, straight, cis-, and able-bodied. What that means is that at a basic level those institutions and structures will perpetually elevate the careers, status, earnings, and well-being of those same men above everyone else. That is, in fact, precisely what they were designed to do.

That we women (and other non-white, straight, cis, able-bodied men) have made as much progress as we have given that overwhelming structural stack of difficulty, is impressive and should be applauded. That we are still fighting to achieve anything approaching true equality within those systems and institutions should not be surprising, although it is certainly frustrating, unfair, and infuriating.

Now let’s bring that down to wage inequality. If a system or institution fundamentally values Person Type B less than Person Type A — because it was designed, built, and is still run by a whole lot of humans who resemble Person Type A — it is extremely likely that Person Type B will be assigned less monetary value in the eyes of the same institution and, therefore, quite naturally, be paid less.

Until we foundationally disrupt and rebuild the value-system bedrock on which our institutions, governments, and industries are built, I do not see wage equality (or indeed any other equality) being properly achieved.

Can you share with our readers what your work is doing to help close the gender wage gap?

Yes. I tell stories and help other women (and other non-white, straight, cis, able-bodied men) to tell their stories as well.

Taken as a whole, the question of how to foundationally disrupt and change sexism (and racism, ableism, and heteronormativity) is overwhelming in scale. Not only do you have to change institutions and structures, but, as a starting place, you have to fundamentally shift the way that the entire population of people who work within, around, and uphold those institutions and structures thinks.

The good news is that we have at our disposal an incalculably powerful tool custom-built to produce precisely that kind of transformation in people’s brains: storytelling. Specifically, at this moment in history, we have movies and television shows, which are the most-widely-consumed version of storytelling that has ever existed. According to a 2018 Nielsen survey, US adults now spend an average of ten and a half hours consuming media in some form. A big chunk of that is film and television content and an impressive stack of scientific studies have shown that watching the same affects our hobbies, our career choices, our sense of identity, our judgments of other people, our relationships, our mental health, our brain chemistry, and, most definitely, our biases.

Right now, that almost magically powerful tool of cinematic storytelling is being used to uphold the monolithic white, male dominance over our society and cultural narrative as a whole. Consider that if you have watched primarily American mainstream movies in your lifetime, more than 95% of all of the films that you have ever seen were directed by men — mostly white, straight, cis, able-bodied men. Somewhere between 80–90% of all of the leading characters that you have ever seen on a screen have been male — mostly white, straight, cis, able-bodied. And around 55% of the time that you have ever seen a female character onscreen, she has been naked or scantily clad. The impact of that on, not only our society writ large, but on your brain personally, is broad, dynamic, and incalculable. It impacts the macro, structural workings of our society, and it also, most certainly, impacts the micro-decisions in workplaces that lead to things like wage inequality.

But it does not have to be that way. Women are 51% of the US population. We are 52% of movie ticket buyers and films by and about women are shown to make more money, dollar-spent-for-dollar-earned, than films about men. I, and other filmmakers and activists like me, are working energetically to shift the kinds of stories, characters, and images that are shaping our culture so that a broader scope of perspectives — including the female half of the population — can begin the transformational work of shifting all of our brains and behaviors to a more equitable workplace and world.

My personal work to help enact this change has followed three primary tactics.

First, through speaking engagements, workshops, panels, and writing, I work to continually educate the men and women inside the film industry, as well as the broader public about the intricacies of the hurdles facing women inside the film industry, the impact that the images our industry creates is having on the broader public, and providing action steps to so that people can take everyday steps to help shift the industry and be more aware in their content consumption. My two biggest contributions in their realm have been my TEDTalk, What it’s Like to Be a Woman in Hollywood, viewable on TED.com, and my book, The Wrong Kind of Women: Inside our Revolution to Dismantle the Gods of Hollywood, which is being published by Beacon Press on February 4, 2020, and is available for pre-order now wherever books are sold.

Secondly, by continuing to create my own work as a filmmaker (who is female), I seek to create for audiences stories, characters, and themes on screen that they have never seen before and which will help to expand, challenge, and inspire their minds, hearts, and perspectives in ways that mainstream Hollywood films are not doing. I also hope to continue to inspire — and provide education and tools to — other female filmmakers to find ways to create their own work, both inside and outside the existing Hollywood system. I feel infinitely proud to have begun this work with my first two feature films, Imagine I’m Beautiful (available in Vimeo) and Bite Me (available on iTunes, Amazon, and GooglePlay), and look forward to continuing this into the future.

Finally, I, along with some stunning and impressive female colleagues, have been working for several years to found The 51 Fund, a private equity fund to finance narrative feature films by female directors. In doing so, I hope to directly enable other female filmmakers to create and distribute their own stories which, under the current structures, might never be told.

Can you recommend 5 things that need to be done on a broader societal level to close the gender wage gap? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. 50% of film and television content must be written, directed, and produced by an intersectional spectrum of women
  2. Mandatory, regulated unconscious bias training for every employer and manager — male or female — in every industry before they are allowed to begin their first day of work
  3. Require every company or organization of a certain size to have a true, regulated channel available for employees to report workplace sexism/bias, harassment, and abuse that is demonstrably tied to actual outcomes and remedies
  4. Mandatory paid family leave for both men and women for all employees and made available through government programs to those who are self-employed or under-employed
  5. Wherever possible, flexible work hours available to all employees in order to provide greater support to those who have children and/or must care for an aging or ill family members, since those responsibilities still disproportionately fall on women, to the lasting damage of their wages and careers

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I am happy to report that I’ve spent the last decade being part of building precisely that movement in the film and television industry. I see no greater catalyst for broad social change than through the medium of cinematic storytelling and the shifts in real-world behaviors that it can prompt in its audiences.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

The quote I currently have tacked above my desk is, “Never a failure. Always a lesson.” I don’t know who said it originally, but I first learned about it from Rihanna’s tattoo. To say that you learn more from your failures than your successes is nearly a cliché, but it is also the god’s honest truth. Our preference, as humans, is almost always to experience victories over failure, ease over hardship, elevation over hurdles. But, if I look at my career so far, I can see clearly see it was the times I have fallen down, been hurt, faced unfair circumstances, and had doors closed in my face that taught me, strengthened me, and have forced me to continually do the work to become a better version of myself. I see this in other people, too. Many of my least favorite people are those who have only ever experienced successes — to whom things have come too easily, who have been handed to much. The people I respect and admire most are largely those who have had to fight forward from loss and adversity.

The lesson I am working on now is being able to recognize the truth of “lesson not failure,” not only in hindsight but in the moment that it is happening to me. I’m trying to learn how to welcome difficulty with the open arms of eagerness that I would have if I always was able to understand that what was coming at me was just another lesson.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Reese Witherspoon. I have been grateful and excited about her work to move the issue of women in film forward and would like to thank her for what she has done. I also, bringing a perspective “from the front” that she herself does not have, have basketfuls of ideas about how to make her work even more effective and her impact greater.

This was really meaningful! Thank you so much for your time.

Share your comments below. Please read our commenting guidelines before posting. If you have a concern about a comment, report it here.

You might also like...


Influence and Inspire With the Power of Storytelling

by Viv Thackray

Emily Seale-Jones: “Don’t try to be what you think anyone else wants”

by Karina Michel Feld
Image courtesy of Yoni Circle

How This Former Snapchat Exec is Connecting the World Through New Stories

by Illana Raia
We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.