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Mar 5, 2020

Because She Watched: 11 Netflix Leaders on the Impact of Representation

This International Women’s Day, Netflix and UN Women are launching a special collection of series, documentaries, and films, curated by groundbreaking women in entertainment from around the world. To further celebrate the stories that have inspired us, we asked 11 content executives who are in charge of finding the films and TV shows you watch on Netflix four questions:

  1. What film, series, and/or character inspired you to work in the entertainment industry?
  2. How do your personal experiences inform your decision-making as leaders at Netflix?
  3. What advice would you give to a new generation of female leaders?
  4. What role does storytelling and entertainment play in creating a more equal and empathetic future?

These are their answers.

Featured in this article: Srishti Arya, Bela Bajaria, Melissa Cobb, Channing Dungey, Dorothy Ghettuba, Cindy Holland, Anne Mensah, Adriana Martínez Barrón, Jane Wiseman, Kelly Luegenbiehl, Min-Young Kim

Srishti Arya: Director, International Original Film, India
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It’s hard to remember a time when I was not in the entertainment business. Based in Mumbai, my father was a film producer-director which meant I grew up on sets, sound stages were my playground and editing rooms were the coziest places to sleep. We had writers, actors, composers over as guests almost all the time and I was surrounded by conversations on characters, and stories all the time. Perhaps this is why it took me until I was 8 or 10 years old to understand that not everyone in this world works in the film industry.

Being a woman, especially when I was younger, I saw how hard it was to speak up even when you knew what you were doing. I lost my father when I was 17 years old and had to take on an incomplete film project he was working on and bring it to fruition. I would take my younger brother everywhere with me and patiently answer all the questions which were directed at him even when I had all the answers.

Filmmaking has been mostly dominated by men,but now women are finding their rightful place in the sun. One thing I'm most proud of is how gender balanced the film slate is in India. About 50% of the titles this year from Netflix in India are from female producers, directors or writers. We have the ability at Netflix to look beyond gender and focus only on the story and we are proud that women have the confidence to come and share their stories with us.

I believe the answer in improving representation lies in creating more equal opportunities. It is our responsibility to be aware of the lack of privilege and disbalance that exists around us and therefore, the need to support underrepresented groups. My advice to women everywhere would be to stay hungry. We are still very far from achieving equal opportunities and even though things are much better today, we need to make sure that no one is left behind.

Bela Bajaria: Vice President, Local Language Originals
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I’m an Indian woman working in television -- my frame of reference, culture, tradition and background informs how I manage my teams and the way I look at stories every day. When I read a script -- I imagine a brown girl as the hero of the story. That’s the way I see the world. I am proud of the Africa slate for this year's launch beginning with Queen Sono and Blood and Water: Both series feature and explore complex, strong, layered female characters. Amazing storytellers with authentic voices -- the representation of people from Africa and their stories told on a global scale makes me proud. I remember after moving to America at age 9, I watched a lot of TV to understand the culture, the behavior and the accent. Now we’re giving our members the chance to learn about different cultures on a much larger scale.

We are lucky that we have the opportunity to tell stories from so many countries. At times, entertainment can be a mirror to reflect people’s lives; however, our shows can also be a window to discover an unfamiliar culture or story. Powerful stories have moved many important social conversations forward.

My advice to other female leaders would be: You have to say yes. You have to take the leap. You have to take on the next thing. And as a leader, you have to say yes to panels and public speaking engagements (and forums like this) -- next generation women have to see you -- and especially if you are a woman of color. You don’t need to have done the job before you get it. Be prepared, be smart and be bold. Help other women. You sometimes just have to leap.

Melissa Cobb: Vice President, Original Animation
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The first title I remember well was Wizard of Oz -- the fantasy, the beauty, the music. I think Dorothy was the first female superhero -- seeing a young girl be so smart and empowered and saving the day not only inspired me to want to be in entertainment, but inspired me in life.

One of the things I am most proud of is that we are truly empowering women creators at Netflix -- across both our series and our features in animation. I have seen firsthand that when you have a woman leading a production, more women are given leadership opportunities and there is better gender parity on those shows. We have 60% women in animation schools, but that is not coming through yet in the industry. We are, however, making changes one production at a time. For example, in one of our recent movies, Klaus, we had 43% women across the whole crew. That is a fantastic start.

