If you believe that women aren’t as funny as men, director Paul Feig is set on proving you wrong.
He’s the“king of feminist comedies,” a title he earned working with some of the most hilarious comediennes of this generation, including Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Melissa McCarthy, and Sandra Bullock. He directed the 2011 hit film Bridesmaids, which not only stars women but was written by women. When his 2016 all-female Ghostbusters reboot became a target for online trolls, he took them on, tweeting to defend members of his cast. And his next project is, Girls Code, a TV movie about a female tech CEO, which is currently in post-production.
Now he’s working to get more women get behind the camera, too. This year he helped start a company called Powderkeg, an incubator that will launch films from six diverse female directors.
Indeed, women are still underrepresented in Hollywood. Of the 100 top-grossing films of 2017, just 8% were directed by women, and only 24% starred female protagonists, according to the advocacy group Women and Hollywood.
In this interview with Quartz, Feig discusses his pursuit of gender equality in the film industry, the impact that bad movie husbands have had on his own life, and how parents can set the groundwork to help their sons view girls as their equals.
1. Did you actively think about workplace gender inequality prior to the Me Too movement? And what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from Me Too?
Yes. The reason I do the projects I do is because I was very frustrated with the way that women were being portrayed on screen. And then, as I’ve gotten deeper into this business, I’ve also realized how much inequity there is behind the camera. Sadly we’ve gone through many moments—back in the ’70s or the Year of the Woman—where it felt like everything was going to change for women, as far as gender equality and parity. But for some reason, we would always backslide.
But if there’s anything good that’s come out of the terrible situations that have led to the Me Too movement, it’s that this time, it feels like women have finally hit the point where they’re saying, “All right, enough.” This new movement is having more of an effect, and from my perspective, I’m seeing the fact that studios are actively trying to hire women directors and producers. Obviously there’s such a long way to go, but the fact that they’re actually doing this means they’re going to grow the pool of people who are “acceptable,” to the industry, having had the experience that they consider to be valid. And the more that door opens, the more women are going to plant a flag that will be hard to pull out.
2. Do you identify as a feminist? How do you define your feminism?
I have an issue with men calling themselves feminists, because I feel like it’s almost stealing the mantle a little. So I always describe myself as a man who is strongly supportive of the feminist agenda, and I do everything I can to help promote it and do what I can to support it and to play my part, because guys have to step up. Guys have had the overwhelming advantage for so long, and so we can’t suddenly be like, “Alright, now it’s time for gender equality, and ladies, you’re on your own, go ahead and make it happen.” We’re the gatekeepers, and we have been for so long, so we have to create the opportunity for women. And I’ve worked very hard to create great opportunities for women in front of the camera for years, and for women as producers and writers.
But I haven’t been as good with promoting female directors or department heads. So for me, now that I’ve got a little more power, I’m focusing on trying to empower and give opportunities to female directors and female filmmakers. Because you hit a point where it’s like, we just keep talking about gender equality. We keep making grandiose statements, and we’re on panels. I make a great statement, I get the applause, and it’s like, oh great, I did my part. But then I realized, no, that means nothing. And I don’t want to list accomplishments, but at my production company we just produced a movie for Netflix. Jenn Robinson wrote and directed it, we had an overwhelmingly female crew, all the department heads were female, and it worked out fantastic.
You know, the most toxic thing that I hear all the the time from very well-meaning people is when I say, ‘We need to get women on the crew wherever we can.’ And people will always say to me, ‘But we also have to make sure we get the best people for the job.’ And I find that terrible, because what they’re saying is, ‘Oh we know you want to meet your inclusion riders, but we can’t get somebody who’s not good for the role.’ And it’s like, why the fuck would I possibly hire somebody who’s not good for the role?
It’s such an onerous, kind of innocuous way to further the sexism because it’s saying that I’m somehow going to compromise and not hire somebody who’s great, which I would not do because there’s so many great women out there. It doesn’t do me any good if I hired somebody who was not great for the job.
3. What do you do on a daily basis to advance gender equality?
Well, every time somebody pitches up an idea and they’re like, “It’s about this guy who…,” I interrupt them and say, “Okay, well before you go on, what if instead of a guy, it’s a woman.” We just sold a show to a network I can’t say, and it was pitched to us as a man. It was a great pitch. But at the end I was like, “I just have one question: Could it be a woman?” And suddenly the creator of the show was like, “Well, let me think about that.” Then later he called me and was like, “You know, the show actually works even better if the main character is a woman.” And we ended up selling it with a female protagonist.
So, you know, I’m part of the ReFrame Movement. Anytime you’re putting together a story, hiring people, and you go, “Oh yeah, let’s get that guy,” I just try to make everyone say, “Wait, okay, before I do that, what if instead of hiring a guy I know, or a guy in general, what if we looked to hire a woman of color, or a woman, because that would be more inclusive and our show would be stronger?” And it’s amazing how that question can just change everything.
4. What do you think is the biggest threat to men in America today, and why?
Honestly, it’s their concern that empowered women will somehow diminish them, or take jobs and opportunities away from them. The patriarchy has been in place for so long that men are just terrified of it flipping, and that suddenly they’re going to be in the same position that women were. And all I can say to them is you still have a lot of power. So they’ve got to get out of this fear that equal women around them will somehow diminish them or somehow be the end of opportunity for them.
