Women are, in many facets of life and society, held to any number of double standards by people and institutions. The examples are endless, but consider these two:
First, Jennifer Lawrence is still answering questions about how she felt in the wake her phone being hacked and nude photos released years after it happened. She was, in the conventional wisdom, held responsible because if she didn’t want nude photos leaked she should have them in the first place.
Second, after Hillary Clinton’s defeat in the 2016 presidential election, political pundits seemed repulsed by the fact that she continued to speak out on issues she’s championed for decades. She was asked to leave the public spotlight frequently, sometimes by the same commentators who regularly invite Newt Gingrich – who unsuccessfully ran for president in 2012 – to speak on current issues.
Those and other stories are what inspired filmmaker Kristina Monllos to create Special Election.
Filmed in 2017, the short film follows Laura Greene (Emelia Benoit-Lavelle), a young woman inspired to run for city council after attending a local meeting. Having never tried anything like this before, her friends are naturally skeptical, but her campaign gains some momentum in the community. Things take a turn when nude photos of her from years ago are leaked online. Backers and supporters fall away and her campaign sputters out and ultimately fails.
If that sounds timely, it’s because something like it just happened. Rachel Hundley, the mayor and former city councilperson in Sonoma, CA, had to respond publicly after photos of her in her underwear at Burning Man were released. The purpose of that leak seems to have been to derail her reelection campaign by “slut shaming” her. Similarly, congressional candidate Brianna Wu took to Twitter to ask why The Boston Globe was using a photo of her in a t-shirt and anime-inspired hair in a story about her and other candidates. Her opponents were all shown wearing suits and, she says, she took part in a photo shoot where she wore a dress and heels.
“Most stories aimed at young women are about the most ambitious woman in the room,” Monllos said, “the one who always accomplishes their goals. Men are allowed to fail and I wanted failure by women to be normalized, especially when there are power structures aligned against them”
It wasn’t just stories of others that moved Monllos to make Special Election. She herself had a friend whose nude photos were hacked and released. As is unfortunately all too common, others put the onus on her (“Well you had nude photos…”) and the police didn’t, or couldn’t, do anything.
“There are so many gray areas in people’s lives,” Monllos said. The presence of nude photos didn’t change anything else about Laura’s qualifications for the city council seat or reflect in any way on her passion to make a difference. It was entirely an image issue, one rooted in society’s continued tendency to shame women for anything deemed “inappropriate.”
The message of how women should be given the same chances to try and fail free from stigmatization is one the movie industry itself could stand to learn.
Catwoman’s failure was cited frequently as the reason studio execs were hesitant to greenlight other female super hero movies. Bridesmaids, Girls Trip and others are often framed by the press as being the key to future similar movies. If you followed the press around the recent release of Leave No Trace, you know director Debra Granik was sidelined by Hollywood for no real reason and despite the success of Winter’s Bone in 2010. And countless stories leading up to the release of Wonder Woman positioned director Patty Jenkins as a “risky choice” for such a high-profile film despite having more feature experience than Colin Trevorrow did when he was handed Jurassic World.
Meanwhile men are allowed to fail with apparent impunity. Never mind that Suicide Squad and Bright are both incoherent messes that were critically-blasted, director David Ayer has three films lined up, including another DC adaptation. Skyscraper’s lukewarm box-office won’t hurt Dwayne Johnson’s career anymore than that of Baywatch did.
Monllos wants the short to get people interested in telling more stories of women who weren’t quite as successful as they’re usually required to be and wants to contribute to the conversation around privacy in the digital age.
Not only that, but she harbors aspirations to expand on the story she’s already told. “I have a feature version of the film written,” she said. If that comes to pass it would put Special Election in the same company as movies like Whiplash, The Babadook, What We Do in the Shadows and others that have made the transition from short- to long-form. Monllos also attempted, though she wasn’t quite successful, to shoot the film with an all-female crew a la Band-Aid, the 2017 film from writer/director/star Zoe Lister-Jones, something she plans to try again to accomplish her next time out.
For now, Monllos is spreading the word of the version she has and is working to secure digital distribution with the following mantra guiding her: “You have to make your own shit, you have to promote your own shit.”