They tell us Time’s Up for Hollywood. They tell us that things are changing, that they are getting better, and that time is up for outdated sexism in the film industry. Well, the new short film LEADING LADY PARTS by Gemma Arterton reminds us that we still have a long way to go.

Behind LEADING LADY PARTS

LEADING LADY PARTS comes to us from the Time’s Up movement. If you’ve somehow managed to miss the first half of 2018 (lucky you), you may be unfamiliar with Time’s Up. Time’s Up is a movement dedicated to eradicating gender-based inequality in the workplace. In their own words:

The clock has run out on sexual assault, harassment and inequality in the workplace. It’s time to do something about it.

Time’s Up was originally started by women in the film industry responding to the Harvey Weinstein case. After seeing how one man was able to use his position of power to prey on young actresses, they wanted to do something. Although Time’s Up is dedicated to helping women “from the factory floor to the floor of the Stock Exchange,” it is commonly associated most strongly with Hollywood.

Recently, a group of actresses was meeting to discuss what they could do to support Time’s Up. Felicity Jones suggested they work together to do something, and the idea of LEADING LADY PARTS was born. Gemma Arterton volunteered her production company Rebel Park Productions to produce a short film.

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Arterton said that she felt it was best “to do something lighthearted and more comical that got the message out without beating anyone over the head.” Jessica Swale, an accomplished playwright, wrote and directed the short. LEADING LADY PARTS takes Hollywood to task on its continued lack of representation. True to Arterton’s vision, it’s a funny glimpse at a serious problem.

The Film

LEADING LADY PARTS features three casting executives trying to find the perfect person to fill the role of Leading Lady. The casting execs are Arterton, Catherine Tate, and Anthony Welsh. As each actress comes in and reads for the part, the casting execs find some ridiculous reason to turn her down. Before they even get that far, they are appalled to realize that the actresses find the part “feisty,” “bold,” and “clever,” which is something they neither want nor care about.

Then comes the read. First up is Emilia Clarke. Before Clarke can get more than two lines into her read, the execs stop her and ask her to smile more. Clarke argues that this is a tragic scene, so she imagined the character crying. While Tate is aghast at the thought of the leading lady crying, Arterton and Welsh argue that crying is okay… as long as it’s not ugly crying. Cute, sexy crying is fine. Just, you know, smile while you do it.

Leading Lady Parts
Image courtesy of Rebel Park Productions.

Up next is Stacy Martin. Again, the execs stop her quickly. They want her to wear more make-up. What she says is not remotely important… it’s all about how she looks. They hand her a bag of make-up, and we see her restart her read with peachy cheeks and a whole lot less enthusiasm.

Continuing that trend of looks over substance is the next actress, Felicity Jones. Jones makes it all of three words before Welsh asks her to wear less clothing. As the execs prompt her to lose more and more layers, Jones points out the character is a doctor, in London, in November. It makes no sense for her to be scantily clad. The execs don’t care, all they want is more skin showing.

Increasingly Absurd

The short ramps up the absurdity (and realism) next. While the first few actresses were given unrealistic expectations, they were at least things that could be changed, even if they shouldn’t. Now, the execs are asking impossible feats.

They ask Florence Pugh to be thinner. They present this as a simple request, like magically getting thinner is in the same vein as handing Stacy Martin a make-up bag. When Pugh questions further, the execs give her a set of maddeningly contradictory instructions. The character needs to be thin and curvy, innocent and sexy. When Pugh asks which one they want, they cheerfully answer “both!”

leading lady parts
Image courtesy of Rebel Park Productions.

They ask Gemma Chan to be “more white.” Wummi Mosaku and Katie Leung aren’t even given a chance to read, judged on their race. Tate tells Mosaku that this is “not that kind of film” and that the auditions for “Black Panther Returns” are the next room over. Leung is threatened with Tate’s “look at my face” routine to get her out of the room when she dares suggest she read.

