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Ketanji Brown Jackson’s June 30 swearing-in as the first Black woman on the Supreme Court was historic and inspiring. While her ascendance just six days after the court’s overturn of Roe v. Wade struck many as ironic and dispiriting, it should also serve as a powerful reminder that in Washington, D.C., as well as in Hollywood, the battle for equity is often fought behind closed doors.
In 2018, I produced a documentary called Reversing Roe that explored the perilous state of reproductive rights in America. I first started pitching the project nearly a decade ago, inspired by Planned Parenthood’s first 100 years. I was driven not only by my desire to transition off-camera after years on cable news, but also by the disappointing coverage of reproductive policy I encountered during my years as a journalist; a Media Matters study found that male voices dominated coverage of this issue. (I once admonished a cable news personality, whom I like and respect, after he and other male pundits repeatedly interrupted my female friend during a discussion of birth control on air.) What I learned in the process of producing Reversing Roe is that while who tells our stories certainly matters, the decision-makers determining what stories get told really matters. I also learned just how similar entertainment and politics are.
Both often celebrate popularity over substance, and who appears to have power is not always indicative of who actually does. (There’s a reason the notorious adage that politics is for people not attractive enough to make it as movie stars has endured.) More films and television shows exist about campaigns than governance, because good governance isn’t glamorous, sexy or exciting. Similarly, in Hollywood, the stars (A-list talent onscreen and off) get the glory. But just as it doesn’t matter if there’s a woman in (or adjacent to) the Oval Office if the judiciary makes rulings harmful to women, Hollywood’s deficits in gender and racial equity will remain until we get more diverse power in corner offices, not just on red carpets.
I saw this firsthand when I pitched the early iteration of Reversing Roe. The most common refrains I heard from male executives and potential producers were: “No one thinks the 2016 election will be about this issue” or “You should try shopping this after Hillary’s inauguration.” (Nope, not kidding.) Then I met a female executive named Abra Potkin, who at the time was a senior vice president at Disney ABC Television Group. We were ostensibly meeting about a potential on-air opportunity but when she asked, “If you could do anything, what would it be?” I told her about the documentary. She immediately gathered some of her best female news producers to see how we could get it made. Every single one of them recognized the importance and urgency of the subject matter. Despite one obstacle after another, for years Abra refused to let the project die, ultimately shepherding the project to Eva Longoria, who joined our producing team. Critically acclaimed directors Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg followed, making the finish line feel like it was finally within reach… but all of that didn’t quite get us there. Donald Trump’s election did.
The night of the 2016 election, I co-hosted coverage for WNYC, New York’s NPR affiliate, in front of a live audience. It was like emceeing for a crowd that arrived for a wedding that turned into a wake. The following morning, I was part of an on-air discussion with Gloria Steinem about what the election meant. Obviously, that conversation had a much different tone than originally imagined. But Abra reached out that morning and told me, “Now this film will definitely happen.” She was right.
My goal as a storyteller is to represent those who never get a chance to be in rooms that I’m in. When Abra asked about my inspiration for the film, I talked about my grandmother being one of 14 children, and how family planning was ultimately the pathway out of poverty for my family. I discussed various women in my life who confided about their terrifying pre-Roe experiences with illegal abortions and the conflicting attitudes within my own family on the issue. She listened and got it, and even when the film and the team behind it shifted during the development process, her commitment to the project never did. (Netflix ultimately became the film’s home, ensuring its completion and 2018 release.)
My takeaway from that particular experience, and my subsequent experiences as a screenwriter, is this: It doesn’t matter what stories I write or produce if the person I am pitching them to doesn’t think they matter. I am not insinuating that female and BIPOC executives can solve all of Hollywood’s equity problems any more than Clarence Thomas serving on the Supreme Court does. (To be clear, male allies are essential in the battle for equity, as are people from diverse political backgrounds. And unlike Amy Coney Barrett, Sandra Day O’Connor, who is a lifelong Republican and the first woman on the Supreme Court, upheld Roe in earlier decisions.) Conservatives recognized a long time ago that ensuring they are well-represented in the unglamorous corridors of powers, like all levels of the judiciary (not just the Supreme Court), is ultimately the key to power. They also recognized long ago that elevating diverse voices to positions of power that actually matter is not just smart optics but smart strategy. So those of us who truly care about gender and racial equity in Hollywood need to think just as strategically.
In a post-Roe world, thinking about which women you want to run for president in 2024 and beyond is important. But so is convincing smart, ambitious women who aspire to be Kamala Harris or Hillary Clinton that the world needs more women judges, too. Not just future superstars like Ketanji Jackson, but also the women whose names we may never know, but who will wield enormous power and impact us all. Similarly, while I do want to see more female screenwriters, directors, showrunners, producers and stars of major projects, I really want to see more women on the boards of entertainment conglomerates and more female TV and film executives. Because my ultimate dream is to see more women in Hollywood with the power to determine that stories about women and that matter to women can and should be told — without having to ask a man if he agrees.
Keli Goff was nominated for two Emmy Awards for her work on Reversing Roe, a history of the Supreme Court’s battles over abortion. A contributor to KCRW’s Left, Right & Center, her recent screenwriting credits include HBO Max’s And Just Like That and Peacock’s Joe vs. Carole.
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