The opening plenary session of the 2018 She Roars conference was a disappointing start to an otherwise inspiring event.
Although many alumnae were apprehensive about having a man deliver the kick-off presentation at a women’s conference, I imagined Douglas McGrath ‘80 -- who has made his career telling women’s stories on stage and screen -- might be uniquely positioned to address the national conversation around gender equality in the wake of the #metoo and Time’s Up movements, particularly during the week of the Kavanaugh vote and the one-year anniversary of the Harvey Weinstein story breaking in the Times. Instead, McGrath avoided these issues altogether and even delivered sexist jokes.
McGrath had several opportunities to weigh in on timely topics of grave concern to his audience. His talk focused heavily on his work as the writer and director of the film adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, produced by Weinstein. Although McGrath told entertaining tales of making a particular scene in the award-winning film (including a lively description of the butterfly wrangler -- assuring us “there’s always a guy for that” when specific needs arise on a film set), he never acknowledged the predatory elephant in the room.
While intended to be funny, his lengthy tale of sitting next to President Clinton during a White House screening of Emma further demonstrated a lack of thoughtfulness. McGrath vividly described the way the president ate popcorn: “the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen -- and I’ve seen childbirth!” The tone-deaf punchline received polite but awkward chuckles from the audience, compelling women to participate in his misogynistic humor (not to mention the fact that many of us were thinking, Is eating with gusto really the repulsive behavior for which Bill Clinton should be ashamed?).
During the Q & A, Rachel Jackson '11 asked McGrath about the fact that he’s a man telling women’s stories and what might be done to empower women’s voices in the arts; he didn’t seem to know what to say and quickly moved on to the next question.
I don’t expect one man to speak for all men or to have solutions to our country’s challenges around gender equality, but I invite McGrath to get a second chance to respond to the alumna’s important question -- and to offer his honest reflections about discrimination, harassment, and sexual assault in his industry.