Behind the screen, representation is incredibly important not only in giving a platform to voices that are not always heard, but also because it creates opportunities for stories that might not otherwise have been told. I would tell young women to not be afraid of taking that leadership position, even if it is a stretch for them. Even if they feel insecure about it. Rise to the occasion. Know that taking on a new responsibility is daunting for everyone. And, don't be afraid to ask for help and to say what you don't know. You don't have to be perfect. You were hired for your strengths, so believe in those and you'll figure out the rest.

I truly believe on screen representation is essential to creating a more empathetic future, particularly in programming for kids. The more you can see yourself on screen, regardless of your background, race, nationality, gender identity or beliefs, the more "seen" you will feel. The more likely you will walk through the world as if you belong and not be afraid to express yourself. And, the more you are exposed to people who are "different" from you in some ways, the more you will begin to see the ways in which we are all connected in the great fabric of this world. There is no "other."

Channing Dungey: Vice President, Original Series
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It's nearly impossible to narrow the titles that have impacted my life down to just one. I grew up audio-recording my favorite TV shows with my sister so we could play them back during the week between episodes (pre-VCR/DVR era childhood), and used to watch old movies on television with my mom on Sunday afternoons. That said, Broadcast News and Working Girl were movies that came out around the same time, movies that I loved which had strong women at the center, and yet they were both written, directed and produced by men. I was already in the process of applying to change my major to film & television at that time, but I remember thinking it was strange that women weren't the ones telling those stories - and why not?

Growing up as a young black woman, I didn't have the benefit of seeing myself reflected on screen - diversity and inclusivity were not a priority then. I'm a big believer in the adage "see it, be it" - and I think it's important for all people to see themselves represented in film and television. That has been a north star for me throughout my career, and continues to be so here at Netflix.

As a senior female leader, I’ve always tried to help give younger women in the room a voice and have encouraged them to share their thoughts and reminded them that their opinions have value. The narratives that we share through story help inform audiences perceptions about themselves and others. Stories provide us a window through which we can learn about worlds that are not our own, and the people who inhabit them, and they also provide us mirror in which we see ourselves reflected back. I think storytelling is the best way for us to bridge cultural divides and help us all to understand that we’re more alike than we are different.

Dorothy Ghettuba: Manager, African Original Series
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The movie that had a lasting impact on my life, as a young African woman was Sarafina. The lead character was an inspiration, and it starred Whoopi Goldberg and Miriam Makeba, both powerful black women of their time. Sarafina was a monumental movie, coming out two years after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and a kind of harbinger for the first post-apartheid elections in 1994 when he was elected president. For those of us who had only read about the resistance tradition of South African youth and the oppression of the apartheid regime, Sarafina became the first movie about South Africa that I encountered with strong female leads as the vanguard of the resistance. It also showcased unique music and dance choreography that we had never seen before on screen. At the fulcrum was this young and beautiful African woman, played by Leleti Khumalo, whose versatility and electrifying presence as an actress is something that stayed with me since.

I am, however, elated that we are working on several shows that portrays the strengths and diversity of African women. They are ultimately a celebration of strong women defying stereotypes and holding space for others. Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Mathai said, “African women in general need to know that it’s ok for them to be the way they are, to see the way they are as a strength, and to be liberated from fear and from silence.” I continue to endorse this school of thought and lean in towards shows that celebrate strong women who choose the path of courage.

Stories represent the power of voice share. Those whose stories are not told, or heard are more or less silenced. It is the role of the media to give a voice to those who have been denied a platform to speak and in this regard the entertainment industry plays a very critical role in how women are represented and perceived all over the world. Often times women are not sufficiently represented on screen and where they exist, they are reduced to stereotypes. I advocate for complex characters, authentic stories to help audiences understand what women feel or experience through their frame of reference. Stories are truly a medium for transformation.

However, it is also important for female leaders in the entertainment industry to realize that we are not starting from scratch. A lot of groundbreaking work has been achieved by our predecessors in this industry, thanks to trailblazers like Shonda Rhimes and Mira Nair. Over and above the necessity of policy advocacy and awareness of gender parity in the entertainment industry, it is the responsibility of the new generation of female entertainment leaders to build on the successes of the past and to hold the door for the next generation of entertainers.

