The Feministing Five: Melissa Silverstein

Melissa Silverstein is the brains behind the blog Women and Hollywood, a feminist perspective of how gender works in the movie industry. Silverstein started the blog several years ago to fill what she perceived as a gap in the online discussion about the entertainment industry, and has pledged that the blog will exist “until women are equal in all areas of entertainment.” Women represent more than half of moviegoers, and yet Hollywood, where those movies are made, is very much a man’s world. Women are still desperately underrepresented among the ranks of directors and producers, and women actresses face very specific gendered pressures that male actors do not face. At Women and Hollywood, Silverstein reviews movies, interviews behind the scenes players as well as those who spend their lives in front of the cameras, and blogs about the forces that contribute to this state of affairs.

Most recently, Silverstein interviewed Lena Dunham, the young writer, director and star of the new film Tiny Furniture. Dunham was recently tapped by HBO to create a pilot for a comedy series about young women, to be produced by Judd Apatow. Silverstein also co-founded the Athena Film Festival in conjunction with Barnard College’s Athena Center for Leadership Studies. The festival is next February and will include features, shorts and documentaries, as well as discussions about women, leadership and film. You can read more about the festival here.

And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Melissa Silverstein.

Chloe Angyal: What made you want to start blogging about women in the film industry?

Melissa Silverstein: I started Women in Hollywood when I was working with the Women’s Media Center doing a daily news brief, and I had discovered blogging. I had always been a person who was obsessed with popular culture and very interested in women’s issues, and I thought that this would be a place that I could have a voice that would be a little bit different. I saw that there were no voices out there talking about entertainment from a feminist perspective, and thought that that would be a great way for me to contribute to the conversation.

CA: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?

MS: Women’s movies of the early 1980s are my favorite fictional women of all time, because they were awesome feminists on screen. You have Karen Silkwood played by Meryl Streep, you have Norma Rae played by Sally Field, and it was when feminism mattered on screen. You have Yentl, Lily Tomlin was really big and 1983 was also Terms of Endearment. Norma Rae came out in 1979, and that year you also had Alien with Sigourney Weaver, My Brilliant Career with Judy Davis, The Rose with Bette Midler and The China Syndrome. Think about those women, and think about what we see on screen now.

I’ve always been a huge Barbra Streisand fan, not because of her music, because I didn’t grow up with her music. But I remember vividly when Yentl came out. And we went to the theater and I watched this movie, and at the end of the movie, I remember seeing the credits roll. I didn’t usually stay and watch the credits but I stayed and watch the credits roll, and her name was everywhere. She produced it, she co-wrote it, she directed it, she starred in it, she did the music, and my mouth was agape, because I didn’t understand that a woman could do that many things and have that much say over a movie. I’ve always come back to that, to how she didn’t compromise her vision. And now that I’m an adult I’ve read a lot about what went in to making that movie. It was released in 1983, so there were very, very few women making movies then, and she was the biggest star in the world, and she made this movie.

CA: What recent news story made you want to scream?

MS: There are so many of them. Recently because I’ve been thinking a lot about the sexualization of girls in the media, those kinds of stories make me cringe. In particular, the sexualization of Halloween and all those images. A lot of people came to my site because they were searching for a Halloween costume, and they were interested in Hit Girl from Kick Ass. So people came on my site and they’re linked to the piece I wrote about Hit Girl, and I’ve gotten emails from people who probably never would have found my stuff and never would have thought about it in a feminist way. One of the things that has also made me crazy lately is women in politics and the co-opting of feminism by right wing women. Feminism is being defined by women who are absolutely not feminists. Their agenda is clearly not pro-women, and it’s regressive, and they’re not interested in women’s issues at all, they’re not interested in helping women. I’m talking about Christine O’Donnell and Sarah Palin and Sharron Angle – just because you’re a woman and you say you’re a feminist doesn’t mean you are one.

CA: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?

MS: I think we need to figure out how we can get over this generational divide. I’m in the middle. I’m 43 years old. I’ve worked in established women’s organizations, and now I work online. I see the two different generations at odds – one is trying to obtain power and define how to be in power, and the other is trying to hold on to whatever they’ve been fighting for for many decades. I’ve also been in the position of trying to access power in an organization, and I know it’s not easy. But I think that people are talking at each other, and we’re buying in to the way that people want to define us. This intergenerational fight is playing in to the hands of the people who want to bring down the feminist agenda. The feminist agenda is not just for women – it’s for our culture. And I think that everybody needs to take a deep breath and figure out how to get over this, because it’s not helpful. I don’t have any answers here, but I see it every day. And if we could figure out how to do leadership transitions and figure out how to integrate young women’s voices (because they’re not the same, and that’s a good thing), we would be in so much more powerful a position as a movement.

CA: You’re going to a desert island, and you’re allowed to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you pick?

MS: A hamburger, Diet Coke and Gloria Steinem.

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia. She joined the Feministing team in 2009. Her writing about politics and popular culture has been published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, New York magazine, Reuters, The LA Times and many other outlets in the US, Australia, UK, and France. She makes regular appearances on radio and television in the US and Australia. She has an AB in Sociology from Princeton University and a PhD in Arts and Media from the University of New South Wales. Her academic work focuses on Hollywood romantic comedies; her doctoral thesis was about how the genre depicts gender, sex, and power, and grew out of a series she wrote for Feministing, the Feministing Rom Com Review. Chloe is a Senior Facilitator at The OpEd Project and a Senior Advisor to The Harry Potter Alliance. You can read more of her writing at

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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