They reject Lena Headey outright for being too old. When Headey rightfully points out that she has a catalog of leading parts on her IMDb, the execs point out that she’s a leading lady’s mum, not a leading lady. Sure, she plays badass mums, hot mums, but still mums.

Finally, despairing ever finding their leading lady, one last candidate enters the room… Tom Hiddleston. He isn’t even given a chance to read before Tate stops him. Unlike the other applicants, though, this time she’s not shooting him down. Instead, Tate gives Hiddleston the job immediately.

Parody or Reality?

Sure, LEADING LADY PARTS is a parody. But it’s also maddeningly realistic as a reflection of representation in Hollywood and the pigeonholing of “leading lady” roles. Hollywood all too often limits female protagonists in ridiculous ways. How often have we seen a leading lady in an outlandishly skimpy outfit that matches neither her circumstances or her character? How often does a leading lady have an unrealistic full face of make-up?

It’s when the absurdity ramps up that the short really gets its bite. The critiques lobbied at Pugh, Chan, Mosaku, and Headey are distressingly on point. The section with Pugh really hits the nail on the head. A leading lady, according to the casting execs, should be thin, but with a great rack and hips — but not “baby-bearing” hips, of course.

leading lady parts
Image courtesy of Rebel Park Productions.

They want a “thin sexy virgin hooker with boobs and hips, but not big ones.” This dichotomy is really frustrating… and all too common in Hollywood. After all, as Tate sums up the contradictory characterization, they’re looking for “just, you know, leading lady.” Because that really does describe a lot of leading lady roles.

The critique of Chan, Mosaku, and Leung is also telling. In 2017, only 4% of the top grossing films had a woman of color as the protagonist. Hollywood is still overwhelmingly white, and films that feature people of color in main roles are often seen as “those kinds of films.”

And yeah, Headey might be a protagonist of a major cultural zeitgeist, but older women are not a popular choice for leading roles. Only 5% of the top grossing films in 2017 featured a woman over 45 in the lead role. Sure, Headey is not quite 45 yet, but she’s definitely older than most leading ladies.

What Can We Do

LEADING LADY PARTS draws attention to the lack of representation for leading lady roles. As Arterton said, they wanted to make it a fun message to reach a broader audience. While I personally don’t think there’s anything wrong with “beating people over the head” when it comes to sexism, she has a point. So, one thing you can do is share LEADING LADY PARTS and get more people to watch it.

If you want to take more direct action, there are some things you can do. LEADING LADY PARTS is part of an attempt to raise money for the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund. You can donate if you feel comfortable doing so. You can call out people around you if you see them perpetuate stereotypes and inequality. Use your voice, whatever your chosen platform, to spread the word that Time is Up.

leading lady parts
Image courtesy of Rebel Park Productions.

But the biggest thing we can do is be proactive consumers. Dollar bills run the game. Making careful choices in consumption is how we can use our influence. Show Hollywood that yes, there is a market for movies with women of color, older women, fat women in the lead roles. Don’t consume products that limit women to “sexy virgin hooker” or smiley-crying protagonist.

Personally, I hadn’t seen Pugh, Chan, or Mosaku in anything before. Part of that is because Hollywood doesn’t like to make big names of women of color or larger women. But part of that is because I haven’t sought out that content. A quick look at their IMDb pages shows content to consume. I just have to make the active choice to find that content. You can too, and together we can show Hollywood that we want more diverse roles for our leading ladies.

Take Action

The real clincher of LEADING LADY PARTS is in a tiny, almost hidden detail. None of the actresses makes it even two full sentences into a read-through. Clarke gets the furthest, giving us the largest glance at what the lines are. “It’s what I’ve always wanted… the chance to spe-” and then the execs cut her off. Extrapolating, it seems like she’s supposed to say “the chance to speak,” but ironically, the execs cut her off before she gets the chance.

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This is what we need. We need the chance to speak out about inequality. Arterton, Swale, and these actresses are taking the chance to speak with LEADING LADY PARTS. They’re using their platform. Now, we need to follow their example. This is our chance to speak. Take it.

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