Cindy Holland: Vice President, Original Series
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My answer shows my age! I have clear memories of seeing the movies A Star Is Born (1976), Star Wars: A New Hope (1977), and Grease (1978); and the television series The Sonny & Cher Show (1976+) and Charlie's Angels (1976+). I was probably too young to watch any of them now that I think about it (I was 6-8!), but my parents weren't concerned and I loved them all. They were in different genres and featured different themes; yet each featured at least one really compelling female character (or characters) toward which I gravitated.

I am very proud that Netflix had the most NAACP and GLAAD nominations this year. It underscores our commitment to great storytelling by and about a wide range of communities. My experiences as a woman and as a member of the LGBTQ community have no doubt contributed to my affinity for all kinds of stories of "otherness", and to my belief that there are large and appreciative audiences out there for them.

The most impactful thing we can do is to support storytelling by and about women, and not think of that programming as simply "for women." These stories are for everyone. I encourage the next generation to pursue what interests you and not accept that there are limits to what stories can be told, can resonate globally, or can be considered successful. We fundamentally believe in the power of stories to create empathy, and to emphasize our common humanity. It is one reason why we focus on producing stories from anywhere in the world, for everywhere and everyone.

Min-Young Kim: Vice President of Content, Korea
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When I was 13, my mother took me to watch a local production of Les Miserables, the musical. It was much smaller in its scale compared to the Broadway show, but I still remember my heart pounding. The passion I felt from the actors on stage keeps me dreaming even till now - that I want to work in the field where I get to make people feel how I felt at that time. I changed directions multiple times to figure out what I exactly wanted but I managed to come back to work that allowed me to help tell stories that touch people’s hearts.

The biggest pleasure of working at Netflix is when I work with creators that were given a new and untapped opportunity. Extracurricular, a youth crime original scripted show from Korea is created by a first-time writer and features new faces as on-screen talents in the main roles. School Nurse Files hails from a female director, a first-time female writer and also centers on a female protagonist. Both shows have a unique melding of bold storylines that are unconventional from the lens of the traditional entertainment industry. These experiences inspire me to beton something that is not obvious or unproven rather than trying to follow a proven success formula. And when these efforts succeed, it will be so much more worthwhile.

While creating great stories about strong female characters with female empowerment is important, we need to be more thoughtful and make sure that we avoid stereotypes. As humans we tend to equate “what is right” to “what we are used to.” There are so many different ways of bringing diversity and variety to entertainment. As much as exciting stories bring people joy and escapism, great storytelling influences people’s lives and the way they see the world. There needs to be a level of co-responsibility and integrity in those of us who work in entertainment for making these stories reflect the more diverse lives of people with different backgrounds.

For fellow female leaders, when it comes to bringing gender equality or any other type of equality, I would stress the importance of “Allyship.” Especially those who have established their position as leaders need to be more courageous in speaking up for others who do not have equal gravitas to be heard and be supportive by providing more opportunities for them. Such efforts can nurture stronger leaders of tomorrow and create a big difference in making the world more open and diverse.

Kelly Luegenbiehl: Vice President, EMEA Original Series
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I grew up as a huge fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I always loved her ability to be smart and funny while also fighting monsters and balancing a complicated personal life all at the same time. Looking back this was probably a big reason I’ve been drawn to projects like The Witcher that combine multiple genres and also have dynamic female characters at the center.

I am really proud of the work the team is doing on our first series for South Africa right now, Queen Sono and Blood & Water. Both of these stories have strong female characters at the center but also bring to life stories from Africa for the globe. These series have the potential to open up people’s hearts and minds to African stories in a whole new way. I’ve been lucky in my time at Netflix to see the impact series like 3%, Sacred Games and DARK have had on global audiences and its given us the confidence that local stories can resonate both at home and around the world. I believe these new African series will continue this trajectory.

The first step in pushing the conversation forward is to actually have the conversation. In many of the countries we are working in around the world there are still big strides that need to be made towards achieving more workplace equality. By putting more women in front of and behind the camera we have the ability to bring more authentic stories about women to life. The more these stories are seen, the more impact we can have in inspiring the next generation of female leaders and filmmakers to continue to push boundaries and ask the important questions.

Adriana Martínez Barrón: Manager, LATAM Content Acquisitions
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My parents got divorced when I was growing up, and I used to be a little lonely. I would escape by watching television and some of the titles that shaped me as a person were Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed, Friends and Grey's Anatomy. These shows were very female empowering and taught me how stories can help us escape but also connect with universal truths and characters that can shape the way we are. Seeing Buffy struggle through depression from returning from heaven resonated with me during a painful time in my life. Or seeing Phoebe try to control her emotions the first day she got her empathic powers, made me see my empathy as a superpower.

