“Beyond Safe and Onto Real.” | The Shift: Shay Revolver Confronts Female Vilification and the Palatable Representation of Black Women in Hollywood

Written by Malin Evita

“I’ve spent a lot of time getting into trouble. I’m a little over-honest. Eventually, I learned I didn’t need to say everything that was on my mind, but also as a Riot Grrrl child, a teenager in the 90s, it’s like, No, I yell and this is wrong, and this is sexist, and if I see it happening I’m calling it out! And I think—Actually,” Shay pauses, “that might have been what the shift was! Huh! I thought about it and realized that most of the female directors that are active are in between their late thirties and early fifties, which is prime Riot Grrrl season! We were all about girl power, so I think that might have been what the shift was.” The shift, of course, being when women’s voices started to be heard as a shared roar and not a sole shriek easily silenced.

Shay Revolver is a feminist filmmaker whose shorts and web series have been screened at several film festivals. She has also started Bad Habit Films—a microbudget production company that is not waiting around for permission. They shoot everything from shorts, shows, and music videos committed to showcasing a diverse range of stories—made by a diverse range of people—that have not been told before.

Zooming in from California while having her morning smoke, Shay took me through her life as a filmmaker and all of the insight she has acquired along the way. Three hours later, and still in conversation with the incredible force of nature she is, I realised that all of her words could never be boiled down to just one piece. Instead, this is part one of three—focused on dissecting palatable representation of women, especially women of colour.

One of the things Shay had told me ahead of our call is that one of passions is for the depiction of mums in film and how she, as a single mother of “three of the most authentic and amazing kids in the multiverse”, views motherhood as a political act. “I view it as a political act because, as a mother—or a parent—you are put in a position where you have two choices with your kids. You can either raise them to be conscious people who care about other people, are compassionate, will get vaccinated, and help others!” She says with a laugh, “Or you can kind of just not let them do that…? I try to, in my films, reflect on stories from other people’s points of view. I think the most important thing I can do as a filmmaker and as a mom is to use my art and my passion to put out stories that show all the sides of women.”

Shay Revolver

Women as Villains and Cardboard Figures

“I literally just watched John Wick kill people over a dog.”

Immediately it is clear: Shay will not stand by while women are disrespected, whether on set or screen. While recently working on adapting some classics, she has discovered a troubling misogynistic pattern of perception she wants to challenge. “I think that lots of women in older books and plays were portrayed as being horrible people—but no one looks at the actions of the men around them that might have led them to do it. Every time a woman is a villain, I’m like, but why? I don’t think she was that wrong!” She says, “I try to make it so I’m not justifying their actions at all. I’m just saying, can we not look at it as them being sure villains? Because guys get the benefit of the doubt in all of these tragedies. Guys are allowed to be horrible people in ancient literature, and no one bats an eye. I like exploring that women can be assholes too—but sometimes, in context, mayhaps, there was a reason they were acting that way.”

With this work, she also finds it interesting to flip the male characters to be female and let their character complexities evolve from there. She says that she will often write her female characters as men and then switch their gender once they fill out their roles. Because even as women, she adds, we have become so used to seeing complex men and one dimensional,  cardboard women on screen as the standard that it can be challenging to write a complex female character. 

“So write it for a dude and swap [the gender] out when you’re done. Because, trust me, internally, whatever prejudices or misconceptions or stereotypes you have will go away the second you switch it. So you can write it for the White Male, which is what we have all seen—they’re always the hero, they’re always the good guy, if they do something for revenge, it is always justified—whereas if a woman does something for revenge, it is always vilified.”

Head of Medusa, by Peter Paul Rubens

A lot of this comes down to casting—something Shay asks people to be much more open about in their process. “There are roles where you will see someone—and they’re not a bad actor—but you’ll think to yourself, That could have been a woman. That could have been a Black guy.  That could have been a Hispanic guy. That could have been a really awesome gay dude—it could have been a lesbian! But no. They went with what everyone is comfortable with.” And so, there needs to be a shift in power dynamics. Specifically, she says, there needs to be an influx of directors and producers from marginalised backgrounds who can have the power to follow their gut and influence casting choices.

