Oprah Talks with Reese Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling About Sexism
Oprah: I'm so excited to have a conversation with such beautiful, innovative, powerful women—my A Wrinkle in Time costars.
Reese Witherspoon: Thank you for having us! Sitting around and talking is our favorite thing to do.
Mindy Kaling: And it's nice not to be in harnesses and wigs.
OW: Making the movie felt like being part of a trailblazing, pioneering adventure, with Ava as the first African American woman to direct a $100 million–budget film. I hope the message of light it brings will resonate with people—I think a lot about the line in the movie, "The darkness is spreading so fast these days."
RW: Oh my gosh, it was incredible, that speech.
OW: "The only thing faster than light is darkness." It's so interesting that Madeleine L'Engle knew that so many years ago because it really fits the age we're living in now. What was your reaction when you first started to see the wave of women confronting their harassers and abusers?
RW: Initially, it was really shocking. When I heard the first Harvey Weinstein story, I was in L.A.
OW: You said that you, and several other actresses you knew, were having trouble sleeping because it was so hard listening to these accounts. I said, "Gee, that sounds like you're having some symptoms of PTSD," and your eyes started to water.
RW: Yeah, I remember that. All those things I thought I had dealt with a long time ago, I hadn't dealt with. A lot of these women with stories are my very dear friends, like Salma Hayek and Gwyneth Paltrow. These are some of my closest friends and colleagues, and I had known their experiences were difficult, but I had never understood the depth of the harassment. I was just floored, and then I realized, This is the moment to tell what happened to me when I was young. This is the moment where healing begins.
OW: Then, at a conference, you did tell your story—about being assaulted by a director when you were just 16—and immediately afterward, another actress in the room stood up and divulged something. I've seen this happen over and over and over again—that the moment you release the thing that has held you in chains, or that has made you feel shamed or disappointed in yourself, there's always, always another person saying "Me, too."
RW: The understanding was that remaining silent was the condition of our employment. Do you want to work? Do you want to get ahead? Then you don't talk. But the rules have changed. And with Time's Up, we're making sure they're changing for everyone—by providing legal and financial support to women in any workplace who have been harassed and are ready to speak up about it.
OW: I didn't grow up in the movie industry, but in the television business, I was so sexually harassed. It was absolutely, implicitly understood that if I said a word about it, I would have been out of television.
RW: Whistle-blowers were not welcome, and if you wanted one of the very rare leading actress positions, you toed the line.
Photo: Frank Terry
OW: Mindy, what have you experienced or witnessed, in terms of harassment in Hollywood?
MK: I've been lucky enough to never have been the recipient of the kind of overt, sexually menacing harassment that has been in all the headlines. But I'm empowered as a show creator and writer in a way that I'm not as an actress. Actresses I've worked with suffer far more because of the vulnerable nature of their job.
OW: We're creating new rules as we evolve. Do you think this moment will change the culture of toxic masculinity in the workplace?
RW: I think it just turned the lights on, and yeah, I do think things are going to change. There are a lot of really good men in the world, but I do think it's incumbent on women in leadership to rewrite the rules. We have to get together as groups of women, which is what I've been doing with a lot of actresses. It's been incredibly illuminating. Women in positions of power need to help people understand what the new normal is. You tell people how you want them to treat you.
MK: The key is getting more women into those positions of power. Having women in charge is the easiest way to make change—assuming they get to be in charge. The harder way is confronting and reporting harassment in the workplace, which is so much more challenging because it requires going out on a limb. So many women want to simply fly under the radar and not seem like a "troublemaker" or "drama queen."
OW: In A Wrinkle in Time, we get the message that complacency leads people to abandon independent thought. Do you feel like our culture is complacent right now?
RW: I think our culture's more alive and vibrant than it's ever been. We're waking ideas that have been dormant for a long time, and it's terrifying and thrilling. Social media has opened up a conversation that was not possible even ten years ago. Women are talking about things they've never spoken about, and they're actually being heard.
MK: People who were not necessarily speaking their minds before are feeling that they have to. You used to think, I'm an actress, I'm a writer, I don't necessarily want to get involved. Yet now I feel that being complacent is one of the worst things you can be.
Photo: Frank Terry
OW: You believe we're living in an era where people are called to speak up.
