#40: Abigail Disney and Dorothy Fortenberry 2018
Legislators of the World, April 24, 2019
Abigail Disney is an award-winning filmmaker, philanthropist, and the CEO and president of Fork Films, which has supported more than 50 films and series that focus on social issues. Dorothy Fortenberry is a producer and writer on Hulu’s Emmy Award-winning series The Handmaid’s Tale. In this wide-ranging conversation with Jennifer Holberg, co-director of the CCFW, they discuss the ethical imperatives that shape—and should shape—the stories we tell on-screen.
- Abigail Disney,
- Pray the Devil Back to Hell
- The Armor of Light
- Dorothy Fortenberry,
- The Handmaid’s Tale
- The 100
- Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
Pete Ford (host): [00:00:00] Support for Rewrite Radio comes from the Fetzer Institute, helping build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Fetzer envisions a world that embraces love as a guiding principle and animating force for our lives—a powerful love that helps us live in sacred relationship with ourselves, others, and the natural world. Learn more by visiting fetzer.org.
In this episode: what does it mean to use film and television for the good? Calvin Center for Faith and Writing Co-Director Jennifer Holberg leads a robust conversation with media mavens Abigail Disney and Dorothy Fortenberry.
This is Rewrite Radio.
I’m Pete Ford, a junior at Calvin College and a Student Fellow at the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing.
On today’s Rewrite Radio: working in the television and movie industry, Abigail Disney and Dorothy Fortenberry are involved in making some of the most significant media today. In this wide-ranging conversation with Jennifer Holberg, co-director of the CCFW, they discuss the ethical imperatives that shape—and should shape—the stories we tell on-screen.
Abigail Disney is an award-winning filmmaker, philanthropist, and the CEO and president of Fork Films, which has supported more than 50 films and series that focus on social issues. Disney received her bachelor’s degree from Yale, her master’s from Stanford, and her doctorate from Columbia. An active supporter of peacebuilding, Disney is passionate about advancing women’s roles in the public sphere. In 2008, she turned to documentaries—inspired by the story of a group of women who used nonviolence to bring an end to Liberia’s long civil war. The film, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, was named best documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival. Disney’s directorial debut, The Armor of Light, premiered at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.
Dorothy Fortenberry is a producer and writer on Hulu’s Emmy Award-winning series The Handmaid’s Tale. Prior to that, she spent three years on the writing staff for the CW series The 100. In 2017, IAMA Theatre Company produced the world premiere production of Fortenberry's play Species Native to California, a modern re-telling of The Cherry Orchard. Her play Partners had its world premiere at the Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville. Fortenberry's essays on subjects including faith, fear, and the politics of country music have appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Real Simple, and Pacific Standard. Fortenberry is a recipient of the Helen Merrill Award for Emerging Playwrights, and she has an MFA in playwriting from the Yale School of Drama.
From 2018 Festival of Faith & Writing, here’s Abigail Disney and Dorothy Fortenberry in a conversation moderated by Jennifer Holberg.
Jennifer Holberg: So, you know the poet Shelley famously said that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, right? Poets are the bosses of things and I think if he were living today, he would say people doing entertainment really are: filmmakers, TV folk. So talk to me a little bit about sort of your work up to this point and how you feel like it's helping shape culture or really respond to kind of the moment that were in.
Dorothy Fortenberry: Okay, I think one of the things about being somebody who makes things is this–
Jennifer: Yeah, are you on?
Dorothy: I don't...okay. Or even being somebody who makes things is you can't really plan for the way that your work intersects the moment. I feel like I'm stealing this from Paula Vogel who may be stole it from Tony Kushner, but that you make your work and then sometimes your Angels in America hits at exactly the moment when the country needs Angels in America and it becomes "the thing" and that's something I think about a lot which is I feel like we were making Handmaid's Tale and we were making sort of a prestige streaming show for seven feminist librarians. [audience laughter]
You know, we didn't know sort of the moment we were making it into and the show would have been the same either way, but it sort of hit the world at a particular time and then it became a different thing and I, in my own writing and play as or essays or whatever I'm doing, I always feel like I'm trying to make the thing that I want to make. I am absolutely influenced by the world. I can't help but be, but I also can't really know where my thing will land, you know.
And there definitely have been things that I have written that I felt were very much about a particular moment. And then by the time they got produced sort of the cultural conversation had moved on and they suddenly became historical. And I was like, "Gosh, that was just two years ago and we don't even—we aren't even thinking about this issue anymore, you know, the conversation has really changed." So I don't think you can plan it. I think you can sort of breathe in the air of what's around you, but you also kind of have to just make the thing you feel like making and sometimes it will intersect with a particular moment it and it will become a phenomenon.
And then sometimes you know, I've had it both ways and then sometimes I'll be like, “Yeah, nope. No one really cares about that thing anymore.” And then maybe in 20 years they will again, you know, and maybe that thing was just the wrong fit for its time. I think it's really hard to be super strategic about it.
Abigail Disney: Yeah, I'm super conscious of the influence of culture on culture. [laughs] I guess partly because I grew up with this crazy last name and went off to school and contended with the sort of presumptions people had about what I might think about things politically or what I might believe about the world because Disney had so kind of declared itself as part of the culture wars in the 60s and 70s and because it has a history of, obviously, not just furthering narratives, but even inventing them whole cloth about who women should be in the world and so forth and kept right on doing it.
And so a lot of what we as women carry into our lives has been sort of wired into us before we were even conscious enough to be able to say no to that narrative.
