Last fall, I was fortunate enough to be nominated by Women in Hollywood for the inaugural year of the Fox Global Directors Initiative. I reacted with disbelief when I received notice that I was accepted into the program. “Why me?” I wondered. Sure, I had thrown my hat in the ring, but I always do that. I chalked up my reaction to a compulsive need to feel rejection. My imposter syndrome was fully inflamed. Surely they sent this email to the wrong Meera Menon (as unique a name it is in America, it’s the “Jane Doe” of India). What stunned me later is that so many of the other women around that table — the other participants of the Initiative — expressed that same sense of impossibility: Fox must have made a grave error in choosing little ol’ me.
Something tells me that a group of twenty men selected to such a prestigious program would not react the same way. Something tells me that they would pump their fists in the air, look at themselves in the bathroom mirror, and wink. “They’re lucky to have you, you talented genius. And you’re so handsome to boot!” (This may be a gross generalization of men, based on some bad dates I had in my twenties — we’ve all dated that guy, right?)
But there’s something to that common thread of uncertainty running through this stunningly accomplished, brilliant, bold, and badass group of women — something I would not attribute to a mere lack of confidence. (Just look at their resumes — you don’t do that much without ovaries of steel). Rather, I would blame decades, perhaps centuries, of exclusion. An assumption that we must operate outside the system, that it is our place. We may want more power, more money, and higher stakes, but we’ll never just be given them. Because to the gatekeepers, we’re seen as a risk. You can be undeniably great — and trust me, the women in this program are — but you still pose a risk for some intangible reason (found, or more accurately not found, tucked between your legs). It is a fight, an unending struggle every day, to prove ourselves worthy of that gate pass. And so, an email on a random Tuesday evening that says to me, Hey, show up next week, we’ll have the gate pass ready with your name on it, was and still is shocking.
I find it so symptomatic of larger, systemic issues that many of the other women in the program felt the same way, had similarly acclimated themselves to this sense of being on the outside, that the simplest gesture of an e-mail would totally rattle their minds in the way it did mine. And I cannot understate how, in that moment, after a long stretch of running in circles, trying to feel heard, validated, appreciated, my sense of self flipped a switch. In a moment, through an email, I was on the inside. If I could do this, if I could get that proverbial gate pass with my name on it, I could do anything. That, simply put, is the power of inclusion. It’s something that desperately needs to be pumped into the professional world of film and television directing, so that these pools of incredibly talented people with so much to offer do not fold out of sheer frustration, or more practically, because of a financial reality that does not afford us to get paid for our talents.
At FDI, I had the honor of meeting twenty of the most incredible working directors I’ve ever seen assembled in one room. The electrifying energy between these women was so powerful, it shut down the lights in the building at 9 PM every night. (That might have been an automated function of the building, but it felt poetically significant at the time.) For three nights a week, we gathered and engaged with some of the most exciting minds working at 20th Century Fox, as well as with each other. It was thrilling — the experience of a lifetime, to say the least. Nicole Bernard and Gina Reyes at Fox have accomplished something truly unique. We were talked to as directors — not marginalized figures salivating for a bone to be thrown, but rather, as working directors worthy of their and your attention. Not female directors, not minority directors, just directors. There were many nights that speakers would look around the table after a long discussion, and only suddenly realize, Oh, you’re all women! This also speaks to the power of inclusion — the power of not being defined by anything other than your talent.
This is a group of directors that astonished me not just in the diversity of their backgrounds (though that alone was marvelous), but, also, with the diversity of sensibilities in their work. None of the women in the program were handed a blank check to build the careers they’ve built. They’ve hustled and scraped beyond measure to fight for the stories they want to tell and demand the respect they so totally and completely deserve. The program culminated in us all pitching short films, and in the practice sessions leading up to it, it was so clear to me that each director at that table has such a uniquely different and totally realized sense of their own voice. I hear this all the time — that what the decision-makers in this town want is someone with a unique voice, a unique point of view. I now know twenty of them. Twenty-one, including myself, but hey, imposter syndrome can’t be cured overnight.
At the end of the day, everyone is just trying to make good work that leads to good business, whether you are making things independently or inside a studio or network system. This might be the most important lesson I learned during my time at FDI — that there is no outside versus inside, no us versus them. Broadening the types of stories we see and types of people we see telling them is not a form of social appeasement — it’s smart business in an ever-diversifying country, and I’m excited to see Fox and hopefully others throughout the industry acknowledge, as Susan Youssef put it on our first night in the program, “the feast before them.”
Meera Menon is a writer, director, and editor. Recently, she was selected to be a fellow at 20th Century Fox’s Global Directors Initiative. In 2013, her feature directorial debut, Farah Goes Bang, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival; as FGB’s co-writer/director, Menon was also awarded the inaugural Nora Ephron Prize for a groundbreaking woman filmmaker by Tribeca and Vogue. She received her BA in English and Art History from Columbia University, and her MFA from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts.