At the Nov. 9 Glamour Women of the Year Awards, Reese Witherspoon made one thing very clear: female ambition is not a trait to fear. Instead, we should wholeheartedly embrace it.
The 39-year-old actress made an impassioned speech at Carnegie Hall, urging women and men to see women's ambitions -- and stories -- as things worth recognizing, highlighting and elevating. "I believe ambition is not a dirty word," said Witherspoon to a packed house at Carnegie Hall. "It's believing in yourself and your abilities."
Witherspoon said that she discovered her ambitiousness at age 14. She also learned that for women, being ambitious is often seen as something inherently negative. Last night, the actress sought to challenge that bullsh*t assumption:
I want everybody to close their eyes and think of a dirty word, like a really dirty word. Now open your eyes. Was any of your words ambition? I didn’t think so. See, I just kind of started wondering lately why female ambition is a trait that people are so afraid of. Why do people have prejudiced opinions about women who accomplish things? Why is that perceived as a negative?
Throughout her career, Witherspoon has played fabulously interesting, complicated characters. Her roles in movies like "Election," "Cruel Intentions" and "Legally Blonde," made her a bonafide star. But she didn't just want to act, slotting herself into roles Hollywood deemed "acceptable" for ladies -- wife, girlfriend, mother, grandmother -- or trying desperately to find a studio developing the kind of characters she liked to play. After asking studios what projects they were developing with female leads and being "met with nothing, blank stares, excessive blinking, uncomfortable shifting," Witherspoon grew increasingly frustrated.
"I dread reading scripts that have no women involved in their creation because inevitably I get to that part where the girl turns to the guy, and she says, 'What do we do now?!,'" the actress said.
"Do you know any woman in any crisis situation who has absolutely no idea what to do?"
She wanted to produce films that really told women's stories in an authentic way. So in 2012 she founded her production company, Pacific Standard, which operates under the idea that "films with women at the center are not a side project."
And lo and behold, three years in, the company has produced such hits as "Wild" and "Gone Girl," both of which were not only commercially successful, but garnered Academy Award nominations for its female stars in acting categories.
"Like Elle Woods," Witherspoon said, "I do not like to be underestimated."
She ended her speech with a call to arms, urging women everywhere to own their ambitions and abilities:
What is it in life that you think you can’t accomplish? Or what is it that people have said that you cannot do? Wouldn’t it feel really good to prove them all wrong? Because I believe ambition is not a dirty word. It’s just believing in yourself and your abilities. Imagine this: What would happen if we were all brave enough to be a little bit more ambitious? I think the world would change.
Let's go change the world, one ambitious woman at a time.
I can’t thank Glamour magazine enough and Conde Nast and Cindi for asking me to be here. You just made this night so amazing. These incredible, inspiring women are doing so many things to change how we perceive women, and I hope Amy Schumer and all the other nominees that when you consider making your biopic, you’ll give me the rights first, which would be great. Although Amy, I’ll have to play your grandmother in the movie (by Hollywood standards), and you’ll probably have to play your own mother.
I’m so excited that so many young women are here tonight. This all started for me when I was a little girl. I was 14 years old when I learned that I love acting, and I still do. Acting allows me to slip into the skin of all kinds of different women, and not in a creepy "Silence of the Lambs" way…but in a way that lets me explore the full spectrum of humanity. Every woman I've ever played is passionate and strong and flawed, except for Tracy Flick. She’s 100 percent perfect, but she made me say that. But I also learned at 14 years old that I was ambitious. Really ambitious. Did I say that out loud? Let’s talk about ambition.
I want everybody to close their eyes and think of a dirty word, like a really dirty word. Now open your eyes. Was any of your words ambition? I didn’t think so. See, I just kind of started wondering lately why female ambition is a trait that people are so afraid of. Why do people have prejudiced opinions about women who accomplish things? Why is that perceived as a negative? In a study by Georgetown University in 2005, a group of professors asked candidates to evaluate male ambition vs. female ambition in politicians. Respondents were less likely to vote for power-seeking women than power-seeking men. They also perceived ambitious women as looking out for themselves. They even reported ambitious women as provoking feelings of disgust.
Now, in my life I have always found more comfort in being the underdog. Whether people thought I couldn't do something or they said it was impossible, I always rose to the challenge. I enjoyed reaching for the impossible. I remember when I was 18 years old and applying to colleges, I had this male college counselor, and he said, "Don’t even bother applying to Stanford, sweetie. Your SAT scores aren’t good enough." But I did it anyway, and I got in. (But it wasn’t because of my SAT scores!)
