Viola Davis Talks Renaissance of "Bold" Women in Hollywood Amid #MeToo

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"I was involved in the movement before it was a hashtag," the actress said during a panel discussion at Thursday's 2018 Women in the World Summit.

By turns fiery, sly, contemplative, vulnerable and world-wise, Viola Davis brought down the house Thursday evening at the David H. Koch Theater in Lincoln Center at the close of the first day of the 2018 Women in the World Summit.

Introducing Davis to raucous applause, MSNBC host and author Joy-Ann Reid kicked things off by asking the winner of an Emmy, an Oscar and two Tonys if she thought things were getting better for women in Hollywood.

“Yes, I do see a moment becoming a movement. I do see a conversation happening,” Davis answered. "I am a producer, and in the producing realm, people are always looking for female-driven narratives."

“They’re very conscious about hiring female directors. Women are much more aggressive out there in terms of getting what they want. Now we are bold. ... We’re raising a defense fund for women so if they want to prosecute their predator, it’s there for them.”

Founded by author and editor Tina Brown in 2010, the Women in the World Summit is a gathering of international political leaders, CEOs, Hollywood notables, artists, activists and firebrands of the women’s movement taking place through Saturday. Also live-streaming from New York’s Lincoln Center from April 12-14, the New York summit is the global flagship for WITW summits across the globe.

Put simply, Davis said, “I see women wanting to be the change that they want to be. Now me, I’ve always been aware because I was involved in the movement before it was a hashtag.” Davis said she has been working with the rape treatment center at UCLA headed by Gail Abarbanel for 34 years on personal issues surrounding sexual assault.

“When sexual assault happens, women say that’s the day that they died,” she said in the pin-drop silent hall.

She continued, “That trauma escalates into side effects that are life-changing — the body dysmorphia, the suicides, the addiction. You could go into any prison in this country, and I guarantee that you could trace it all back to sexual assault.”

So for Davis, it’s all about that “15- or 16-year-old girl who’s being pimped out on the street and trafficked in Detroit or Chicago” and “bringing her from the time she’s traumatized to getting that rape kit, to healing, to becoming a survivor, to becoming an overcomer. That's what we have to focus on.”

Reid asked why these issues rarely make it to the screen in today’s Hollywood.

“When you go to see movies, we want our buttered popcorn and Diet Coke and Sour Patch Kids,” Davis said knowingly. “We want an escape. We really do.” She added: "There’s not a whole lot of laughs in the truth sometimes. It’s like the saying in A Few Good Men: 'You [can't] handle the truth.' "

But Davis said she became an actor in the spirit of playwright Arthur Miller, who said when he started writing that he wrote because he wanted people to feel less alone.

“He wanted people to recognize themselves on that screen, on that stage,” she said. “And too often [today], we water it down to make it palpable for you. It’s not sexy to see a beautiful woman onscreen who wakes up and doesn’t maybe want to have sex and doesn’t walk around in high heels and is actually not your fantasy and actually has been sexually assaulted and, actually, every time she has sex with you she has a great deal of pain, she has post-traumatic stress disorder. That’s not sexy.”

And the movie demographic of the 18- to 34-year-old man is going to say, " 'OK, I’m not paying $15 to see that,' " she said.

Nonetheless, Reid told Davis, who was clad in a slinky black jumpsuit, that, while she can clearly bring the glamour when she wants to, the actress also tells the stories of ordinary women. Reid referenced, in particular, Davis' How to Get Away With Murder character, Annalise Keating. Reid showed a scene in the first episode when Keating sat down at the end of her day and carefully removed her wig and false eyelashes, revealing her natural hair.

Taking off the wig and eyelashes was a means to getting the writer to “write the woman,” Davis said. “And I know women. And not every woman who is sexual is a size 2. And not every woman who is sexual is walking like a supermodel. And not every woman who is sexual is lighter than a paper bag.”

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