Jennifer: I'm still waiting for my birds to come help me make clothes and such. [audience laughter]
Abigail: Yeah. Yeah. I always tell people if you want to see what a Disney princess looks like, here it is. [audience laughter and applause] You know, little overweight, kind of old, very very opinionated. Yeah, and no birds help me dress. So I guess that's always been really in my head. I mean, I've always been very engaged and interested in concentrating on what it is that media does because most of the people who make media aren't thinking about the effect they have on what people think in the narratives they take away and that's a problem.
Because I'm so amazed when you go and you work and you know all the art directors and costume designers and makeup people and people building the backgrounds and people doing the sound and the lighting and everything, you can't believe how much talent there is in this business. There is so much extraordinary talent, so many people who do things you could never imagine doing and they take all those gifts and all that a talent and they go to work everyday and apply it to such dreck and I don't know how people don't go home and cry every night given the level of their talents compared with the dreck that they produce.
And then, dreck is morally neutral. Dreck is what comes out when you're sort of slouching in your day. But in fact there's much more insidious stuff and the Disney princess in terms of what it's done to women, in terms of what they should think about themselves in life, is nothing as nearly as poisonous as 50% of what's come out of Hollywood in terms of women in the last 25 years. It's gotten worse not better. So I wish more people cared and focused and therefore aspired into their best selves when they go to work every day and what Dorothy's describing is all we have, all we can do. We can't plan for something to go out into the world and make a splash. If anybody knew how to do that, they would do it all the time, obviously. There would never be failure.
So all you can do is do the best thing you can do, you know, reflect the best of yourself and in your aspirations and then hope. And it is a little bit like, there might be a way of breaking just when you release it and certainly for Handmaid's Tale that was—I've never seen it more remarkably timed. And then maybe you got a cultural conversation going. It's hard. I mean because with both Pray and Armor of Light I was very conscious of trying to spark conversation and when you're trying it's like—have you ever started when those old-fashioned motors where you pull on the thing and it's just not starting? That's hard to do. It's hard to make it happen if the culture isn't breaking your way. But we are like the little computer programmers that you never knew you had making your brain work the way it works before you ever know it's happening to you. And if we're not attentive to what it is that we're making in people, the narratives they take away, we can create terribly dysfunctional places like the one we're currently in.
Dorothy: [00:10:19] Yeah, the other thing I really want to respond to in that which is something I learned by being in a TV writer's room—I'd never been in one before and then I got my first job—is so many of the ideas people have in the room—you have to have a million ideas. It's just a huge idea-generation factory—so many of the ideas come from other media, that sometimes people will pitch things like, "Oh, this is an exchange I had with my neighbor and maybe we could put something in the show like this," but often it's, "Oh you know that scene in Back to the Future? What if we did it like that?" And there are certain things that are very common in media that are very rare in real life. And because the makers of media, we're consuming the same media that everybody is and so.
An example I think about is, you know the scene where you get the bad guy and he's got the secret and what do you do and it's hard but then you're like, "We should probably torture them," and then you torture him and then he confesses and then he saves the day. It's a really really common scene in movies and television and I understand why from a dramatic point: it's two people, it's cheap to produce. You know it's high stakes. You've got your good guy who doesn't want to do the torture, but oh man and all those people in the building are going to go if he doesn't, so he sucks it up and does it... You know, I understand why it makes a great scene, but it's so false and it's so not actually the reality of torture and it never—and we never stay with that character in a way where we go, "What's it like waking up the morning after you tortured somebody? Who has it turned you into?" We do it for that scene. We get the kick out of that scene and then we're on to the next thing.
And one of the things I was proud of when we worked on The 100 is we were at a point where we had a character who had been brought in and we were going to do that torture scene and the room worked really hard to try to find a way not to tell it the way it had always been told, but I think, but it was it was an uphill battle because the narrative in our mind had been so set by all the other movies and all the other TV shows we'd seen that this is how you do the torture scene, and it was really challenging to try to find a different way to tell it.
And we can't always succeed and I just, I think about that so much that the building blocks that we have are the movies and the TV shows that came before and so we're trying to build something new but often were building out of the same flawed non-reality based blocks and...
Abigail: It's more like LEGO than Play-Doh.
Dorothy: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And so, how do you how do you kind of reject one of the LEGOs and say like, "This is not grounded. This is a thing that happens but it doesn't happen like this. How does it really happen? Oh, that's awful. Oh, I guess we could put that on TV or not," but it's a challenge.
Jennifer: And there's this way in which narrative normalizes, right? And so if I is the viewer know, oh, yeah, "Well now we're going to have that scene," I also a much more willing to accept that in my public policy or in my life. I mean, I think that's true. I teach women's literature here. And one of the things we talked about is the way in which romantic narratives—all these things that were accustomed to from the time were little kids—and how so many of them are broken and yet those are the LEGOs I have. So how is it that we even start to create new LEGOs without being—which I think is some of your point, too—without being didactic or overly moralizing but having a moral center and trying to move away from that.
And so I think both of you are interesting in the sense that [points to Abigail] you are chronicling a lot of sort of stories, documentaries, things that have happened, sort of history—and [points to Dorothy] you're sort of giving us ways of thinking about how close we are to it becoming history. So talk to me a little bit, I mean maybe even extending what you were thinking about from this last question about how we start to maybe get new LEGOs by, yeah, thinking about different stories in our history, how that normalizes a different narrative, how thinking about kind of dystopic or future-based things, yeah...
