July 23, 2014
Women who tell their stories learn about themselves and learn from one another. They become more confident and feel free to forge their own path, throwing off external expectations. When Reese Witherspoon shared stories about her movie career at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) last month it was obvious that she is one such woman. For those of us who listen to her story there is lots to learn.
Witherspoon talked about one of her early films, ‘Election’. In it, she portrayed a young woman teeming with raw ambition who was willing to do anything to get the vote in politics. Narrowing her eyes, her character looked upon her male opponent with scorn, knowing his political advantage came by virtue of his status and position at birth.
While Witherspoon received resounding critical acclaim for that role (and even a Golden Globe nomination), her success was ignored as she searched for new parts. Studio after studio awarded the plum roles she sought to others. One can only speculate that she was tarred with the image of the conniving character from ‘Election’. It is a distinct disadvantage to be perceived as an ambitious, overachieving woman as it goes hand in hand with being stereotyped a shrew.
The astute Witherspoon recognized that she needed to play a likable female character to move her career forward. That's when the script arrived for "Legally Blonde", featuring a shallow West coast girl who applies to Harvard law school in an effort to snare a particular man. At first Witherspoon rejected the role. She bristled at the lead character's lack of depth but after consideration, she worked on the script and repositioned the story.
The female lead she devised was as intelligent and savvy in the courtroom as she was warm and feminine in the beauty salon. The film was a huge financial success, spurring a whole movement of girls who felt free to embrace pink while pursuing ambitious careers. She gave them a gift- permission to love being a girl! Not only that, it was a break-out role for Witherspoon making her a full-fledged star.
What can we learn from this? We will be the most successful, the most satisfied and receive the most support when we are who we are at our core. Women need to be liked to have others help them reach their goals. Likeability comes from being real and authentic, which means not only accepting all parts of ourselves but relishing in it. Being feminine and being ambitious doesn't have to be an either/or proposition.
Witherspoon also discussed her latest film "Wild". In it, she portrays a woman who leaves behind a troubled past by hiking the demanding and often treacherous Pacific Crest Trail all by herself. The film is interesting for a number of reasons: it is a woman's story, when very few of them are made; it is all about the process when most are about the goal and it has a happy ending, despite that the female protagonist isn't rescued by a man. Her character ends up penniless, jobless and alone- but happy. Most women think this is impossible and movie themes reinforce these outdated beliefs.
There are a number of lessons here for women. First, we have the capability to independently take our own journeys (metaphorically and in reality). We don't need a man. Next, we need to adjust our thinking about the events in our lives. Too often we ruminate on what we could have done differently or measure ourselves by an unachievable external bar, set way too high.
In every case, we are prone to berate ourselves for coming up short when we could be enjoying the present moment. Rather than looking at what we could have done better we should congratulate ourselves on where we are now and what we have already achieved. It is time to reposition our expectations and control our negative thoughts.
In Arianna Huffington’s book ‘Thrive’ she recounts her mother’s advice whenever she was upset about something, “Darling, just change the channel. You are in control of the clicker. Don’t replay the bad, scary movie.” Huffington also quotes Plato who wisely said that we need to connect with ourselves as that is the only way that we can truly thrive. This sage advice mirrors that of Witherspoon’s experience. Women need to be themselves and they need to put limiting thoughts behind them.
I was also impressed that Witherspoon is looking for scripts that tell women’s’ stories. She has a 15 year old daughter, making her increasingly conscious about how movies establish identity and how women are portrayed in them. Unfortunately, it is men’s stories that are getting told and typically women only warrant a role as an appendage. Always a voracious reader, she is now devouring books about women, optioning the rights and investing her own cash to make them into film.
Clearly, Witherspoon knows her value system and has the confidence to follow her internal guidance, rather than external systems that would leave these decisions to male studio heads. As she forges her own path women will be the beneficiaries, not only because she will bring forward women's stories but also because she will openly share hers.
Women can learn from Witherspoon's stories, just as we can from our own. For with each telling we'll further reflect and we'll become more confident not only in who we are but in what we can do. This acceptance of ourselves will make it easier to put negative thoughts behind us and move forward even when we are unhappy, hurt or in pain. There is strength is who we are and we'll find it by telling our stories.