“The problem is that, when creating characters for women and for people of color, they tend to think that everyone is exactly the same, and they write as if we are a monolith. We don’t get the diversity, but we also don’t get a seat at the table to push the diversity in because no one is listening to us, because no one will hire us, because we don’t have any experience, because no one will hire us, because we don’t know anybody!”

While the demand for diversity across the board is rising to a point powerful industry professionals cannot swim around anymore, and while the tired tropes and stereotypes are being called out loud and clear, it seems women of colour are consistently the minority left behind. Both in representation conversations and the steps towards improvement some major studios are taking—and that is without even distinguishing between the many different races, ethnicities, and cultures that term includes.

One group that Shay spoke about, who are determined to bring women of colour who work in the film industry to the front, is Women of Color Unite (WOCU). WOCU is an organisation focused on, as they put it themselves, hiring, funding, and distributing. [Take a look at their statistics here] Alongside consulting and bringing WOC filmmakers together for networking and job listings, they have also created the JTC List. This is a database featuring over four thousand women of colour who work in the film industry (in L.A. and beyond)—because there is no excuse anymore.

Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

“What we realised is that with most of the other female-run organisations that help, you have to get a recommendation, and you have to have already completed a feature in order to get entry,” Shay explains, “So they created something completely separate because the barrier is way bigger.” From her own experience, she recalls the position executives put her in. They expected and requested that she write about the “Black experience”, but as she says, the problem is that what those white executives imagine as that experience is not the truth.

What they want is the same harmful, inaccurate, stereotypical stories they have seen fellow white people tell over and over again. It is a vicious cycle that, as Shay points out, puts filmmakers of colour in a position where they either have to conform to those stereotypical standards and stay afloat in an industry that desperately wants to keep them out—or do something different which may risk them losing any funding or support they had acquired.

This is precisely why the JTC List is so consequential and why Shay herself has always said that when she even has an ounce of power, she will only hire other women. The only way to overcome this, she says, is for women and people of colour who get their foot in the door to reach back and grab someone along with them. And we can see that this is what works as well. In Dr. Martha M. Lauzen’s study of women working in independent cinema, she found that a movie with a woman directing had other women compromising 73% of writers, compared to the usual 12% when a man directs. A similar increase can be seen in editor and cinematographer positions.

But even then, the statistics on women’s representation in key creative roles are often misleading and provides a false sense of progression. Because truthfully, the very vast majority of those numbers show the success of white women, which studies often fail to mention. The same goes for statistics about filmmakers of colour’s presence in the industry. Both fail to mention the impact of women of colour, where the two categories overlap. Finding actual, recent statistics on just how many of those women are Black, Asian, Pacific, Latina, brown or indigenous, has become virtually impossible. We say that we are progressing, but for who is that true?

“I remember talking to a white filmmaker friend of mine and being like, No. It’s completely different—trust me. And she was like, no, but I’m a woman too! And I’m like, I hate to break it to you, sweetheart—you are a white woman. They are more likely to take a chance on you than take a chance on me. Especially since I don’t want to make the type of film they want me to do.” Shay recollects. While the “Woman” and “Person of Colour” categories have for a long time been separated from each other, ever so slowly, Shay sees them coming back together; recognising the intersection. “It’s a very recent thing. It was a hard conversation. But we needed to have it because we weren’t on the same playing field. Your struggles are not going to be the same as mine.”

The Palatable Black Actress

“For many, many years, it was always there can be only one. There is one famous Black actress. It’s like everything Black was going to Halle Berry and Denzel Washington – because they were safe,” Shay says, “At this point, we can move beyond safe and onto real.”

