Last week YouTube announced a new channel called Wigs that will feature short scripted dramas about strong female characters — played by stars like Jennifer Garner, Julia Stiles, America Ferrera and Dakota Fanning.
But why would marquee names sign up for a bootstrapped project on YouTube? According to several actors and directors involved, it has everything to do with sexism in Hollywood.
Jennifer Beals (The L Word), who stars in one of the series, says she was criticized for making small suggestions to a male director on a recent shoot for a Hollywood studio production. "I said to the director, is this going to cut together with my coverage? And they said back to me, 'Wow don't you worry your pretty little head about that.' And I said, go f***yourself.'"
The channel will be helmed by Black Swan producer Jon Avnet and In Treatment creator Rodrigo Garcia (who's also the son of writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez). "It is really appalling the way that female characters and the actresses playing them are subjected to the many layers of approval of how hair should look," Garcia says of his past experience working in TV. "It's things like whether you should and must wear heels while you're gunning down people in an alley. It's really a relentless judgment that's passed about how a woman should look."
He adds: "Here's something you hear all the time: 'Is she likable enough? Can we make her more likable?' That's the kind of scrutiny and judgment that the system puts on female characters."
Caitlin Gerard (The Social Network), who stars in one of the Wigs series, says she butted heads with a director recently when he wanted her to look "sexier" — for a role that was supposed to be of a "young nerdy girl." She says when she asked for which audience did she really have to be so sexy, they responded: "For the 10 to 13-year-old girls."
The actors in the Wigs series say the channel has thus far been a refuge from Hollywood's endless red tape and subpar treatment of women. "You can read something that's fun and funny, but by the time it gets watered down through the layers and layers of sediment it has to go through, it comes out as what you see most of the time," says Virginia Madsen, who starred in Sideways and A Prairie Home Companion. That's not the case on Wigs, where Madsen plays a tough high-profile photographer and Beals is a soldier at war. And Julia Stiles's series is about a prostitute simultaneously helping her son with AP Physics homework.
It's been a home run for showcasing female actresses, but also for women behind the scenes. "When it comes to the characters women are portraying on screen, it has improved, but there's a lot of room for more," Avnet said. "Not only are we looking at actresses, we're looking at female writers and directors too."
Wigs and YouTube won't disclose any information about salary or budgeting, but the actresses and directors made it clear that they're earning less than they would from a Hollywood studio production. They all seemed content with the pay cut, grateful for the good roles, good treatment and creative freedom that Wigs is promising.
Going hand-in-hand with sexism in Hollywood is ageism, particularly for women. "Many of our actor friends who are actresses above the ripe old age of 30 are struggling to find good roles," Garcia said. It's an issue Wigs is actively trying to address — Beals, for example, is 48 — and one that more Hollywood insiders are speaking out about.
“What movie would you make for them?” a former studio chief recently told Vulture. “They can’t date anymore, they’re all mothers. After a while, trying to extract the same story from the same tropes gets old.”
In January, George Clooney told Entertainment Weekly: "It’s much harder to get a film with a woman lead made. When a man hits 40 is when roles just begin to happen. And for women it doesn’t happen. I find that to be a very concerning issue.”
But now that they've gotten a taste of what the possibilities for women actors are outside of the Hollywood machine, will these women be able to return to Hollywood's crappy treatment? "You can go back," Beals said. "But you go back with a stronger voice, and you say what you really think. And you say, well Jon Avnet would let me do this. It's really empowering."