Abigail: [00:14:42] You know, yeah. So one of the narratives I'm most engaged with is the "good guy with a gun" narrative because it's just such an interesting thing how certain people are when you talk to them about how this is going to unfold and if you've ever been engaged in anything traumatic, anything like a car accident, doesn't have to involve a gun, what you know is that everything happened so quickly and what people always describe is, "I felt like I was moving through honey, or wet cement, I kept moving so slowly but everything else was happening so fast." The speed of it is one of the primary shocks that people feel and.
You know, what people don't understand about the "good guy with a gun" narrative is it's rooted in not reality but filmmaking, right? A lot of very talented people came to work that day. They did the sound, the light, they did all that stuff to make it look really real and then in the edit room, you know, they slowed it down by like 10%, 15% because they're not spending all that money on all those effects and having you not notice them because they go by so quickly—because that's what happens in reality. They want you to really see and understand what's happening.
Well, that's not how it unfolds. And if so somebody walks in your classroom, your bar, your restaurant, or whatever with a gun, you're not going to you're not going to get your weapon out and have—if you're carrying it safely, with the safety on—and have a chance in that kind of scenario, so you're preparing yourself for something that's just not rooted in reality.
If any of you right now just imagine war just for one second. Imagine war, imagine you're in it. So unless you fought in one, what you just imagined is invented in Hollywood, every single shred of it and what Tony Zinni said to me—former head of the Marine Corps and Joint Chiefs of Staff—was, "I have to spend so much time unlearning the boys when they come in—mostly boys. I have to spend so much time unwinding in them what they think they understand about what it's going to be like because it's never— the first thing everybody says to me is, 'That was not at all what I thought I was going to encounter.'" So that narrative we carry into the voting booth, that narrative we carry into what it is we expect our president to look like and act like and the way he should posture, say, around Syria and chemical weapons and things. And so there's a real world problem that results.
And one of the interests in documentary, one of the reasons, there's so much interest in documentary right now is it's authentic. We're telling actual stories of things that actually happen and they're surprising. Whereas coming out of a lot of fiction, it's not surprising. It's the least surprising thing is happening out there. So there's a need for surprise. When you when you when you go to culture you're looking to be surprised, not reinforced. And so that's why The Handmaid's Tale really struck a chord because finally something original, something genuine, something that I can really sink my teeth into—even if it's all imaginative.
We're not doing the work of creativity. We're not pushing ourselves to say—I mean what I always say to people about the "good guy with the gun," it's like, "Now I want you to imagine you're standing over a bleeding corpse. Now, what are you feeling? Was that the right thing to do? Are you certain he's guilty?" I mean you need to—if you're going to if you're going to just slouch into whatever narratives you're handed, you need to really understand what they are and push them past where they concluded in your imagination and really follow them to their real conclusions.
Dorothy: Yeah, I totally agree with all of that. I also think when we think about where we get, you know, okay, I'm going to do this metaphor, where do we get the Play-Doh to make the new LEGOs? Because all the Legos are old and busted.
Looking at Margaret Atwood and how she wrote The Handmaid's Tale, it was very very research-based. And that's something that we in the room really responded to and really took seriously, that she had as her guiding principle, "Nothing is going to happen to a woman in this book that hasn't happened to women in history." And we took that and in the room, even when we went beyond the text of the book in season one, there are things that happen to women that don't happen in the book, but they are things that are happening to women right now. There are things that happened to women historically. We took really seriously that mandate because I think when you start to just sit around and imagine, "What's the worst thing you could do to a woman?" it gets weird.
There's a weird almost eroticism that comes to it. Like you're just kind of speculating, "Oh and then we could do this and then we could do the," and it becomes kind of detached from reality and it becomes this sort of sadistic fantasy. And I think something that we really worked on was, "Nothing is going to happen to a woman in this show that we can't point to and say yes that happened in 1852. Yes that happens over in this community right now today."
[00:20:08] And we did a lot of research in the—it's a very research-oriented room. I mean the people in that room are all a bunch of nerds and the book is beloved enough that people take your phone calls is a thing that I learned. So I can't call anybody up as me but I can call anybody up from The Handmaid's Tale. So I got to talk to the head of the human rights division at Human Rights Watch and just be like, "Tell me the worst things people are doing to women right now." And that was not a fun phone call, but it was really useful and I came away with a lot of information that I was able to bring back to the room and share with the writers.
And I think looking at history and looking at reality are the best tools we have even if we're doing imaginative and speculative work to make sure that our work is real and messy and human. Something I think about all the time is that the places that Margaret Atwood was when she wrote The Handmaid's Tale half of it was in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and half of it was in Berlin.
And I think you can read the book and you can see that. Absorbing the world around you absorbing the histories of the places that you're in, really paying attention. I think it comes through and I think then actually doing something that's so based in reality has the experience by the viewer of then feeling new.
It feels like it's from out of the blue it feels like it's from nowhere. It feels not like anything else and actually it's just because we tried to take the time and do the research and we weren't just going on like, "Oh, what'd they do to that woman in that other movie? That was messed up. Maybe we could do that."
Abigail: You know, that's why the #MeToo moment flowed so seamlessly into the #timesup moment. Right? Because it really matters who's telling me stories. There's there's this story about how Quentin Tarantino when he was shooting Inglourious Basterds. He said to Diana Kruger. "Okay, now, I don't like the way people act when they're being strangled. They just—it's not convincing enough to me and I'm going to be close up on your face and we'll just see the hands just in the bottom of the frame. So I'm going to choke you because I don't trust any actors to do this right and then I'm going to really choke you. I'm gonna cut off your air and you're going to panic for a second, but I'll let you go. I'm going to let you go, but I need you to actually think you're dying and panic."
