Hello and welcome. I’m Jennifer and I’m the President of the Film Lab. For those of you who followed the Shootout last year, you know we focused on the theme of colorblindness and the importance of perception in the media – the conscious and unconscious assumptions all of us make everyday based on the superficial appearance of others and their presence - or lack thereof - in media. The lack of presence of people of color in mainstream media creates a perception we don’t exist and the fact that, when we are portrayed, it is so often via negative stereotypes, created, for us and for the Shootout filmmakers, a mission to combat that through creating positive and prolific perceptions of people of color in the media. This work has only become more important as percentages of, for example, Asian Americans, on network TV are actually on the decline. Down roughly 3% even as our population increases.
This year, we continue with our work to change mainstream perceptions through media and in 2015 our focus is on the concept of beauty. Yes, beauty, with all its racial, social and gender connotations. What is beauty? Is it a biologically programmed imperative about symmetry and youth and health? Is it a socially and culturally programmed perception about white skin and thin bodies? I think it is a little bit of both but what I know is that whether or not we are perceived as “beautiful” significantly impacts our lives. Much like when we make snap judgments about others based on race, we do the same thing based on gender and on perceived beauty. Beauty, as a top runway model has said, is superficial and immutable and yet powerfully impacts the way we are treated by our society regardless of our inherent kindness, compassion, morality, or intelligence – characteristics that most of us would agree are far more important than “beauty.” Model Cameron Russell said people pay costs or get favors based on how they look, not who they are; and American mass media creates stylist constructions of ideals in their photos of models, not actual images of the people those models are. Is that a bad thing? I suggest to you that it probably is when nearly every model is photoshopped into body proportions that are genetic abnormalities because they are so rare, when nearly every mass media image of beauty is a white person (less than 4% of professional fashion models are non-white), and when 78% of 17-year-old American girls of all races say they don’t like their bodies. In some ways, it’s a brilliant marketing ploy. If advertisers can get us to believe the gold standard for beauty is a genetic abnormality that will be impossible, on a biological level, for us to achieve, there is no end to the money we will spend on products and services we hope will take us one step closer to that unreachable goal.
I’d like to say I don’t care whether you think I’m good looking and that I take no effort to appear “attractive,” but rather focus on being a smart, strong, healthy, and good person. If I told you that, though, my very footwear would reveal me to be a liar. Today, I voluntarily chose to hobble myself. I intentionally put on shoes I cannot run in, find painful to walk in and cannot even stand in for long periods of time. I chose to wear contraptions that cause me physical pain and that no podiatrist in the world would recommend because I bought into the mass media message that these shoes are beautiful and that they will lengthen the line of my leg and that long legs are beautiful. To be fair, I think many people in this room have, at some point, engaged in similar behavior. Why did we do that? For a lot of reasons, but one is because people treat those the media teaches us are attractive better in the first instance. Study after study shows we will hire, trust and give favors to those considered “attractive” over those we do not based on nothing more than their pretty faces. They might be serial killers with people chained in their basements while the wrinkled old lady applying for the same job is a saint, but it doesn’t matter. Statistically, the hot serial killer is probably going to get the job. Good looks will open a lot of doors, get you a lot of get out of jail free cards and unfairly stack the decks in your favor – kind of like being a white man. Which brings me to gender.
Women, particularly, are constantly bombarded by media messages to be younger, skinnier, more “beautiful” and that creates a gender divide in which, culturally, women are judged more than men on whether they are aesthetically pleasing rather than on their brains or their abilities. I’ll just throw out two real life examples of that. I first came on as President of the Film Lab in 2012 and someone who shall remain nameless wrote a message saying the president of the Film Lab should not be a woman because (1) the Asian community is very conservative and wouldn’t take a woman in a leadership role seriously; and (2) filmmakers are predominantly men so we need a man for a president. I did with that message what I do with all non-constructive criticism – I put it away to remember and took action to teach the writer a lesson through my conduct and my work about just how wrong he was and is. This year, we hired an amazing Shootout Coordinator. She is a professional videographer, editor and photographer. She is the best person for the job. She also happens to be a she. In fact, it appears that she is the first ever female Shootout Coordinator – the first female in the Shootout’s 11-year-history. As Shootout Coordinator, she reached out to many organizations, sponsors and companies and she encountered some situations, one of which I will share. She went in to speak to a high level entertainment executive about the Shootout whose name I won’t reveal and whose gender I won’t reveal. Don’t jump to conclusions and assume it was a man. Women are just as capable of men of reaching sexist conclusions. The Shootout Coordinator met with this executive and, at the end of the meeting, the executive asked her who would be doing the final editing of the premiere and overseeing the technical aspects of the Shootout. When she said, “Me,” she got laughter, derision and raised eyebrows, followed by a series of low level, condescending questions – like “Sweetheart, do you know what a boom mic is?” - meant to test her technical knowledge. To my knowledge, that’s never happened to any of our past (male) Shootout Coordinators. When she told me about the experience, I was not pleased but she was very calm and she said, “You know what Jen? It’s our opportunity to teach this person and everyone like this person a lesson about who we are and what we are capable of.”
So now the filmmakers in this room are about to create media; entertainment that may be shown at festivals from New York to Los Angeles, broadcast on television and blasted out online across the globe. To use the words of Shootout judge David Elliott, the filmmakers will become Gods. They will have the ability to create any world they desire. So, what world will they build? One like our own that judges and rewards based on some concept of skinny, white beauty? Or a new world? Will they create “beauty” made up of compassion and intelligence…people who are little people, disabled, Asian, Black, Latino, multi-racial? For the next 72 hours, they will have the power to create any message they wish in any world they want to imagine.
Make no mistake, societal ideals of beauty encompass a legacy of gender and racial oppression through their omission of people who don’t conform to the skinny, symmetrical, white model and, in doing so, create a world in which the majority of us are marginalized for meaningless, unchangeable characteristics.
Ethical is beautiful. Be beautiful.