When I made Unicornland, a series about a woman exploring her sexuality post-divorce, I committed to the cause of promoting #womeninfilm. Our 60% non-white cast and crew was also 70% female, and included many independent female rising stars. I am honored to feature their work, and through that, their politics and causes.
While producing and promoting this controversial story, I have had many fascinating conversations with female collaborators about how their gender has affected their film careers. This article, on role models and formative experiences, is the first installation in a series of interviews with the women of Unicornland.
NANA MENSAH (Actress/writer/producer, “Julianne” in Unicornland):
My role model was my high school boyfriend’s mother, Billie Tsien. She’s an architect who’s won the National Medal of Arts. I come from a conservative African family, where the expectation was always to be a doctor or a lawyer. Meeting this woman who followed her passion into a successful career in the arts gave me the courage to pursue storytelling for a living.
Billie is also Chinese-American. She told that “if you ever forget that you are black or Chinese, leave it to someone else to remind you." What this means to me is—your job is to do your work your way. Let your color, gender or ethnic background be someone else’s problem.
LAURA RAMADEI (Actress/Producer, “Annie” in Unicornland):
I was a tomboy who grew up thinking the phrase “like a girl” was a bad thing. Being “one of the boys” gave me an implied confidence and natural self-awareness that men more often have in older life. For a long time, I resisted the word “feminine”. It took a long time to evolve into a woman who could proudly say “I’m a feminist”, and not worry about offending guy friends.
But as a performer, it wasn’t productive to reject who I was. There were a lot of frustrations against the limited assumptions--and opportunities--based on my gender. You’re constantly confronted with the question “should I take this job as a dumb underwritten female role, or turn it down for the sake of feminism? "
I talked to Judith Light—who has been a role model—after one awful experience. My director had said “my job was to make people want to fuck me," and I'd swallowed my rage to get the work done. Afterwards Judith helped me see ways I could have educated the director, to better my surroundings with grace, dignity and self-respect. Biting your tongue isn’t the best thing to do; nor is throwing a fit and storming off set.
Through trial and error, I have learned not to accept things as they were, but to enhance the status of my gender through my work.
CLEO GRAY (Actress, “Veronica” in Unicornland):
I’m adopted, and Asian. My family is white, and so supportive—especially my dad. Growing up, my perspective was skewed—I knew who I was and didn't care who the world thought I was.
I was lucky in that the first theater companies I worked with in NYC were the Flea, and the Ensemble Studio Theatre. Both have a lot of diversity and equality in their communities of playwrights, directors and actors. Because the theater community is so open-minded, I’ve been shocked this election to see women tearing down other women. I'm not surprised when men do this out of ignorance or arrogance, but for women to get competitive, and to use shame shows such deeply ingrained misogyny.
I admire Lena Dunham for speaking freely against social conditioning of women’s experiences. And Madonna, who is just f***ing great. Also people I know, like Laura Ramadei, for her work with Lesser America and the American Playwriting Foundation.
MARCI MUDD (Production Designer on Unicornland):
I grew up in a very gender neutral environment. My mother did all of the hard work with my dad in his construction business. Not just the books—she was up there on the roof. She raised three daughters, and never allowed us to pull the “woman” excuse. She wasn’t a feminist in voice, but she was in action and spirit.
In my career in film, I view all the women I work with as role models. It wasn’t so long ago that the only women on set were secretaries and actresses. Marielle Heller is the director of my current project, and she’s an inspiration. She’s personable, really intuitive with the characters, collaborative, and still very much at the head of the film. I respect that while she’s unassuming, she knows what the hell she’s talking about.
ARINA BLEÍMAN (Director of Photography on Unicornland):
DIANA OH (Writer/Actress/Musician, “Samara” in Unicornland):
Erika Lust does an incredible TED talk on how women need to get involved in porn so that they can steer people's perspectives on female sexuality. I couldn't agree more. I'm tired of being fed the belief that femininity and sexual prowess are signs of weakness.
I've also known Unicornland writer/producer Lucy Gillespie for years. Watching her growth as a human, and the art she’s making now is one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. She has an awareness of how women could be represented and treated in film, and is awesome at making people feel empowered and sexy. She's the kind of woman who makes you want to say, "fuck it."
ERICA ROSE (Assistant Director on Unicornland):
I grew up in the 90s, when lot of new queer cinema was centered around “coming out” to explore sexuality for the first time, or “the taboo relationship." Both themes are centered on repression, and mostly end in tragedy. In that era (the 90s), gay people weren’t fully able to feel love in the way they wanted to, and the way straight counterparts could, so this work was highly relevant then.
While I was appreciative of those films, I’m more inspired by Steven Soderbergh, Pedro Almodovar, Wong Kar-Wai, Jane Campion, David Lynch. Many of their films have a heterosexual narrative, with homosexual undertones. And a lot of those films dealt with female sexuality in an interesting/complicated way that didn’t exist in the mainstream.
ELLEN ROBIN ROSENBERG (HMU / Stylist on Unicornland):
Other kids teased me when Ellen came out (because of our names). I admire Ellen DeGeneres, but I couldn’t relate to her. The word “lesbian” always bothered me and I never knew why. Now I realize it’s because I’m not a lesbian.
There was never a cool bisexual role model I could relate to as a femme-but-tough womyn who tends towards non-female traditional work and roles. I was always more defined by what I didn’t want. There was a theme throughout my childhood of opting out.