When I was younger I didn't even think that working in entertainment was even an option for me, but I always dreamed of making people feel the way I used to feel by watching these shows. And it wasn’t until later in life that I began learning about women like Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes, Friends co-creator Marta Kauffman and Buffy the Vampire Slayer executive producer Marti Noxon that made me feel that I could eventually have a career in entertainment. The first project that I read when I started at Netflix was a TV series called Desenfrenadas about four women who embark on a road trip that makes them face things they've been trying to escape. I tried to anchor the show on a protagonist that was dealing with so much pressure to be perfect and is eventually liberated through the journey.

Entertainment shapes culture. So many kids (like I was when I was younger) were raised by TV. It is our job to make sure that the stories we tell are progressive and equalitarian so an entire generation can grow up feeling they could be an award-winning surgeon or a superhero. Whenever we reconsider a female character's profession, we inspire a girl to pursue a career in STEM or law. Whenever we show a female point of view, we build confident girls who believe their stories are worth hearing.

We need to continue hiring and empowering other females and minorities . There is sometimes this fear that there can only be one of us (i.e. one female exec, one latino exec, etc.) and that is not true. We're not competing against each other, we need to work together to break the glass ceiling together, and the only way we can do that is by supporting one another, mentoring younger generations, and pushing for more female storytellers.

Anne Mensah: Vice President, Original Series, UK
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I work in entertainment because I spent my entire childhood immersed in books and television shows. The A-Team, Dallas, MacGyver, Knight Rider -- I watched everything. I still love credits presented in slanting 80s fonts. That said, , it was Peter Kosminisky's BBC series Warriors about the experiences of peacekeepers in the Bosnian war that was the most impactful show for me. It showed me how great drama could be truly memorable and changed the way I thought about what television could achieve.

In a previous role a colleague pointed out to me how woeful my track record was working with female writers. I was genuinely shocked that my slate was only 14% women. I learnt in an instant that if you want to champion any diverse group you have to do it actively -- it's not enough to believe you support women if you are not actively making sure you are getting results. I have tried to bring that approach to my decision making and leadership at Netflix, across all underrepresented groups.

If you can't see it, it's really hard to be it. I believe that we can help push beyond the single story by showing our female characters in all their multifaceted magnificence. By telling many stories and using diverse, authentic voices to do that job, you can push away from stereotypes and tropes and show there is no one way to be a woman. I'd give the same advice to new female leaders - lead as the person you are, not who you think you should be. Your strength is in your authenticity.

Entertainment and storytelling has a huge role in creating a more equal and empathetic future. We are in people's homes, sometimes we are in their pockets - we are often the service they turn to when they are sad or happy, with friends or alone. Our customers let us open up their emotions and imaginations and if we can do that in varied and diverse ways, I believe we will thrill and entertain but also hopefully open windows on new worlds and make the unfamiliar a little less scary.

Jane Wiseman: Vice President, Original Series Comedy and Adult Animation
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As a kid, I enjoyed shows like Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley and Three’s Company and as I got older, Cheers and Friends had a huge impact on me. I related to the strong, complicated female characters and loved the hilarious physical comedy. I wanted to be Laverne DeFazio and I wanted to marry Jack Tripper. Friends inspired me to get a job in entertainment because it came out at a time when I was fresh out of college and living in NYC in a one-bedroom apartment with 5 roommates. At the time, I didn’t know how to get into the business, I just knew I wanted to be part of telling entertaining, hilarious and heartfelt stories.

I am so proud of our shows Dead to Me and Russian Doll, which have helped usher in another wave of unique, complicated female characters and were developed by talented female creators, Liz Feldman and Natasha Lyonne, respectively. I am also inspired to help usher in relatable and diverse stories for the next generation -- like my 11-year-old daughter -- with upcoming shows like Julie and the Phantoms from Kenny Ortega (High School Musical, The Descendants).

I’m lucky to be surrounded by incredible female creatives at Netflix from my boss Cindy Holland and my team which is over 60% female, to the talented artists we work with like Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Christina Applegate and Jenji Kohan. In order to ensure more women have the opportunity to tell their stories we need more female executives in the room making creative decisions. I would tell a new generation of leaders to surround themselves with other female leaders.

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