But it just drives them crazy. They just go unhinged. I’ve seen a lot of guys try to justify their fear of women where they’re like, “Oh I’m not sexist, but, but, but…” Well, it sounds a lot like you are.
5. Do you talk about sexism with your male peers? If so, what strategies prove most effective?
Well, I work with so many women that I don’t even have to deal with sexist men. But whenever I’m directing, in the morning we’ll do a safety meeting, where they’ll sort of say what’s coming up in the day, and always on the first day before anyone makes their introduction, I make a speech about how we’re just a zero-tolerance set. And I want everybody to have a great time, but we will not tolerate any sexism of any kind. None at all. I’ll even say, “Look, if you’ve got a joke that you think would be really funny but you’re not sure if it’s going to offend somebody, just don’t say it. You know, there’s no room for sexism here, so be ultra sensitive about it.” We’re very hardcore about it. I say, “If you or anyone feels uncomfortable, please come to us and let us know so we can handle it.”
I never want it to be like a slap-down, like, “Alright fellows, we know that you have within all of you some sort of sexism, so we’re going to be on the police job to keep you from acting on it.” For me it’s like, “Look, I know everybody here is cool, but just know that sometimes it’s completely inadvertent, or you think you’re being funny, or you think you’re being playful or cute or whatever. But just be sensitive about it because we’re going to be watching.”
6. What is your biggest anxiety about being a man?
Honestly, from childhood on, it was always about doing something that would be the wrong thing to do in front of a woman, to a woman, in service of a woman. I was an only child. I was very close with my mom, I used to watch a lot of movies and you see so many examples of bad husbands in movies. And I just lived in fear of doing anything that would be considered that way. I mean to this day I am obsessed with always putting the toilet seat down. There were so many jokes of guys who wouldn’t do that, so as a kid I was like, I’m not going to be like that.
Or I would watch movies of a marriage in trouble, and there’d be a husband reading a paper at the dinner table and not listening to his wife. So I said early on, “I’m never going to be the guy who doesn’t pay attention to his wife, or doesn’t treat her as an equal, or doesn’t acknowledge her presence.”
So over my life, I’ve just collected every example of a man doing something that’s not cool, or hurts a woman’s feelings. And I just spent my life just making sure that I don’t do that to the people around me.
7. What do you wish your female co-workers, and women at large, knew about you?
Well, I just hope they know how sincere I am about this cause, because since I was a kid it’s just been very, very important to me. And I assume everybody does know that because of my work and all that. But every once in a blue moon I’ll do a panel or something, and I’ll always worry like, “Do they just think I’m talking about gender equality to take advantage of a movement?” But I want everyone, especially women to know that this is so important to me. I want them to be the best that they can be. The only thing that will make me a mean person in this life is bullies. I will put up with anything, but if there’s a bully around and they’re bullying somebody, or they’re bullying me, I switch into a different person.
8. Some men feel like they can’t win: They’ll be criticized by men for speaking up, and by feminists for not speaking loud enough. What would you tell these men?
You just gotta do the right thing, and you can’t worry about perception. You know, over the course of my career, there have been hard moments. For the Ghostbusters thing, I was just pilloried for that by a certain group of guys. But who cares? It was just such a small minority, and it’s really nothing new. You’ve just got to do the right thing.
9. If you could take back one thing you’ve said or done that contributed to bias at work or at home, what would it be? Why?
Well, I guess for me it would be that I wish I had been more invested in driving parity behind the camera sooner. There’s still certain men on my team who I go to because we’re shorthanded and need someone fast. But what I’ve found is that when they’re not available, I’ll now say, okay, we need to find a female DP [director of photography] for this. And because of that, I’ve now worked with three different female DPs, and I would work with them again in a heartbeat. So I just wish I was more diligent on that earlier, focused on making sure we’re being gender-equal in front of the camera and creating the right roles for women behind the camera. So now for me, that’s the next step.
10. What’s the best advice you’ve received from another man, and what’s your best advice for young men today?
Well, my father was a very fair and very good man, but he just had absolute contempt for [any] married man who cheated on his wife. To him that was just completely inexcusable, and he really drummed it into my head. That is a very, that’s a terrible thing to do, he taught me, and no real man who’s worth anything would actually do that. So you need to be sure. You shouldn’t just jump into marriage lightly, and when you do, make sure it’s right. And stay with it.
And my best advice for young men today would be to be friends with women. You know, it’s not about trying to date everybody, if you’re into heterosexual relationships. Be friends with women, and that should really start when you’re kids.
If anything, I think this is advice for parents of boys, to make sure that their boys have female friends growing up. Because what happens when boys and girls aren’t friends with one another is it just becomes, you know, “Them versus us,” and girls are later thought of as a prize, or a conquest, or something to acquire sexually. But growing up, almost all my friends were girls. And because of that, I was always just in tune with what you should and shouldn’t do, or what upset them, or made them happy, or wasn’t cool. And once you have the groundwork for thinking of girls as equals, you can’t just shift that.