And he insisted be his hands and he insisted on—and if you watch the film then now you'll know what you're seeing. She really, really is dying. So when you're in that moment of trying to imagine an awful thing and you're secretly a little bit loving it, that's not a convincing way for a woman to see a rape story unfold or to see a story of anything else awful happening to women. And so when the writer’s room is just a bunch of guys who've been force-fed a steady diet of Quentin Tarantino and Animal House and whatever else—and oh God I'm so old, [audience laughter] that was so old.
Anyway, what they're going to call upon is everything they've ever seen before which was also invented by a bunch of guys in a room, which they invented out of something of another bunch of guys invented and it's this ball rolling downhill and it kind of almost like a refinery process with each group of guys it that the ante is raised and the stakes are higher.
There are very few things that I've seen men do where they really, really understand that there are men who do but generally they surround themselves with women. It's not that women have some magic secret sauce. It's just that there's stuff we know that you don't understand and if you would let us tell you about that we'd have something genuine here.
Dorothy: Yeah. I think I mean one of the things about Handmaid's was Bruce from the beginning hired a bunch of women writers, but then also insisted that the director of the first three episodes be a woman and I think so much of those first three episodes is in the direction, I mean, I love the script. I think it's really I think he's brilliant. [laughter] I didn't write it. I can say that he wrote it, I think he's great.
And he went to fight—and he had to fight the studio and the network for that. You know, he had to say, "I know she's never done TV. I know she did this one indie film and don't necessarily know who she is but she's the person and I'm going to throw my weight around until you let her do it," and she was brilliant and now she's got the Emmy. She's blowing up and she's amazing.
[00:25:02] But it was this conviction that he understood that having a woman director and that woman director not just like, "Oh, you're a woman off the street, great. You can direct the pilot of The Handmaid's Tale." This particular woman could get in the interiority of the character so that when we show sexual assault, it's not outside looking at it kind of getting turned on it's inside in her perspective trying to sort of dissociate, trying to cope, we're very present with the woman actually having the feelings and the experience and that's never going to be sexy because we're feeling her feelings for her.
Jennifer: And it's a critique though of this kind of insatiable one-upmanship every time. I mean, I've been noticing—my niece's are big fans of the Marvel—and how much longer those scenes are in terms of—even Wonder Woman which I enjoyed, man that is a long scene at the end with the battle scene, I was like, "That could have been edited down a little bit and I would have still enjoyed it." But it's partly because we need—there's a sense that people, unless you keep escalating, whether that's sexual violence or whether that's violence-violence. I mean it is a sense that, "Oh, well, the gadgetry runs it instead of the story."
Abigail: You know, I wrote this paper in grad school. This is a problem we have that's inherent and women aren't going to necessarily solve it because capitalism comes together with entertainment and the dynamics of entertainment—
Jennifer: Yesterday you talked about the entertainment industrial complex, right?
Abigail: Yes, exactly.
Jennifer: Which I thought was a great title, right?
Abigail: So during the Jacobean Period right after Shakespeare died—so at the end of Shakespeare's life, he wrote a couple of plays that were kind of stabby, you know, there was some violence in them and they were pretty popular. And so when he died the Jacobean dramatists came along and they were like, "Well, he stabbed two guys in that play, so I'm going to stab four guys in this one," and the next one was like, "I'm going to cut this guy's tongue out," and it was commercial driven. It was driven by the box office for the last play and if you track that through the Jacobean period you could come right back and look at Clint Eastwood working his way up in Hollywood and see the same dynamic at work.
And what happens is it's self-reinforcing and it accelerates. And especially in the fast, fast and instant entertainment environment we're in it self-reinforces and escalates, partly because everybody's in competition with each other, now you have to get there first and cheapest and ends with something even more amazing it gets even more attention because it's even harder to get attention.
All of those things feed the impulse to create things that are more of whatever it was before—in this case sexist and violent. And so we have a problematic dynamic and I don't know how to slow that down and I don't think women are necessarily going to be the answer to the problem. But at least in this case they do push back on—
I've never been raped. I didn't really understand it until a Bosnian woman said to me that "When I was raped I felt like a refugee inside my own body." I've carried this with me in my heart ever since because I thought if I had not sat still, if I had not let her talk, if I had not listened all the way through till she got to that, there's something deep I wouldn't really now know.
So, somehow we have to find a way to put the pause button on those dynamics and step outside of this world long enough to listen and hear and understand so that you bring all the richness of what you've learned to what you do.
And I personally believe that it's a loser's game to try and get in there and be there first, fastest, biggest because you'll drive yourself crazy in the process and people will in the swirl of that notice Handmaid's Tale, you know, it creates an environment in which you're more likely to succeed with something actually good.
Dorothy: But it's hard and I think even for us we have the temptation. I know in season 2 there is a thing of like, "Oh make it bigger, make it more, make it..." You know. "The first season was dark. It should be darker!" That kind of one-upmanship which I think, yeah, it's the logic of capitalism. It's like, McDonald's is only as good as the amount that it's growing; things are only as good as the amount that they're better than the thing—bigger and more than the thing that came before.