Strictly Business: Joseph C. Phillips (L) and Halle Berry (R)

Not only are women of colour often the least hired to work behind the scenes, but they are also strikingly erased from the screen. And when they are portrayed, it is often in a “palatable” way—digestible for the white gaze. For example, in their report “Representations of Black Women in Hollywood”, The Geena Davis Institute found that, while Black women are portrayed in percentages close to U.S. population statistics, and often in a positive light (many shown as smart and as leaders), colourism still heavily prevails.

Over the past decade, only 19% of Black women-leads have a darker skin tone, meaning 4 in 5 are light-skinned, and over half are also shown with Eurocentric hairstyles as opposed to natural Black ones. Interestingly enough, in UCLA’s Hollywood Diversity Report of 2020, it was also found that women of all races were represented less than their male counterparts—except for one instance. 62% of all mixed-raced (not distinguished) actors were women, making it the only racial category where more women were hired than men. And it’s not all that surprising. If you look at the movies being made, a clear pattern of mixed-raced, most often Black-white, women being cast in roles for Black women emerges.

Shay remembers the late eighties and early nineties when she was just a kid, and she recalls how she would point out that there was ever only one Black woman at a time who would be given the spotlight. “In the nineties, it was Rae Dawn Chong. She was in everything. But there is only one! And then when she got ’too old’ they replaced her with another mixed-race person. I think it’s because it’s easier to digest than it is to accept the fact that we come in every shade,” she says.

On this topic, she thinks back to a particular actress’ rise to fame. “There was a big thing with Jennifer Beals, who, in Devil in a Blue Dress, plays a woman who is passing but is actually Black. What was most interesting about that was that Jennifer Beals is, in fact, half Black. So a lot of the time, they would use her to check off the diversity box. But, honestly speaking, if you looked at her—if she never opened her mouth and said it, no one would assume that she was Black. But she was playing all of these roles because she was a palatable person to see on screen.”

Devil in a Blue Dress: Jennifer Beals as Daphne Monet

“The only way we are gonna get past this is to realize that no one is going to get shocked if they see a dark-skinned woman on screen. You see us every day,” she says, “I think it’s hard to get people out of their comfort zone because they are going with what works, as opposed to what should be. When you say Black, it shouldn’t mean light-skinned. It should mean Black—across the board. Now, a lot of younger actresses and actors are being more vocal about the fact that this is not okay. And since they are bankable now, people are actually listening.”

Awareness of the lack of darker-skinned women’s representation is spreading, and Hollywood stars like Zendaya, a mixed-raced actress, have spoken out about how she no longer wants to take on roles written for Black women, as she believes it should go to darker-skinned women instead. The Queen’s Gambit actress Anya Taylor Joy recently spoke similarly about how she, as a white Argentinian, will not take on Latina roles—despite technically fitting the criteria. 

“I am Hollywood’s acceptable version of a Black girl, and that has to change. We’re vastly too beautiful and too interesting for me to be the only representation of that.”

Zendaya at BeautyCon NYC

“I don’t fault people like Halle Berry or any of other actresses, because at the time, they knew they could be replaced by the next person, so they didn’t have the luxury. It’s kind of like, well, some representation is better than no representation, so we’re gonna go with it. But now more women are speaking out and being like, yeah, no—this is not okay. You will not use me to check off a box,” Shay says, “and there are so many of them now. They actually have collective power to say no. Whereas before there was one, maybe two, and it was either do it—or don’t get hired and get replaced.”

“We are getting more and more representation. Less of us as drug dealers, or Asians who have supermarkets, or Hispanics who are in gangs.” It’s getting better. But we are still far away from the end goal destination.

Edit: Part two on the important of representation is out now. Read it here.

Written by Malin Evita

Evita is the host and producer of the podcast, Instagram curator, and a writer focused on script, cultural commentary, and film analysis. She is a Vocal grand prize winner and recently finished studying Professional Writing at college. Through storytelling, she aims to amplify empathy and human connectivity.

Website: malinevita.com | IG: @malinevita

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