Exposing Hollywood Exploitation on Women – A Review of Jessica Swale’s ‘Leading Lady Parts’

Inspired by the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, director and writer, Jessica Swale’s gritty, bittersweet comedy Leading Lady Parts provides a visual glimpse into the struggles women face within the film industry. With a cast of successful and well-known actresses, the film allows us to see past their iconic characters and red-carpet personas in order to witness what they, as women, have to face for the sake of their careers. 

The film features actresses Emilia Clarke, Lena Headey, Gemma Chan, Florence Pugh, Wunmi Mosaku and Stacy Martin, all playing themselves auditioning for The Leading Lady Part for an unnamed upcoming film. However, in their way stands a trio of objectifying, out-of-touch casting directors played by Catherine Tate, Gemma Arterton and Anthony Welsh.  

The short itself is well-executed and painfully funny. Yet, once you’re done laughing, you’re hit with the reality that they’re not joking. For example, after giggling at the casting directors’ brash attempt to explain how a ‘leading lady’ should be an impossible mixture of “sexy” and “virgin”, the reality sinks in that women (in all forms of media) are punished for being sexually conservative and sexually expressive whilst forced to try a reach for an almost impossible (and ridiculous) middle ground that is ‘socially acceptable’. 

The short, produced by Rebel Park Productions' Gemma Arterton, Jessica Malik and Jessica Parker in association with The Fyzz Facility, Hanway Films and Popcorn Group, is the first in a series aimed at shining a light on the portrayal of women in the media and the challenges women face in the workplace across all industries.

In comparison to its light humour, the film is also blunt in its exploration of the treatment of women, especially in regards to their bodies. For example, Felicity Jones (Rouge One, The Theory of Everything) is asked, or rather told, to strip down in front of the casting directors. What makes this so appalling is that the casting directors have no sense of shame or restraint, believing her body to be theirs to judge. Florence Pugh (Falling, Lady Macbeth) is then criticised for not being “thin” but “with a big rack” and “with hips” but “not big hips”, again reflecting the impossible standards placed on women and their bodies. The industry practice of demeaning a women’s appearance is further exposed as multi-award winning and highly-successful actress Lena Headey (Game of Thrones, 300) is rudely labelled as ‘the leading lady’s mum’ due to her age, presenting the trope that actresses can only play sex objects or mother, and that they lose their value with age.

Thankfully, the film doesn’t focus solely on white women as the specific struggles of women of colour are also explored. The first is shown as Gemma Chan (Humans, Captain Marvel) begins to reform her monologue, barely allowed to utter the words “It’s what I’ve always wanted, the chance to speak-” until she is cut off and asked to “be a bit more white”. The situation wasn’t much better for Wunmi Mosaku (Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice) who is completely disregarded not only as a professional actress but as a human being. The comedy completely fades from this scene as we are shown the grim and horrific truth of how women of colour are treated within the film industry. However, Swale again succeeds in using an appropriate tone of humour as a tool to highlight these issues, welcoming and encouraging the audience to consider serious damage this sort of treatment can cause.  

The film concludes with the casting directors still left without their perfect leading lady. However, Tom Hiddleston (The Night Manager, The Avengers), comes to the rescue and is literally handed the role without having to jump through any of the hurdles the women before him had to face. Thus, creating a perfect metaphor of the privileges men in the film industry enjoy in comparison to women.

The scene is followed by a line-up of female-lead film posters (for example, Wonder Woman, Mary Poppins Returns, etc.) but with Hiddleston cropped over the leading ladies. Although mildly amusing, the message is still clear that the industry believes that a leading man will always trump a strong, intelligent and worthy leading lady.

Outside the narrative of the film, Jessica Swale continues to not only shine a light on the shameful treatment of actresses but also on the male-dominated field of film directing. Accompanying the film’s release, Rebel Park Productions have released a range of interviews with the cast via their social media platforms. During these short interviews, each member of the cast describes their struggles in the film industry and how lacking the industry is in regards to gender equality. It is also revealed the majority of the cast have only worked with a maximum of five female directors each throughout their long careers. 

This is not surprising as according to a July 2018 study centred around women’s roles in popular films, only 7.3% of said films were directed by women (105 out of 1,438 content creators). This is not surprising as no woman has ever won a Golden Globe for Best Director. Although only four have been nominated for the award (Sophia Coppola, Ava DuVernay, Kathryn Bigelow and Barbra Streisand).

The report also touches base on the lack of female speaking roles, a comparison of female and male nudity, the lack of queer characters, the lack of characters with any form of disability and much more. You can read the full report here.

Leading Lady Parts represents another step in the right direction to full undivided equality for women in and outside the film industry. It has been nearly ten months since the initial #MeToo movement gained worldwide popularity and films like this can help push the motives of the movement, disallowing it from falling into a fad and instead fuelling it into becoming a defining moment in history. 

By: Claire L. Smith

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