I think it's something we had to in the room sort of talk about and think about and say, "Okay the pressure is going to be on us to go giant and be more horrible. And what is the actual story we actually want to tell?" But it's a fight. There are a lot of forces that are pushing in different directions. And so the most helpful thing I can think of is just having clarity with yourself about what you want your thing to be because everybody around you is going to be pushing nine million different directions. And if you don't have a super strong sense of, "Nope, it's like this," you'll get run over and I think watching—being in the room watching Bruce and watching the other producers, there some things that they have really clung to as sort of strong strong strong values and it makes a huge difference because you have to be able to resist that onslaught.
Jennifer: [00:30:33] Yeah. So talk a little bit about—both of you are Catholic, have come out of Catholic traditions. Talk about how that might inform part of kind of how you come to that sort of inner conviction or the sense of the stories you want to tell that aren't sensationalist or that are respectful of, you know, or even knowing how to do that. How does your faith plan to both of y'all's work in that way?
Dorothy: This is a weird way to—this is a weird answer, but a thing I've noticed about being Catholic in the room is that I don't think the worst thing is dying. So much of entertainment is premised on the absolute, absolute worst thing that could happen to the main character would be for that character to die, and I feel like I'm a person in the room being like, "Uh, you know, it's not great to die. But like, you know, how's their immortal soul doing?" and that's not like a question that gets asked a lot. And so often there'll be scenarios where like the justification is self-preservation. It's like, "Well this character had to do...because if they didn't they were going to die," and I feel like I'm like, "Uh-huh." It's not good enough for me. It's not good enough for me.
I don't believe that anything is justified in the name of self-preservation, but it's an incredibly commonly-held value, it's a very common Lego is that as long as we can make the audience believe this character thought their life was in danger, then they can get away with literally anything because we've constructed the scenario where they believed their life was in danger and I feel like a big weirdo in the room sort of saying, "Ah, that's not a value that I come to the table with."
You know, I come to the table with centuries of martyrs and you know... It's grueling. I grew up with my little book of 60 Saints for girls and they are all just these ghastly awful ends and that seeps into you and you're like, "Yeah, I know but you know so-and-so was boiled in oil and she didn't so suck it up, lead character." [audience laughter] It's a really different—
Jennifer: And she kept on singing.
Dorothy: Yeah exactly. [audience laughter] So, you know, no one in network at television is as tough as any saint.
Abigail: This is what context is everything because they're boiled in oil and other contexts is really sautéed. [laughter]
So for me, I'm so happy to hear you say that because I actually feel like I'm the only person who ever says that. So you can't imagine, I'm kmelling right now. No one says this.
Jennifer: Abby, Dorothy. Dorothy, Abby. [audience laughter]
Abigail: Yeah, I was raised in a Catholic tradition, but I very much left it behind for the far less reassuring militant agnosticism that I now cherish. [Jennifer laughs] But I have always believed that there are far worse things than dying. And so, the thing about Catholics is you're never really not a Catholic because they get in you—their tentacles are deep and they never entirely let you go and you never lie behind the boiling in oil and the fire and brimstone and I literally was raised on those sermons. If you've ever read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and people would say in class my freshman year, "Oh, you know, this is obviously comedy. He's overdoing this sermon here," and I was like, [laughs] "I heard that sermon."
I actually had a priest who was so imaginative that growing up in Southern California, he understood that he could help us understand brimstone by describing it as, "When your father lights the barbecue and the coals turn white, that's when they're hottest," I mean, how long did you take...?
Anyway, [laughter] I really was amazed when we went around to very, very conservative Evangelical churches where I had assumed that faith was the deepest. The more conservative the church, the deeper the fear was. And I kept coming back to Rob off camera and saying, "I don't understand this. The one thing my grandmother never was was afraid to die. You know, it's like if there's any reward of faith shouldn't it be not being afraid to die? So what's going on? Is it that they don't believe what they claim to believe or is it that they're their doubting it or do they think in their heads maybe they've really been bad all along and they're going to the other...?"
[00:35:11] I don't know. I don't understand this. It's just not a Christian sensibility to navigate and plan your life around fear. And that's what you're doing the day you say, "I'm going to shoulder all of the risks to myself and my family that are involved in arming myself up on the very remote chance that some stranger's going to break into my house and kill us all"—which doesn't happen. It doesn't happen people. It doesn't happen—or in very rare instances. It's just a cost-benefit analysis and I'm not understanding.
So I try to push on that, I try to question it when I can because that is the presumption in Hollywood and I guess even in religious communities that needs to be questioned. If we're just put on this Earth to just live as long as possible, my God, that's the stupid job. If it's just about pushing the finish line back, what am I doing here? There has to be something more important to be done.
Jennifer: Yeah. It's probably not that surprising that Jesus keeps saying to people over and over, "Don't be afraid. Don't be afraid don't be..."
Dorothy: I don't have any tattoos, but if I got a tattoo that's the tattoo I get. But that's also because I have huge anxiety problems, right? [laughs] So I'm a person who is temperamentally incredibly anxious and fearful—in a religion that yeah, it's constantly trying to telling me, "Don't be afraid, chill out, you know." And I would only I think be more anxious if I weren't religious but it also hasn't totally fixed it. Like, I'm still—I'm still me.
Jennifer: Yeah, and I think the fact Jesus says it's so much means he's acknowledging that—
Dorothy: Yeah people...
Jennifer: —that's our basic state, right?
Dorothy: Yeah, absolutely.
