• Industry

Telling Stories About Women: Starz’s “Take the Lead Transparency” Talks

Starz’s “Take the Lead Transparency” Talks, held on March 16 via Zoom, addressed the importance of international content in telling stories about women. The panelists, all successful in their own chosen profession, were comprised of:  Golden Globe Winner and United Nations Goodwill Ambassador Mira Sorvino

They have assembled to discuss the myriad subjects on all matters about women. Milford Morse began the conversation by talking about the most pressing scenarios facing women with regard to current political, social, and cultural issues.

“Right now, is a really urgent moment for global gender equality. I think there is a gap between what we see and what is actually happening that makes this moment particularly urgent,” she said. “What I mean by that is that, sometimes, the optics are pretty reassuring. We have a woman Vice President of the United States, we have women running countries, running companies, running up and down a soccer pitch and then winning equal pay, finally,” she noted. “That stuff is reassuring, but the truth in the data is clear and it is compelling. Progress towards gender equality has been slow, fragile, incremental, and reversible, which makes conversations like this so important and makes the work of the UN essential.

“We also need to do something about violence against women. Too little has changed over the past 100 years. I tend to be an optimist because maybe a place where this conversation can start is: number one, inequality is a choice.” She paused. “We need more political will, more solidarity.”

Guereca jumped in, speaking about the Women’s March Foundation and how it has evolved. “Women are responsible for VP Kamala Harris, let’s face it. Women’s March has been incredibly supported by women across the country, across the world. What we are currently working on is our feminist street initiative, the visibility of women on the streets, taking the streets and protesting, being memorialized in history in street names. We are also working on voter rights with our Defend Democracy initiative. We have contacted over 10 million women to mobilize to the polls. We know that a women’s economic agenda is necessary but, unless we mobilize the women to the polls and women into political office and CEO positions, it’s not going to happen. So, that is how we’ve changed.” She took a breath. “I honestly thought that we were going to march and then go back to our lives, but that’s not possible because there’s so much more work to be done. Our mission has changed in terms of really mobilizing women to the polls. Instead of just taking the streets, we’re going to get streets named after our historical women.”

As to whom will be forever immortalized on our streets, she said, “Dolores Huerta, in Los Angeles. We’ve applied for Bell Hooks, for Gloria Steinham, for Maya Angelou; and Wilma Mankiller in Oklahoma.”

Sorvino weighed in on the synergy between art and activism. “I was always very motivated by inequality, prejudice, genocide, racism, sexism, any ism. When I got to Harvard, although I was a Chinese studies major, I ended up writing my thesis about racial conflict in China. It was really like an anthropic sociology thesis about why racial conflict occurs both generically and in a culturally specific place. I wanted to learn more about racism and prejudice. It was a very fascinating journey for me,” she noted. “After I got out of school, I worked on something called Street Side Stories, which tried to get kids across the country motivated to write and read rather than engage with video games and television. We didn’t have [cell] phones yet. Then, I worked on a documentary in the former Soviet Union, called Freedom to Hate, which was about the rise of hate groups and hate speech,” she says. “Then, then I became an actress and, for about 10 years, it was hard for me to put all the activism stuff in play because I was working so hard to get my career off the ground.”

“When I was pregnant with my first child, Bonnie Abaunza, who is part of this event today, invited me to be part of an evening that Amnesty International was hosting about the disappeared women of Ciudad Juarez, in Chihuahua, Mexico. To host that evening and give a speech,” she recalled. “Afterward they were, like, ‘Well, we loved what you did. Would you like to be our stop violence against women campaign spokesperson?’ And I was, like, ‘Yes, yes, yes! I’ve been looking for something to get back into doing what I love.’ Also, especially because I knew I was going to have a little girl child, I needed to help be a part of the solution-making in this world that she was going to come of age at. She’s 17 now. She’s the fiercest feminist and social justice warrior and created a social justice club at her high school. Called it Arts for Justice Collective,” she smiled proudly. “She’s just like a dream come true, in terms of the next generation that cares and that is active.”