When I got into the film business, I was doing dramas, and casting directors didn’t know if I could be funny. So I did a comedy, "Legally Blonde," and then my entire career I was pigeonholed. I did comedies, they didn’t think I was serious. I did dramas, they didn’t think I was funny. And I got older and they didn’t think I could still be viable. So about three years ago, I found myself very curious about the state of the movie business. I really wondered how the digital evolution was affecting the landscape of filmmaking and specifically why studios were making fewer and fewer movies. So I started asking questions, and I decided to meet with the heads of each of the different movie studios that I had been friends with for years and I had made many movies with them. Each of the meetings started with something very casual like, "How are your kids?" and "Wow, has it really been that long since 'Walk the Line'?" At the end of the meeting, I sort of casually brought up, “So, how many movies are in development with a female lead?” And by lead, I don’t mean wife of the lead or the girlfriend of the lead. The lead, the hero of the story. I was met with nothing, blank stares, excessive blinking, uncomfortable shifting. No one wanted to answer the question because the fact was the studios weren’t developing anything starring a woman. The only studio that was was turning a man’s role into a woman’s role. And the studio heads didn’t apologize. They don’t have to apologize. They are interested in profits -- and after all, they run subsidiary companies of giant corporations.
But I was flabbergasted. This was 2012, and it made no sense to me. Where was our Sally Field in "Norma Rae" or Sigourney Weaver in "Alien" or Goldie Hawn in, you name it, any Goldie Hawn movie: "Overboard," "Wildcats," "Private Benjamin"? These women shaped my idea of what it meant to be a woman of strength and character and humor in this world. And my beautiful, intelligent daughter, who is 16 years old now, would not grow up idolizing that same group of women. Instead, she’d be forced to watch a chorus of talented, accomplished women Saran wrapped into tight leather pants, tottering along on very cute, but completely impractical, shoes turn to a male lead and ask breathlessly, “What do we do now?!” Seriously, I’m not kidding. Go back and watch any movie, and you’ll see this line over and over. I love to ask questions, but it’s my most hated question.
I dread reading scripts that have no women involved in their creation because inevitably I get to that part where the girl turns to the guy, and she says, "What do we do now?!" Do you know any woman in any crisis situation who has absolutely no idea what to do? I mean, don’t they tell people in crisis, even children, "If you're in trouble, talk to a woman." It’s ridiculous that a woman wouldn’t know what to do.
So, anyway, after going to these studios and telling people about how there’s barely any female leads in films and the industry’s in crisis, people were aghast. "That’s horrible," they said. And then they changed the subject and moved on with their dinner and moved on with their lives. But I could not change the subject. I couldn’t turn to some man and say, "What do we do now?" This is my life.
I’ve made movies all my life, for 25 years, since I was 14 years old. It was time to turn to myself and say, "OK, Reese, what are we going to do now?" The answer was very clear. My mother, who is here tonight, a very strong, smart Southern woman, said to me, "If you want something done, honey, do it yourself."
So, I started my own production company, Pacific Standard Films, with the mission to tell stories about women. And I was nervous, y’all. I was spending my own money, which everyone in the movie business always tells you, "Don't spend your own money on anything." I was warned that on the crazy chance Pacific Standard would acquire any good scripts we would never make it past our first few years in business because there just wasn’t a market for buying female-driven material. But like Elle Woods, I do not like to be underestimated.
I’m a very avid reader. In fact, I’m a complete book nerd. So is my producing partner, so we tore through tons of manuscripts and read so many things before they were published, but we could only find two pieces of material that we thought were right. We optioned them with our own money, and we prayed that they would work. Both had strong, complicated, fascinating women at the center and both were written by women. And lo and behold, both books hit number one on the New York Times bestsellers list. One is called "Gone Girl" and the second is called "Wild." So we made those two films last year, and those two films rose to over half a billion dollars world wide and we got three Academy Award nominations for women in acting performances. So that is year one. Against the odds, Pacific Standard has had a year two and year three. We bought five more bestselling books. Next year, we’re going to make two of those, "Big Little Lies" and "Luckiest Girl Alive," into films. We have over 25 films in development and three television shows, and they all have female leads of different ages and different races and different jobs. Some are astronauts, some are soldiers, some are scientists, one is even a Supreme Court justice. They’re not just good or bad; they’re bold and hunted and dangerous and triumphant like the real women we meet every single day of our lives. But our company isn’t just thriving because it feels like a good thing to do. It’s thriving because female-driven films work. This year alone, "Trainwreck" with Amy Schumer, Melissa McCarthy's "Spy," "Pitch Perfect 2," "Cinderella," the "Hunger Games" franchise, those made over 2.2 billion dollars world wide. Films with women at the center are not a public service project, they are a big time, bottom line-enhancing, money-making commodity.
I think we are in a culture crisis in every field. In every industry, women are underrepresented and underpaid in leadership positions. Under 5 percent of CEOS of fortune 500 companies are women. Only 19 percent of Congress is women. No wonder we don’t have the health care we deserve or paid family leave or public access to early childhood education. That really worries me. How can we expect legislation or our needs to be served if we don't have equal representation? So here’s my hope: If you’re in politics, media, the tech industry, or working as an entrepreneur or a teacher or a construction worker or a caregiver, you know the problems we are all facing. I urge each one of you to ask yourselves: What do we do now? That’s a big question. What is it in life that you think you can’t accomplish? Or what is it that people have said that you cannot do? Wouldn’t it feel really good to prove them all wrong? Because I believe ambition is not a dirty word. It’s just believing in yourself and your abilities. Imagine this: What would happen if we were all brave enough to be a little bit more ambitious? I think the world would change.