Jennifer: You know, as we think about this, one of the interesting things when Dorothy and I were talking about this conversation before was thinking about breaking old narrative patterns, even for women. So your example was—I'm just going to read just so I get it right—you say, "I went to a panel at The Writers Guild of America once of TV writers who were mothers and the whole vibe was basically, 'I wrote a script while laboring in the hospital and so can you,' [audience laughter] as opposed to, 'I rewrote a script while laboring in the hospital and oh man, that was awful how can we prevent that happening to you?"
And I wonder about, you know, we've talked about narratives of violence and narratives sort of maybe that are more driven by men, but it does feel as if there are narratives that are driven by women that are equally problematic, perhaps, and maybe I don't know if you want to start since it was yours, but...
Dorothy: Yeah, absolutely. I mean I think for me it gets to the sense of, what does it mean to go through trauma and and then how strong the impulse is after it to make sure that the generation under you also goes through that trauma. [audience laughter]
Dorothy: You know that there's this idea of toughness, and I think—look: something like thirty percent of the writers in Hollywood are women—that's not a lot. To be in that thirty percent, you do have to be tough in some ways, I get that. I am and I know other people are too, there are things that we've gone through, but you get through it, but I also feel like if your only lesson that you get out of it was, "I survived," that's not the only thing. There also can be a sense of, "Is there another—can we envision another universe where it doesn't have to be like that."
And that's harder in any context, right? It's new Play-Doh. It's hard to imagine, "What would a Hollywood look like that took women seriously and took being a mom seriously?" I don't know, I don't live in it, but I think it's worth some time. And I think it's worth some energy to kind of try to imagine, but I also think that as you get higher and higher up and as you sort of make it through harder and harder things, I understand sort of not wanting to let go of that of the, "But I—it was so hard for me and I pushed through it and that made me who I am."
I feel like it's the military school thing of like, "We always did that to the first year people and that's who I am and now I'm a senior and what do you mean I can't do it? You know, but that's the whole thing. I've been waiting for years to get to be terrible to the freshman." Who are we if we aren't that thing?
So, I don't know. I think it's I think it's complicated and I don't really have a vision of what the better world would look like, but I just remember this huge feeling disappointment of, "I thought we were coming together in this room to answer that question or to begin to answer that question," and the feeling like, "No, we came together in this room to hear war stories," which is just a different a different thing.
Abigail: [00:40:12] Yeah, war stories with estrogen involved. Speaking of estrogen, the next time you think about how great God's plan is I want you to ask him about menopause. [laughter] I just took my jacket off. Because menopause was a terrible idea, I don't know who thought it up.
Jennifer: Here, here.
Abigail: But anyway. Patty Jenkins, who directed Wonder Woman, had been trying to get that film made for ever. And if you really think about the comic book universe and how many comic book heroes we got, we got to Ant-Man before we got to Wonder Woman. [audience laughter] That's how resistant... Can you imagine what she put up with? But I think she still had to pass through the whatever it was, gauntlet of her masters or overlords and they still are either male or married to the notions that have been invented by men who dominated the scene before she got there.
And if she overdid—I mean, there was one national review in the conservative magazine about Wonder Woman that said, what was the name of the filmmaker, Hitler's filmmaker again?
Jennifer: Oh, Leni Riefenstahl.
Abigail: Yeah, Leni Riefenstahl. I always think Lina Wertmüller. He said, "This only proves—this film only proves it only Leni Riefenstahl could do kinetic filmmaking."
Dorothy: Yeah, that's so...
Abigail: Yeah, that's describes what my heart does [chuckles] when I hear that. So, she still had to prove that she could move the camera around and edit and do all the things you need to do for action filmmaking and I think she felt that very heavily and that's why she overdid, I think and I agree with you, some of the action and that speaks to this question because the women who arrive first are arriving into a system that has certain presumptions that, "If your wife is in labor, you show up for work. If your child is sick, you show for work. You show for work no matter what. The job is your life and if it's not your life, I've got 12 people who will happily replace you."
So the first women who get there are laboring under those same values and if they want to get ahead they're already suspect because they're women so they're going to do that and more. So yeah, they're in labor writing scripts and they want everybody to know about it because those are their credentials.
And having gotten through it that way, it's not very easy to make it easier for the next woman behind you because they're not going to appreciate who you are and what you've been through. So we have needed to watch a few generations make their way through the process and Margaret Thatcher is a great example of the first woman there is often the most conservative woman because she is one more deeply invested than anybody else in the system being the way it is. And the way I think of it is (and I'll use a good word; I usually use the bad word, but I'm at Calvin College, so I'm going to say...)
Jennifer: You know, whatever you wish. [laughter]
Abigail: If you have to climb over a pile of doodoo to get to the top, you're going to be covered in doodoo when you get there, right? So this is about paradigm shift. It has to be about paradigm shift because as families, and I'm talking about as fathers as well as mothers, we are very deeply poorly served not only by writing a script while we're in labor, but frankly by only getting scripts from people who write scripts while they're in labor, right?
Everybody is poorly served by that: men and women and especially children. So, how are we going to rethink work and the nature of work and competition? Well, then you have to go upstream from that and say, "It's the way we do capitalism." I'm sorry, but it's the way we do capitalism. We are suffering from a number of fundamentalisms as a world right now: fundamentalist Christianity, fundamentalist Islamic, fundamentalist masculinity, and fundamentalist capitalism.
And I—so do you have a business school here at Calvin College.