RW: For me, one major issue is women's stories, and creating opportunities for women to tell their stories, which is why I started my production company, Hello Sunshine. We cannot expect change in our society if we see only the same movies by the same 20 male directors. It's been my mission over the past five years to create better parts for women, and also opportunities for women of color, of different generations, to tell their stories in any capacity. Whether they're taking photographs or doing podcasts. Just shine a light on those people.
OW: Why do you think it's important for men to be exposed to more of women's stories through media?
MK: Women are half the world, but we've spent so long seeing the world through the lens of men that we've normalized that point of view. For instance, it's completely socially acceptable for a man to not want to see a movie or TV show with a female lead, because they're "not into that kind of thing." But the opposite is almost never true.
RW: We don't have compassion unless we see stories through other people's eyes, and we need a broader range of storytellers. They have to be women, people of color, LGBTQ. The storytelling has got to be more balanced. I truly believe that art is the antidote. When you see something from another perspective, stand in another person's shoes, that's what creates empathy, in my experience.
OW: Reese, a speech of yours went viral a few years ago. You proclaimed that for women, "ambition is not a dirty word." That felt like a call to arms. Why do you think your speech struck such a cord.
RW: A Columbia University study found that people considered an ambitious woman more selfish and less worthy of being hired than an ambitious man.
OW: Can you believe it?
RW: I thought, We need to start reframing this word ambition. Because it isn't about being selfish, it's about wanting to create more and do better for communities, schools, the world.
MK: It's true. Ambitious, when applied to a woman, almost means ruthless. Used for a man, it's considered a great compliment. But if someone called me ambitious, it'd almost feel like shade.
OW: Right after your speech, somebody posted on Facebook, "I just want Reese Witherspoon sitting on my shoulder whispering 'ambition' into my ear for the rest of my life."
RW: I got you. Whoever you are, I'll be there.
MK: Women are supposed to be effortless all the time: "Effortlessly beautiful" is supposedly the best compliment. What's wrong with effort?
OW: Especially when you've worked for two hours to look that way! You've both had drive your whole lives. Have you noticed a shift in how people perceive that.
RW: I had this epiphany at 40: You know how NBA players are always talking about how great they are? Why don't women talk about how great they are all the time? LeBron James isn't like, "Oh no, not me." He's like, "I'm LeBron James."
OW: Because when women do that, they're perceived as being too full of themselves.
RW: Well, forget it. I'm going to start wearing my Emmy for Big Little Lies like a necklace.
OW: Don't stab yourself—those wings can hurt! So I found out that neither of you likes the word likable.
MK: To me, likable means likable to men. That's something I want to not care about as much. I think relatable is important, though.
OW: That external pressure can be overwhelming. I've been in many boardrooms where I was the only woman, the only person of color. There's a wonderful poem by Maya Angelou where she says, "I come as one, but I stand as ten thousand." Before I'd walk into those rooms, I'd say that line to myself, because I feel the presence, the energy. There's a whole pack behind me.
MK: That's so empowering.
Photo: Frank Terry
OW: What's the most difficult decision you've had to make to fulfill your destiny?
RW: For me, probably leaving an abusive relationship.
OW: What caused the decision? Was it a moment? And was it physical or verbal or both?
RW: Psychological, verbal, yeah. I drew a line in the sand, and it got crossed, and my brain just switched. I couldn't go any further. I was really young, and it was profound.
OW: And that made all the difference.
RW: It changed who I was on a cellular level, the fact that I stood up for myself. It's part of the reason I can stand up and say, "Yes, I'm ambitious." Because someone tried to take that from me.
MK: It's so hard, because ultimately, people can only have agency if they have financial freedom. For me, bravery starts with having a nest egg. Once I established that, I felt safe making decisions based on how I'm being treated rather than what I was forced to endure because I needed to stay in a situation.
OW: What's so incredible is that we did this movie about warrior women who are bringing the light, and that's exactly what this moment feels like, doesn't it?
RW: Yes! Between this and Big Little Lies, I'm completely floored by the universe. I keep going, "Okay, I'm listening. I see what you're doing with me."
OW: The universe, God, the forces of life—they don't make any mistakes. The work you've been doing your entire lives has prepared you for this very moment. So let's do it.