Reese Witherspoon opens up about Hollywood’s “Smurfette Syndrome”

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Moya Crockett
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Reese Witherspoon has long been firmly in the corner of women in Hollywood. Her latest project, in which she’s both starring and producing, is new HBO comedy-drama Big Little Lies – and she’s surrounded herself with powerful women in her quest to bring the show to the small screen.

But Witherspoon says that strong, majority-female teams are still a rarity in Hollywood. Speaking at the Television Critics’ Association press tour over the weekend, the 40-year-old actor spoke candidly about the film industry’s so-called ‘Smurfette Syndrome’ – a reference to the iconic cartoon with just one female character.

“For 25 years, I’ve been the only woman on set, so I had no other women to talk to,” she said, according to Vanity Fair. “They call it ‘Smurfette Syndrome’, because she’s got a hundred Smurfs around her and she’s the only girl.”

Based on the critically-acclaimed novel of the same name by Liane Moriarty, Big Little Lies follows “three mothers of kindergartners whose apparently perfect lives unravel to the point of murder”. The A-list cast includes Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley and Zoe Kravitz, with Witherspoon’s good friend Kidman also serving alongside her as co-producer.

Describing the atmosphere while making the miniseries, Witherspoon revealed that she and her co-stars had shared dinners and “wine” instead of more traditional rehearsal projects to create a sense of intimacy on-set. “Honestly, it’s so refreshing to get to spend time with women,” she said.

Witherspoon also spoke about the importance of showing realistic women’s stories in mainstream cinema, not just indie or arthouse flicks.

“We have to start seeing women as they really are in film,” she said. “And not just in a movie theatre with a tiny budget. We need to see real women’s experience whether it involves domestic violence, whether it involves sexual assault, whether it involves motherhood or romance or infidelity or divorce.”

Nicole Kidman, who also appeared on the panel, opened up about the nature of her personal and professional relationship with Witherspoon. “We’re very, very close friends,” she said. “We're able to talk about everything… I love that [Big Little Lies is] about women making something happen with friendship at the core of it.”

Despite the fact that women buy half of all cinema tickets bought every year, female characters make up just 12% of protagonists in top-grossing films – more often being relegated to the role of girlfriend, mother or wife, according to a 2015 study. The research, conducted by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, showed that women were also underrepresented in supporting roles, and only comprised 30% of all speaking characters.

It was in part to combat these bleak statistics that Witherspoon set up her own film production company, Pacific Standard. So far, Witherspoon’s impressive producing CV includes no less than ten TV and film projects, all boasting refreshingly meaty roles for women – including the multi-award-winning movies Gone Girl and Wild.

Images: Rex Features