Jada Pinkett Smith laughs knowingly when she discusses learning the “language of man” in her role as a producer, director, and actress in Tinseltown over the years. The petite star says one of the mistakes she has made and feels many other women commit in an effort to progress in the male-dominated world is trying too hard to be just one of the guys. “Early on I really think I attempted to be the loudest one in the room,” Pinkett Smith says. “I wanted to be heard and felt like that was the only way in a room full of men. But eventually I realized that all I needed was my own authentic confidence to get their attention. I think as women we often forget that femininity can be a great thing if used in the right way. Trust me, I had my days of wanting to go ‘dude to dude’ with the men in the room, and then it just hit me that that didn’t work as well as being confident in myself as a woman and allowing that to show.’’
Pinkett Smith, who is the producer of the upcoming film The Karate Kid (starring her son, Jaden) and the current TNT hit show Hawthorne, says that the art of communication is probably the most vital lesson she has learned from her superstar husband, Will Smith, in navigating the boardroom. “Men have a way of communicating with each other that is very direct and clear,” says Pinkett Smith, who has worked as a singer as well as an actress, director, and producer. “That stood out to me, and I think when a woman gets into the mix, the reactions can change, and men can shut down just like they do in the home. If they don’t know how to respond to an idea or disagree with a woman, it can get very complicated. They can’t challenge you to a duel or yell and argue like men can do with each other, so that becomes an obstacle that as women we have to find a way around. For me that means remembering to keep that authentic confidence, and to allow the fact that I am a woman to shine through.”
While women have reigned in front of the camera for decades, their place behind the scenes—writing, directing, and producing—has been much harder to establish. Pinkett Smith says it’s not that the male-dominated industry lacks interest in hiring women; it’s more a lack of comfort. “They like the familiar so they lean towards that in the people they place around them,” she says. Women still make up a small fraction of screenwriters, television and film directors, and music producers. In the 82-year history of the Academy Awards, only four women have ever been nominated for best director; Kathryn Bigelow was the first to win this year with The Hurt Locker. That prompted many industry observers to declare 2010 the year of the woman, suggesting that the traditional barriers holding women back in entertainment had disappeared—much in the same way Obama’s election as president signaled a watershed for racism to some observers. Not so fast, according to Pinkett Smith. “Her win was very inspiring, and it proved that great work will be rewarded,’’ she says. “That said, we still have a ways to go for more doors to open for women on every front. Things still aren’t where they should be for women, minorities, and other nonwhite males. But it’s looking up.’’
Mara Brock Akil couldn’t agree more. The creator of two hit television shows with The Game and Girlfriends, the 40-year-old says that while movies provided a major coup for women’s awards this year, television is actually where the most dramatic changes are happening. Former Saturday Night Live stars Tina Fey and Amy Poehler have helped revive the American sitcom with their respective witfests, 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation. Brock Akil says that since she started her career as a writer on comedies such as Sinbad and Martin, opportunities both in front of and behind the cameras have increased substantially. “Television has more room to explore, and that gives women more of a chance to make inroads,” says Brock Akil. “Television has to appeal to the audience in a more real and tangible way, so it only makes sense that women play a role in that. We make up such a large part of the audience that our input is imperative if it’s going to reflect who’s watching.”
The trend is most evident on cable television. Shows like In Plain Sight, The Closer, and Hawthorne all feature female leads and employ a host of female writers and producers at the helm. The results are powerful, complex characters with layers that are examined and challenged weekly in detailed storylines. “What I love most about television is that I have 12 to 26 shows to work out my character on Hawthorne, says Pinkett Smith, who stars on the show as well as coproduces it with her husband. “The audience gets the chance to see all the flaws and bumps of the character, which gives a more realistic idea of who she is. It also provides a richness that I don’t think was there a few years ago because diversity in roles wasn’t there.”
Hawthorne follows the life of a Christina Hawthorne, a registered nurse, newly widowed and the mother of a rebellious teenage daughter. The show regularly deals with the issues balancing work, relationships, and parenting, and attempts to offer a more realistic view of what a woman must face as she juggles being the head of the household and a jobholder. “My mother was a nurse, and I saw her bring the problems of her patients home,” Pinkett Smith says. “I wanted that conveyed to the audience to show how we all sometimes allow our professional lives to flow over into the home. I was deeply moved as a kid listening to my mother talk about getting women into a shelter or helping a sick child. I wanted that complexity on the show.” Someday maybe her daughter will create a show in her honor, about the complexities of being a woman producer.