Abigail: So I'm giving you this idea. I have a brilliant idea. First page of every textbook in business school says, "Well sadly, there are certain things you have to subtract from your earnings and they're just not negotiable. And so you can't even know where you are, unless you know what your EBITDA is." EBITDA is earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization. I want to add a "D"—EBITDAD, right, just because it's a happy sounding word. And the D is for dignity, because dignity isn't optional, right? Dignity is like taxes and depreciation: it's not optional. It is the cost of doing business.
So what if you factored that as a cost to you in before you decide what you've earned instead of doling it out afterwards with what you've got left over? [smattering of applause] If that were actually understood to be, yeah, wired into the deepest part before you even start—I pay people a living wage. I do not ask them to work when they're in labor. I give fathers and mothers paid leave long enough for them to be good parents to their children and take care of their sick parents and so forth. I don't pollute the environment. I don't harass people. I have diversity in leadership. All of these things cost money or time, which is money, and what if you factored all of that in beforehand.
I'm trying to get some business school to pick this up and run with it because I actually think it's not an unreasonable thing to expect.
Jennifer: [00:45:39] Yeah, I mean, even your own career, I mean I think part of what I love about the Festival and other things like it is getting to meet people who took different paths, right? I mean, you didn't become a filmmaker till, I mean, say a little bit about your own story.
Abigail: Well, you know, this... I inherited money, so I got to make some choices that other people don't get to make and I had four children and much to my surprise and amazement, I really like them. [audience laughter] They were really fun and I enjoyed them and I had never been a kid who fantasized about the children she'd have or her marriage or anything like this—a big tomboy. I was assumed I'd have some big deal job.
I didn't want to go somewhere and be somewhere else. They were really cool. And so I constructed a life around them that involved me not leaving a lot. So I did a lot of not-for-profit boards and I learned about foundations and activism that was strictly local and I just basically constructed a life in the five boroughs of New York City so that I could be home for dinner and take them to the dentist and all of that. And it wasn't out of some...you know, since that's what women should do. It was like, that's what I needed to do in my family with my kids. That's what my kids needed from me.
And then when they were certain age when my youngest got to be about second grade and he was in school for most of the day—and my husband by the way is like an incredibly attentive father and an incredible father who was writing and home all the time—then I felt like, “Well, maybe I can go a little further afield,” and that's when I started making films and that's when my life got way more complicated. But I am so happy that I had the freedom to look at my family and say, "What does this family need? What do I need and what do they need?" and then do that. And that's what we need to be able to give people to do, not because it's charity or social welfare or something—because it's the best thing for families, and what are we as a country if we're not doing the best thing for families?
Jennifer: How about you? How did you feel about your kind of journey, path, whatever?
Dorothy: Yeah, I mean, I feel like mine was different, but I also feel like I was lucky because I did feel like I was able to make choices. And I feel like that is a huge gift and some of that is just circumstance and some of that is my grandmother paid for me to go to college. And she just did and she's was a sort of grumpy, she wasn't a warm snuggly person. She just was sort of like a grumpy lady, but she lived in a house where the rent never went up for 30 years and she never bought anything for herself and she never bought new clothes and she never bought new food, and she just squirreled away, squirreled away, squirreled away, squirreled away, and then when I was 18, she was like, "So I saved it all up and I'm paying for your college," and I was like, "That's so nice. Thank you. [laughter] You never hug me."
And that made a huge difference, you know. I didn't graduate with a ton of debt. And so I was able to write plays and take jobs in theaters and things like that because I wasn't servicing a mountain of debt.
I started doing TV when my oldest daughter was a baby. I started thinking about it. I got a sort of a fellowship when she was one and I got my first staffing job when she was two. And the question of, yeah, the family thing is tricky and my kids are almost five years apart and some of that is just luck and biology and things working the way that they work, and some of that is I didn't want to be like that woman who got pregnant on her first job, you know, it was my very first job. I had to prove myself. I was already coming in as a mom. That's weird. It was weird to start as a mom. The way you're supposed to do it is work for ten years and then have a kid at 40 and I didn't do it that way—had a kid at 30 and that's just was not the way to do it.
[00:49:59] And so I felt very conscious of, "I'm not going to then have another kid too soon because then that's all I'll be in the eyes of this industry and in the eyes of this workplace." So I worked really, really hard and did do the late nights, and did you the weekends and did do the thing of sort of saying, "This isn't holding me back in any way, I work just as hard and just as much as anyone else," until I got to a place where I felt like I could say, "Okay, now I'm going to go away for a little bit," and even that was difficult and I was scared and I was like, "I hope I don't have to go on any staffing meetings while I'm visibly pregnant."
Abigail: So I did start working and working really hard and then the guilt hit, right, and I was constantly saying things, "Oh my God. I'm so sorry. I have to go somewhere tomorrow. And I'm so sorry, so sorry." And they were like, "Shut up, we're fine." So first of all, I really, I fell prey to the assumption that had to be the mother. The father wasn't good enough, which is ridiculous because he was more than enough.
And so the woman in my first film won the Nobel Peace Prize and we all went as families together to Oslo to watch her win the Nobel, which is... And she had, when she was in New York, she lived with my family and we were all woven together as families by that time and so we're really close. So we're sitting there watching and I looked at my daughter and there was a little tear in her eye watching her dear friend Leymah Gbowee win the Nobel Peace Prize. And a month later, she sat down, I had a birthday and she wrote me first of all a letter on paper with a stamp and an address and everything, just causing the Postal Service to lose money, I'm sure. [audience chuckles] And it said, "I was watching Leymah win the award and I felt so emotional and I felt so lucky and blessed. And then I remembered how many times you've apologized to me for the work that you do that led directly to this. So I just want you to know I'm aware that I have the life I have because of the life you have and I'm incredibly grateful."