“While I was doing the Stop Violence Against Women campaign with Amnesty, human trafficking came to my attention. I was not aware that slavery was still alive and well in our world. In fact, there are more people enslaved today than at any other point in recorded human history. Over 30 million people are living in conditions of modern slavery.”  She paused. “That was so stunning to me and so angering that I started putting a lot of attention into that. I did a Lifetime mini-series about it that was very feted. It got Emmy and Golden Globes nods. It was a really serious piece.”

“In 2009, the UN became aware of my activism, and they asked me to join them on the anti-human trafficking front. And I’ve been doing it since then. It has been one of the great honors and privileges of my life,” she said. “As actors, we have a bully pulpit because we have fame. I’m not the most famous of actresses, certainly. People like Angelina Jolie have a lot more reach, but I’ve tried around the world to interview victims of human trafficking and bring all of that knowledge into any of my outreach. We’re trying to push the power to survivors, so survivor leaders are always at the table on any event concerning human trafficking.”

Sorvino speaks from the heart. “I had kept my suffering to myself for many years. I’m a rape victim. I was a sexual assault victim as a teenager, and I was a sexual assault and harassment victim of Harvey [Weinstein]. To go public with it is empowering, although it was very painful for a while. What I did with my pain was: I tried to create legislative change. I joined forces with equal rights advocates here in California and we got many bills passed in the California legislature.”

Sorvino went on to describe a rather bizarre cascade of events. “I went to New York and, at the behest of Andrew Cuomo, got three anti-sexual harassment bills passed there and gave a big speech about how I had been date raped. We extended the statute of limitations quite extensively on second and third-degree rape in New York,” she said. “We didn’t get it fully abolished, but we made a dent in it. I spoke about the No Grope Policy, that we had already instituted in California law, and brought it to New York. Then, crazily enough, the governor had been accused of doing exactly what I described in front of the legislature to someone under his umbrella, putting his hand under her shirt and groping her.” Cuomo resigned from the governor’s office in disgrace amid the sexual harassment scandal.

Sorvino continued. “I sat there, from the audience, and explained that one grope is one too many. There’s no tolerance. There used to be a severe and pervasive standard, in New York and California, to what was enough to be deemed worthy of action. It fell under the sexual harassment rubric, not the criminal standing, but the civil one. After that speech, Cuomo allegedly did that! For me, it was such a crazy betrayal because this was an ally.”  She paused. “I have not spoken about this before; I’ve written something for myself. But it was a crazy betrayal that a man, who purported to be our ally in this fight himself, was ongoingly committing infractions in this arena.”

On a lighter note, and rounding out the discussion, Executive Director of Women and Girls Initiative, Abbe Land, talked about how Los Angeles County addresses issues of equality. “The challenges that women and girls are facing in Los Angeles County are, unfortunately, very similar to the challenges that you’ve heard from everybody else. Women and girls, especially now through this COVID pandemic, have shown the inequities that women and girls are facing,” she explains. “We’ve seen women having to leave the workforce. We’ve seen women having to go to work because they’re essential workers and putting their lives and their families’ lives on the line. We’ve seen people losing money and facing eviction. The issues are a lot, but we are really lucky. We are in Los Angeles County, we have a board of supervisors, five incredible women who are looking at how can government solve some of these things.”

“In LA County we have 10 million people. Over half of them are women and girls. If we are not advancing their economic rights, this county is going to go to heck in a handbasket,” she said. “It is critical that we are doing that. There are certain things that government can do. First, again, looking at pay equity. I think government might do a better job in pay equity than, maybe, the private sector, because so much of what we do is visible and transparent. You can go on a website and look up everyone’s salary in the County of Los Angeles. What’s critical is making sure that women have the support they need to advance and making sure that girls are going to have the support they need to advance.”