How ‘Unexpected’ & ‘The Hunting Ground’ Put Women’s Issues Into Mainstream Film


The 2015 Sundance Film Festival was no disappointment. Each year the iconic industry event which happens smack bang in the middle of awards season is usually a great forerunner to the films we can expect to see in theaters that year, and being nominated for awards the following.

This year there were many films made, starring and written about women, which made for a very empowering and hopeful look into what is possibly going to come out of Hollywood this year. With reports that only 15% of 2014’s 250 top-grossing films featured a female protagonist, and behind the scenes only 17% of leadership roles are taken up by women, we have some serious work to do.

But in an interview with Variety, Sony Pictures Classics co-presidents Tom Bernard and Michael Barker declared Sundance 2015 “the year of the woman”. We happen to agree, and we’ll explain why as you continue reading.

A panel called ‘The Power of Story: Serious Women’ featured actresses Lena Dunham, Mindy Kaling, Kristen Wiig and ‘Orange is the new Black’ show runner Jenji Kohan who talked about the fight women still have on their hands in terms of getting in the room, and then having their stories shown on screen without being pigeon-holed as not interesting to audiences.

But there were a few standout films shown at Sundance which have a lot of people buzzing because not only do they feature women, but they are produced and directed by women, and also address women’s issues such as rape and reproductive rights. You know, stuff that Hollywood execs think no one wants to see.


The first is ‘The Hunting Ground’, a documentary made by the same team behind one of our faves ‘The Invisible War‘ (the film addressing sexual assault on women in the military which, after being nominated for an Oscar, forced military officials to create legislation to greater prosecute and protect its combatants – winning!).

The documentary (trailer below) investigates how college campuses in the United States silence sexually assaulted students and rape victims in a bid to protect star athletes. Addressing the hot button issue of college campus rape, give the two huge stories of 2014 being the rape of “mattress activist” Emma Sulkowicz, and the UVA rape case which proved the media does not know how to properly report on this topic.

A feature film causing a huge buzz already is ‘Unexpected’ starring Cobie Smulders (‘How I Met Your Mother’) and directed by Kris Swanberg (yay for female directors!). The story follows school teacher (Smulders) who finds out she is pregnant at the same time as one of her students (played by Gail Bean).


The two characters come from completely different worlds but both battling with tough decisions. Cobie plays a white upper class woman with a stable job who is grappling with whether she can have a baby AND a job, or should she choose. Gail plays an African-American teenage girl from a low-income area and issues of reproductive rights and family planning are explored in her story. All the issues are dealt with in a sensitive way that does not diminish the many varied nuances involved in pregnancy. Critics are saying that having a female director ensured it didn’t make light of the subject, but also didn’t isolate audiences.

“It’s an amazing story. It’s about motherhood, it’s about female empowerment,” Cobie told Bustle.

”Weirdly, as many people in the world that have been pregnant, there’s actually not that many movies about pregnancy,” Kris added. “And a lot of the most famous movies about pregnancy are actually told from the male perspective. So if you think about some of them, like ‘Knocked Up’ or ‘Nine Months’, they’re told from a male point of view. It’s like the guy dealing with the woman going, ‘Oh I dunno, she’s going crazy, I don’t know what to do!’ So I thought there should at least be as many movies from the female perspective considering they’re the ones going through the pregnancy.”

In 2014 the film ‘Obvious Child‘ starring ‘SNL’ alum Jenny Slate caused a huge stir for boldly tackling abortion in an unapologetic and very real manner. She won a Critics Choice Award for Best Actress in a Comedy and in her acceptance speech mentioned the importance of this film in our current culture.

“I’m so proud to be in a movie that is joyful, and thoughtful and depicts a modern and authentic experience of unplanned pregnancy. I want to thank…Gillian Robespierre and Elizabeth Holm who wrote this movie and assert that even while we are fighting for our rights we can do so creatively.”

It certainly set the bar for what we hope to see more of in films going forward. But it is the unwilling studio executives that need to be convinced the most.


At the Women Of Sundance brunch legendary actress Jane Fonda (who premiered her new film ‘Grandma’ with Lily Tomlin) said largely male hierarchies were unlikely to address inequality of their own accord.

“The studios are run by men and they have the bottom line to meet and they give jobs to people like them. It’s a matter of gender, not that we don’t have the experience,” she said adding that many big-budget films are often handed to men who lack the credits that some women do.

“We have to shame the studios for being so gender-biased. We have to prove we can be commercial,” said Fonda. “We have to fight real hard to get women in positions of power and remember there are no set rules. Kathryn Bigelow made a guys’ film [The Hurt Locker], while her ex-husband James Cameron made a feminist film in Avatar.”

“Media is the face the United States gives to the world,” she said. “If women are not part of that face, they’re not getting the whole picture. We’ve got to get more women running studios. Oh boy, we have to be brave, and determined.”


After Sundance wrapped up, USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism announced a new initiative which would hopefully promote more diversity in film, and at the same time make movie-goers and industry folk aware of the gender bias that exists. It was created in response to the outrage at this year’s mostly white and mostly male Academy Awards nominees in all the major categories.

“The USC Annenberg Comprehensive Analysis and Report on Diversity (CARD) will serve as Hollywood’s diversity ‘report card,’ charting how the major entertainment players fare when it comes to hiring, casting, and content,” a release stated.

“Clearly, not one group or one company is solely responsible for the lack of diversity on-screen or behind the camera,” said Professor Stacy L. Smith from the Media, Diversity & Social Change (MDSC) Initiative at USC Annenberg. “We need a broader look at who is doing well, and who needs to step up their game. The USC Annenberg CARD will do just that.”

“By looking across media within companies, as well as at the content they produce and distribute, we will get a clearer picture of where women and people of color are missing from the media ecosystem. The USC Annenberg CARD will also illuminate where activists may need to target their efforts to leverage social change.”

The films mentioned here are only the tip of the iceberg of what to expect this year. Women need to be present both behind the scenes as well as in front. That is the magic combination to having important stories about half the population being portrayed in an authentic manner. The final frontier of course is the studios, as Jane Fonda mentioned. But like she also said, the media is the face of America today, and the more we write, speak, share and crate buzz about female-centric films, we hope it will help take those blinders off the eyes of key decision makers in Hollywood.

Bustle helpfully compiled a list of 15 female-directed films which premiered at Sundance which you should all get familiar with. You can also check out Buzzfeed’s rundown of the most highly anticipated films that premiered at the festival, separated into different categories.

In the meantime, check out the trailer for ‘The Hunting Ground’:


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