In a perfect world, there would be no need for a media platform highlighting groundbreaking women in history. But if history has taught us anything, it's that female achievements are often forgotten or filtered out. Female journalists, spies, investigators, pilots, soldiers, and even cinematic pioneers are only now being rediscovered and added back into the historical narratives where they always belonged.
The progress is slow. Earlier this year, New York's Department of Education included only one woman in its list of notable people in world history (until public outcry shook them out of their narrow thinking). It's a number that was easily bested by an unlikely source: Comedy Central's Drunk History, in which comedians get wildly drunk and tell the stories of notable historical figures. The show's second season boasted multiple women and people of color in its sketches, telling the little-known stories of women like Edith Wilson (who functionally ran the executive branch after Woodrow Wilson's stroke) and Claudette Colvin (the woman arrested for challenging bus segregation before Rosa Parks).
In a similar (but more sober) spirit comes MAKERS, a media platform dedicated to highlighting insights and accomplishments from notable women over the last 50 years. A half century might sound narrow, but the shorter time frame allows viewers to hear directly from these women instead of just hearing about them. The site is essentially a Cliff's Notes of modern female achievements, from entertainment to science to law enforcement. And now it's extending into documentary film.
From Sept. 30 to Nov. 4, PBS is working with MAKERS to air a series of one-hour documentaries on female pioneers in comedy, Hollywood, space, politics, business, and war. Of course, fitting half a century into an hour would be impossible, but each segment does an admirable job explaining how the fight for equality has changed over the years.
It's also a far more thorough take than anything conventionally released by Hollywood. Coming from an industry almost universally dominated by white men, historical narratives have generally posed two problems. One: Narratives are typically crafted by men, which leads to an omnipresent male filter on history and authority. Two: Complaints over lack of diversity ring hollow when films fail to diversify even their own productions.
MAKERS answers both problems by assembling an impressively diverse group of women. Leslie Mann, Julia Roberts, Jodie Foster, Alfre Woodard, Julianna Margulies, and Christiane Amanpour narrate the films, and almost all the segments are directed by women: Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, Linda Goldstein Knowlton, Grace Lee, and Jamila Wignot. The behind-the-camera diversity resulted in a collection of narratives that are more diverse than history books ever show: Mae Carol Jemison becoming the first African-American woman in space; Indian-born Indra Nooyi becoming the head of Pepsi; Ava DuVernay becoming the first African-American woman to win the Best Director Prize at Sundance; and more.
Not all of these achievements would make it into normal history books, but it does paint a wider and sometimes jarring picture of how much we've evolved and how much we've regressed. It's downright amusing to watch the long-forgotten controversy that surrounded Thelma and Louise, as male talking heads rail against a movie that dares to portray men in a negative light. In darker moments, it feels like a step back; 2014 juxtaposes tragically with a hopeful world almost 50 years ago, when Shirley Chisholm became the first African-American woman elected to Congress.
It's hard to watch these clips and think about the women who ended up on the cutting room floor. Unfortunately, this isn't The Roosevelts, in which a documentarian gets 14 hours to tell a single family's story. MAKERS has far more ground to cover in less than half the time, and the more you know about a topic, the more omissions you'll spot. "Hollywood," for example, attempts to distil everything about North American cinema and television into an hour. The result hits some very important milestones, but misses many more: the segment praises producer Judd Apatow for Bridesmaids without mentioning director Paul Feig, whose work on the film started a new empire of female comedy led by Melissa McCarthy (first with The Heat, and soon with Spy).
Other moments, however, add untold depths to the standard narrative. In reminiscing about 9 to 5, Jane Fonda explains how she began to merge her activism with her film work, and how the hit comedy came from a real organization of working women sharing their struggles:
MAKERS offers the rare chance to appreciate the unique accomplishments of women — but in a larger sense, it's a shame it was necessary at all. In the words of Joy Behar in the "Comedy" segment, "This is the last doc I ever want to see about women in comedy." Recognition is a good start — but full inclusion, as it always should have been, is the real answer.
Girls on Film is a weekly column focusing on women and cinema. It can be found at TheWeek.com every Friday morning. And be sure to follow the Girls on Film Twitter feed for additional femme-con.