In development: Outstanding Ladies!

I thought it might be a fun change to post about a new project I'm developing. So, here goes...

You always hear, "Write what you know." I find this phrase annoying because it feels like it can be misinterpreted to mean, "Write things you've specifically experienced that are autobiographical episodes from your real life." I prefer to interpret it as, "Pull from your own specific point of view and emotional experiences while creating fictional stories." I guess I never felt like I had cinematic, out-of-the-ordinary experiences. If I were to write the literal facts of my life, it would make for a pretty boring story. (Which I'm grateful for. Truly.)

One weird experience I do have is that I participated in a scholarship program my senior year of high school. (Please note that it was specifically NOT called a pageant... even though it looked exactly like a pageant. This was a scholarship program because it was for smart girls, and it heavily weighted scholastic achievement. Also, there was no swimsuit category. Instead, you did a fitness dance routine in spandex that involved pushups on stage, which was maybe worse? Anyway, I digress...)

Disclaimer: Let me pause here to say that I am grateful for the generous scholarship money I won from my state program and the very kind people who supported me in this experience. Also, I met incredible women, many of whom I am still in touch with today and many of whom have gone on to do amazing things. I'm in no way trying to seem ungrateful or to throw shade on the impressive women who do these programs and the well-intentioned people who run them.

But it was weird. At the end of the day, a scholarship program like this (a pageant) isn't just an academic grant, or a talent competition, or an athletic contest. Those individual things all exist elsewhere. And I’m fine with them. Instead, despite their best intentions, these programs inherently become contests of womanhood. They become a test of who is the most fully actualized female, as defined by the scoring rubric of the competition. In my case, that rubric was 25% academics, 25% interview, 20% talent, 15% fitness, and 15% self-expression. The perfect woman must be smart and eloquent. She must sing, dance, or perform in some way. She must take care of her body to maintain a healthy physical fitness level. And she must be poised while exhibiting grace under pressure. What if she can't do all those things? That's fine. She can participate and have an "empowering experience," but she won't win.

Ladies, do we really need this? Aren't there enough rules in society defining how we should be? Giving us ways to compare ourselves to other women? Giving us ways to feel like failures?

 Okay, yes, I did cry when I won my state program. You have to cry. That's part of it.

Okay, yes, I did cry when I won my state program. You have to cry. That's part of it.

I won my state program, in large part due to my grades. When I went on to compete in nationals, I really disappeared in the crowd, and I went home empty-handed. I spent two weird weeks in Mobile, Alabama, and while I did have fun and made friends, at the end of those two weeks, I felt a little bit like I had been lied to. Because it wasn't just about making friends. There was a winner. And there were losers. And it sucked to be a loser. Especially in a contest of womanhood. In a way, that loss was good for me. I had been a high-achieving student in school, and it was a good awakening that being a big fish in a small pond is a very different thing from the competitive world of rejections that would be waiting for me. But it still sucked.

(Funny side note: One of the judges at nationals was an NFL player, and I just remember him asking me about what I thought of the Iraq War in my interview. An NFL player. Judging a women’s scholarship program. Asking an eighteen-year-old about the complexities of the war in Iraq.)

I've long wanted to write about this experience as I've wrestled with my complicated feelings around it. It's been hard to figure out what form that should take and how to make something different from the other (great) films about pageants like Drop Dead Gorgeous, Little Miss Sunshine, and Miss Congeniality. I couldn't really figure out how to articulate what I wanted to say, so I put it on the back burner and focused on other things.

 Here's an embarrassing photo of me in the middle of a move during the fitness routine. I promise that the moments right before and after this frame looked much more impressive.

Here's an embarrassing photo of me in the middle of a move during the fitness routine. I promise that the moments right before and after this frame looked much more impressive.

Until now! My producer Tessa has been encouraging me to make a new short film. So, I decided to take a leap and try to really "write what I knew," which is how I ended up writing "Outstanding Ladies!". It's about a fictional scholarship program, called America's Outstanding Young Lady, and one contestant's experience competing in it, as she compares herself to her seemingly perfect roommate and witnesses the harm that can come from trying to fit such a rigid definition of womanhood. Ultimately, she has to accept that maybe she's not an Outstanding Lady. And maybe that's okay. The film is framed by the program’s scoring rubric, with each category representing a section of the story.

The script could still use some work, but I’m excited about where it is and about the feedback I’ve gotten thus far. Now, it’s a matter of finding the funds to make it, which is no small feat. Although there are relatively few locations, there are several points in the script where we need to at least have the illusion that fifty young women are on stage or in a rehearsal room at once. (Not to mention the fact that there’s actual choreography for them to perform.)

I’m applying to a few funding grants and will definitely keep you posted on the project’s status. If you’d like to learn more, read the script, or collaborate in any other way, drop me a line!

Other news: Scattering Jake advanced to the semifinals of the Screencraft Fellowships. And I’m officially in the countdown to my LA trip (9 days!), which also corresponds with my wedding anniversary (11 days)! 

Check back for more updates soon!

Erica