TV's leading ladies drop wisdom about sexism, ageism, and racism in Hollywood
In a roundtable discussion earlier this week with The Hollywood Reporter, Viola Davis, Taraji P. Henson, Jessica Lange, Lizzy Caplan, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Ruth Wilson (basically television’s female royalty) weighed in on everything from their dream roles to the unparalleled awkwardness of getting naked on screen. All six of the women are serious contenders for Best Actress in a Drama Series Emmy nominations this year — and unsurprisingly, we loved what they had to say. The roundtable was thorough, insightful, and very fun — and is well worth a watch and read in its entirety. But in particular, the women had a lot to say on typecasting, racism, ageism, and sexism and it is SO worth rehashing here.
In particular, Davis delved into the fact that a majority of the roles she’s been offered have been for “downtrodden, mammy-ish” women — which is why her powerful character on How to Get Away With Murder was such a revelation.
“There was absolutely no precedent for it. I had never seen a 49-year-old, dark-skinned woman who is not a size 2 be a sexualized role in TV or film,” Davis told The Hollywood Reporter. “I’m a sexual woman, but nothing in my career has ever identified me as a sexualized woman. I was the prototype of the ‘mommified’ role. Then all of a sudden, this part came, and fear would be an understatement.”
“When I saw myself for the first time in the pilot episode, I was mortified,” she continued. “And then I thought: ‘OK, this is your moment to not typecast yourself, to play a woman who is sexualized and do your investigative work to find out who this woman is and put a real woman on TV who’s smack-dab in the midst of this pop fiction.'”
Of course, Davis went on to do just that, and Annalise Keating instantly became one of the most compelling and dynamic characters on TV. It’s absolutely thrilling to see a flawed and relatable woman (of color, no less!) on the screen, and Davis goes on to discuss why breaking out of the typecast is so important.
“The thing I had to get used to with TV was the likability factor. People have to like you, people have to think you’re pretty. I was going to have to face a fact that people were going to look at me and say: ‘I have no idea why they cast her in a role like this,'” Davis said. “But what I say to that is the women in my life who are sexualized are anywhere from a size zero to a size 24. They don’t walk like supermodels in heels. They take their wig and makeup off at night. So this role was my way of saying, ‘Welcome to womanhood!'”
Heck yeah! Everyone deserves to see someone they can relate to represented in popular culture — because no one narrow idea of beauty or personhood should ever be the norm. Diverse representation has never been as important in film and television as it is today, and telling the stories of complex, “imperfect” women has the power to do an incredible amount of good.
“[The role has] healed me and shown a lot of little dark-skinned girls with curly hair a physical manifestation of themselves,” Davis continued.
Davis was definitely not the only one at the table who had fallen victim to being typecast in the past. Each of the women found that many characters they’d auditioned for were often reduced down to their looks alone — easily falling into outdated tropes and stereotypes.
“When I was starting out, I used to hear ‘no’ a lot and still do. And, ‘You’re not sexy enough. You’re not pretty enough,'” Gyllenhaal said. Henson was quick to agree, and Gyllenhaal continued: “When I was really young, I auditioned for this really bad movie with vampires. I wore a dress to the audition that I thought was really hot. Then I was told I wasn’t hot enough. My manager at the time said, ‘Would you go back and sex it up a little bit?’ So I put on leather pants, a pink leopard skinny camisole and did the audition again and still didn’t get the part. After that, I was like, ‘OK, f–k this!'”
“Actors who aren’t open to doing television are missing out,” Caplan, who stars in Master of Sex, said. “Roles in TV are better for women anyway. In film, we’re relegated to the nagging wife or the ‘slutty’ girl in the leather pants with the pink leopard print.”
Honest portrayals of female sexuality and expression were a huge part of the roundtable discussion, as well. All of the actresses were quick to note the imbalance between how women experience and/or enjoy sex on the screen and how men do. And each of them found that the most compelling characters they’d played challenged these notions.
“For a long time, I did all these costumed, quiet, innocent women. Then I was offered a role on Luther — this psychotic, sexy, femme fatale character, totally at odds with what I’d done before,” Wilson said. “And it was exactly the right timing.”
“There are assumptions that women are always the focus of titillation,” she continued. “And I wanted my contract to say: ‘For every female orgasm, there had to be a male orgasm.'”
It’s obvious that an important theme at the roundtable was the idea of breaking the mold on how women are portrayed in film and TV — and we can think of few women who so flawlessly prove its importance as Davis, Henson, Lange, Caplan, Gyllenhaal, and Wilson.
“I want to feel like my past has counted for something,” Davis said. “I’ve been doing this for 27 years. I’ve performed in basements, churches, off-Broadway. I want the work to reflect my level of gifts and talent. I don’t want it to reflect my color, my sex or my age. That’s what I want most.”
You can read the rest of the roundtable discussion right here, or in the latest issue of The Hollywood Reporter.