Six years ago — despite several accolades, including an Oscar — Reese Witherspoon found herself reading a script for a major studio movie that just fell flat.
“The female lead was just awful — she had no agency, no narrative arc,” Witherspoon said at the Global Citizen #SheIsEqual Summit on Friday. She knew she wanted no part of the role, and told her agent.
But her agent said every female actor in Hollywood was dying for a shot at the role — and that worried Witherspoon.
“I thought: If this is what they’re all fighting for, I need to do something about this,” she said.
So she founded Hello Sunshine, a media brand “anchored in storytelling, creating, and discovering content that celebrates women and puts them at the center of the story.”
In her more than 25-year career, Witherspoon said she has seen “the same 20 people making the same movies about the same sort of things over and over and again,” and she’s tired of it.
Speaking on a panel at the #SheIsEqual Summit — presented by P&G and #SeeHer, an initiative to improve the accurate portrayal of women and girls in advertising and entertainment in the US — Witherspoon emphasized the need for a wider range of women’s stories to be told but for greater diversity among storytellers themselves.
“It’s not just the art that’s being made, it’s how it’s being made,” Witherspoon said. “A man telling a story about the suffragette movement is a different thing than a woman telling it whose grandmother told her the story while she was sitting on her lap.”
Bit by bit things are finally changing in Hollywood. With the increasing popularity of streaming services and social media, entertainment producers are better able to respond to viewer demands and to create stories that resonate better with audiences.
Witherspoon and Hello Sunshine are working to empower women to share their realities and to tell their stories. By making the media’s representation of women more accurate and more diverse, the mother and actress hopes to dismantle some of the barriers she faced chasing her dreams, so her daughters and the next generation won’t be confronted with the same challenges.
Witherspoon recalled being asked what she wanted to be when she grew up as a third-grader, to which she replied: the first female president of the United States of America.
“I thought it was possible because I was told I could be anything I wanted to be,” she explained.
But as she grew older, she was faced with a different reality. Though she felt like she could become anything she wanted to be, the world she lived in was one with systemic barriers and stereotypes that might have prevented her from pursuing that dream.
Witherspoon ultimately found success in another industry — the film industry — and that too has come with its own challenges. But like the iconic character, Elle Woods, whom she played in Legally Blonde, Witherspoon is determined to succeed and push back against the status quo.
“I can get frustrated by the ceilings I hit, I can be aggravated by the political barriers I face ... or I can do something about it,” Witherspoon said.
Her hope is that by showing women of all different abilities, body types, sexualities, and backgrounds, young girls and women will recognize themselves and be emboldened and that the landscape of media and entertainment will change to a point where women will be represented as having limitless potential — as they do in reality.