Feminists working on- and off-screen in Hollywood celebrated Netflix’s female stars and show-runners Sunday at their third annual Rebels & Rulebreakers event at Raleigh Studios Sunday.
After attendees made memories in the on-site portrait studio, saved some selfies from the step and toasted to equality during a champagne brunch, some of Netflix’s most prominent names in the running for Emmy nominations took the stage for two discussions around diversity, media representation and what it will take to build a better industry for women.
The first featured actors Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini from the new series Dead to Me, Natasha Lyonne from the acclaimed Russian Doll, Dascha Polanco from Orange is the New Black, Betty Gilpin from the smash-hit GLOW and Mary J. Blige from The Umbrella Academy. They opened up about the power of representation—and the impact their roles as strong female characters had on their careers and their own lives.
Lyonne, who not only stars in but led the creation of Russian Doll, knows the potential of that power intimately. “I think ultimately, for me, the journey of wanting to bring Nadia—in creating Russian Doll—I wanted to sort of speak about this underlying shame of human brokenness, and that theres some crime of being broken,” Lyonne explained, “and how great would it be instead to just tell the truth about what it’s like to be a person, to be a woman, with many facets—being tough, being vulnerable.”
Citing her inspiration—coming up with the image of the easy rider on the screen—Lyonne declared how badly she had wanted to see such that kind of spirit in her own characters. “There was a cockiness there,” she said. “There was space for men to simply think and eist on film, and we would trust that we’d all go along on that ride and we’d all be invested in that ride, you know, and in their existential thinking of such deep thoughts.”
“The only reason I’m on a show like this,” Gilpin asserted, “is because it was created by women who are stronger than me.” Gilpin confessed that she’s still grappling with bringing herself to set and with wielding her own power, but that being on GLOW had been a restorative experience for her in fighting her own internalized shame.
Blige echoed the sentiment. “When the role of Cha-Cha was brought to me, I was in the middle of a divorce and I was really, I had a lot of pent-up anger and I couldn’t just run cars over anybody, I couldn’t just burn anything down,” Blige explained, “so I had to pack it in and give it to Cha-Cha and let her give it back, and let her fight and shoot and just toss all the men around and toss my partner around and that’s why it was important for me—because I needed the role of Cha-Cha as therapy in the moment.”
The women also shared stories on the stage of the challenges they’ve faced as women—and the cautious optimism they have about the future of Hollywood.
“There was such a safe space to create,” Applegate remembered about making Dead to Me on a female-dominated set, adding that she relished in the supportive and understanding energy on set. “Women are supposed to be perfect. It was a nice space to be not perfect.”
“Women run the shows that are telling an important story, that have been a very pivotal part of our pop culture,” Polanco noted, “but also history, of discussions that we have had and that right now we continue to have as women… Just embracing that as a woman, and saying, you know, that this is important to us,” she observed, is radical.
Polanco also revealed that as a mother and a woman of color, she doubted that she’d have an opportunity to succeed—but that taking the risks and landing a chance on Orange changed everything, and that she was committed to continue working for even more. “Having these discussions and telling these stories and allowing people like me to be part of such great entertainment and to be able to be respected as an artist,” she clarified, “is not something I take granted.”
Applegate is also a mother, and she joked that her young daughter had learned some new words from the teaser clips of the women’s performances that flashed on screen before the discussion—but also declared that she was still glad she brought her there. “What’s she’s getting to see today is women empowering women,” the actor explained. “It’s exciting that my daughter is growing up in the world where the conversation is changing.”
Female showrunners, writers, producers and directors then took their seats for the second panel. Liz Feldman from Dead To Me, Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch from GLOW, Marta Kauffman of Grace and Frankie and Sophie Lanfear from Our Planet highlighted the importance of women’s leadership in Hollywood, the power of staying true to their visions and how they work to create nurturing and supportive spaces for their casts and crews.
This panel was the rulebreakers—and they knew it well. Each opened up about the ways in which they veered from the script of male leadership in the industry, and what they learned from it.
Kauffman has had to break more than a few in her legendary career. When she was working on Friends, she noted, the rules were personal. “If you were a good producer, as a woman, you were called a bitch,” she remembered. “I had to prove that I was a good producer, not just a terrible person.”
By the time Kauffman arrived at Grace and Frankie, she was contending with a new set of rules and working with a more diverse crew, but she faced a similar challenge by taking a new risk. “I felt like I had to prove myself all over again—I needed to prove something not only to myself, but to people who only knew me as one thing,” she explained. “I had to completely change my identity.”
One woman Kauffman didn’t need to prove anything more to was Mensch, who thanked her for being a pioneer in the field. “We’re allowed to be ourselves,” she declared, “because a lot of people fought for us.”
Lanfear, who traversed the Arctic to direct an episode of Our Planet, also relished in the chance to embody the role. “I didn’t want to be like them,” she said of the men in her industry. “That’s not how I lead.”
Feldman felt the same. “The rule I had to break to make the show I wanted to make,” she declared, “was to say no.” Feldman’s own leadership on Dead to Me has meant “leaning in” to the talents of her staff, and allowing everyone on set to have a seat at the table and a voice in the process.
The women made it clear that gender impacts the process of production—and that although the industry stands to benefit, too, so do the women who have a fair shot at telling women’s stories.
It was a theme Ms. magazine’s own Managing Digital Editor, Carmen Rios, said in her own remarks from the stage. (Ms. publisher Feminist Majority Foundation, alongside Women in Film and The Jane Club, partnered with Netflix on the event.)
“In the wake of #MeToo and Time’s Up, in a time where women remain vastly underrepresented across the entertainment industry and in this current political moment, today’s conversations couldn’t be more important,” Rios declared. “It makes a difference when women have an equal voice in shaping culture—and this afternoon has already been a powerful reminder that television is better when women are in the writers room, seated in director’s chairs and working in front of the camera.”