So for any of you who are working in agonizing over it and wondering and wondering, it's not all necessarily time you're taking away from them. You are coming home a richer better person if you're doing the thing you really were called to do and pay attention to that. So don't go off to the grunt factory or whatever, but, it's really.
I didn't know that. Again the narrative I had been raised on was a Phyllis Schlafly narrative and I lived such a guilty, guilty ten, twenty years of that and now I understand that they like that mom.
Jennifer: Yeah, and now we have a new story to sort of combat the next wave of guilt, right? Last couple of minutes. So #MeToo has been a big thing in Hollywood, but you've been very vocal on Twitter for example talking about what's next—that #MeToo isn't sufficient, that we need to have a kind of a what's next moment. So I wonder if you guys can just finish off thinking about what you think would be the what's next, either specifically for #MeToo or just more generally. And you can even talk about some of your projects that we could be looking for.
Abigail: Right, right. Well, so thank you for reading my long, long thread. I did a thread, like I literally pressed send on it before I found you in the lobby and it's like 15 long and if you are on Twitter, I'm @AbigailDisney. Please retweet it because nobody's reading it and I'm really mad. [audience laughter]
Jennifer: I'm doing my best for you, I am.
Abigail: But basically there was—Hollywood Reporter did a long story about poor Charlie Rose and how he's sad and broken and all alone. [audience laughter]
Jennifer: That's literally a quote from the article.
Abigail: Thank you for laughing from the audience, so I don't have to do it for you. No, I am a human being with compassion and I believe deeply that everybody deserves all of our love and compassion and I feel that for Charlie Rose. He's not an entirely bad man. He's not Satan.
But I knew some of the people who he harassed and he was known for years, for years. He was notorious for what he was held to account for. So, that didn't come out of nowhere. That was not a—I know that the narrative is he was standing on the tracks and the freight train hit him. It was not that.
Dorothy: And his female producer told people it wasn't a big deal and ran interference for him, which is a whole other thing.
Abigail: Exactly. So what I was saying was, "Look I feel his pain and I do not rejoice in him feeling it, but what he did to women needs to be understood. This is not a small thing. It affected her personally in her heart. It diminished her capacity to understand all that she was capable of doing. It made her hesitant to walk into rooms if she was the only woman. It made her hesitant to apply for more jobs. It made her hesitant to even think of herself as an equal. Professionally, it encourages other men not to take her seriously. It encourages other men to do the Tony Robbins things and not hire beautiful women because they are a risk to him.
And it outsources the responsibility for what he's doing on to the woman and that's why I think Osama Bin Laden and Hugh Hefner belong in the same circle of hell, because for Osama Bin Laden—
Dorothy: [00:55:12] You believe in hell. [audience laughter]
Jennifer: High five on that one, right?
Dorothy: It stuck. You're still Catholic.
Abigail: You just—my mother just took your body over for one second. That was...
Jennifer: And scene.
Abigail: Because Osama Bin Laden sees a woman, feels desire, and is angry at her. It's her problem: cover her, take her out of society, isolate her, exclude her. "I don't care what the cost is to her. It's her problem. She needs to handle it."
Hugh Hefner looks at a woman, feels desire, he must have her, no questions asked. "I don't care what the cost is to her. I don't care about her degradation. I don't care what the cost is to women everywhere. I basically want it. I'm going to have it. That's all there is to it." And that's what the guy not hiring beautiful women is saying. "I can't manage myself." So until we—I'm sorry, I'm going to use, it's not a naughty word, but it's an anatomical word. I feel like all this time...
Jennifer: We're good with naughty words, go, you go.
Abigail: [laughs] All this time, we have all—including feminists—been dancing around this giant phallus in the middle of the conversation and treating it like it cannot be moved or changed—and that's male desire. And until we can get men to understand that that is their responsibility, that women do not get raped—men rape, right? Until we can finally, finally place all of the responsibility for it, yes, we contribute to people desiring us; yes, we can dress wrongly; yes, we get drunk; all of these things are true. None of them is an invitation and certainly none of them is absolution for what it is that men do. So, first of all, let's spend some time on that. [applause]
And let's really see a sign that people are taking it in. And Charlie Rose is now uniquely placed as a person who's incredibly influential and was very respected in the media. He could really learn that and he could really step forward and say, "I get it now, I think I understand what it was I was doing wrong," and maybe there could be some apologies, some real sincere apologies to some of the people that he genuinely hurt in the process. And if he wanted a road to redemption, it would be the bricks would be made of apologies and then let's talk about what's next then.
Let's talk about the road to redemption because there has to be a road to redemption. There's no island we can vote Louis C.K. and Hugh Hefner onto where they go away and never come back. We need to love them back into our lives, but it's really going to be hard to do it until they love us enough to understand what it is that we're having a problem with.
Jennifer: You guys are so amazing. Really, if you have not seen their films, their TV shows, following them on Twitter, they both do wonderful stuff on Twitter. I'm just so grateful. We could have talked for three more hours. So thank you all for joining us today. [applause]
Pete: A huge thanks to Abigail Disney, Dorothy Fortenberry, and Jennifer Holberg.
Rewrite Radio is a production of the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing, located on the campus of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI. Theme music is June 11th by Andrew Star.
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