Girl Talk: An interview with Elena Rossini

Girl Talk: An interview with Elena Rossini of No Country For Young Women

There are people in life who you feel an instant connection with, but might never meet in person. Elena Rossini is one of those people. She speaks my language, though not in literal terms: she is Italian by birth and a cinematographer and director by trade. Her passion is women; more particularly breaking down the barriers that keep them from enjoying thriving and satisfying professional lives, including negative body image, archaic cultural expectations and a lack of strong role models.

Rossini, 31, has channeled her feminist frustrations, more keenly felt in her current home of Paris, France, into the brilliant website No Country For Young (or Old) Women, which features interviews with women working in diverse fields as well as inspirational quotes. She is also currently working on funding her new documentary project, The Illusionists, which will address the commodification of the body.

Herewith the transcript from my frank chat with filmmaker, cinematographer, editor, feminist and woman, the prolific Elena Rossini...

Elena, cinematographer
GWAS: When did you have your feminist awakening?
Elena Rossini: It was actually a result of moving to France. I grew up in Italy and went off to the US to study when I was 18, then went to London for a year, and then back to the US to get my Master’s Degree. Up until the age of 25 or 26, I was surrounded by people who actually encouraged me – they saw potential in me and were very nurturing and I never felt for a second that I was seen by the outside world as a woman, but more than that, that because I was a woman there were certain things expected of me just because of my gender.

It was a real slap in the face to be in France and to see that everyone around me had low expectations of what I was supposed to do. They only saw me as someone waiting to become a mother, or someone who couldn’t be ambitious and driven and take on important projects. Because I look younger than my age, and I’m 31, I would go to meetings with producers and TV stations, and they would have the most appalling way of addressing me because of the gender card and because of the age issue.

For instance, two weeks ago I did a presentation for a TV network who was interested in potentially partially funding The Illusionists and helping me find distribution. They are an international network, based in the UK, but they have studios in France, so I had my hopes up. It was the second meeting after a pitch that lasted 20 minutes. The head of the TV network said to me, "Elena, I love your project; what a great topic. The website is a great idea. Please let me know if I can help you find a director for the film." I said, "What do you mean? I’m going to be directing the film?". He said, with a smirk on his face, "I’m not sure if you’ve got the directorial vision for this project – you haven’t proven it so far." That’s an example of the treatment I would get in the real world. So that’s why I devote a large chunk of my work to women’s issues, because I experience a lot of sexism and discrimination on a regular basis. 

You’ve had a diverse geographic experience. How is gender treated differently in those nations?
I feel that the UK and the US have fairly similar treatment for women – there’s more meritocracy when it comes to work than on continental Europe. I lived in the US for seven years, and in school there were no differences in how men and women were treated, and I had amazing encouragement. I think it’s also because there’s a lot of political correctness – people in the US are afraid of blatant sexist treatment because women have recourse in the legal system.

In France, there’s almost a systemic discrimination; women are seen as less-than all the time. When I go to parties, I never get asked by people I meet what I do, only about my boyfriend. For family members, what interests them is my private life – weddings, children – and not what I do professionally speaking.

One article that really opened my mind to understanding why France is like this was a series done by the International Herald Tribune about the situation of women in France. It said that even though in terms of politics and public life, the policies may look Scandinavian, in reality, in the mentality of French men is still pre-French Revolution. They think the most important thing for women is their looks and youth. The ideal is not only to be young and beautiful, but to speak in a very sweet voice, smile all the time and not be assertive. 

How do body politics play out in France? Because women in nations like America and Australia have built up a certain mythology about French women and their bodies being naturally slim. Is that diminishing and frustrating?
I find that to be such a myth that French women are naturally beautiful and naturally thin with no effort. I’ve been here for five years now and I see around me all the time friends, acquaintances and family members who are terrified – absolutely terrified – of being perceived as plump or having two more kilos on their ideal body weight. They’re not thin because of their lifestyle and the country itself, it’s because they’re really terrified of gaining weight.

In the US, from my observation, the utmost importance is put on grooming – if you are not groomed, you are seen as a pariah. In France, you have the same thing, but the utmost importance is put on being thin. So if they gain a little weight, they immediately see themselves through the eyes of the outside world, even though there’s no judgement there. It’s like a faux pas.

In my research, I found studies that came out as late as 2009/10, showing that French women are the thinnest in Europe, on average, but they also think they are the most overweight, so they really have a distorted body image. It doesn’t surprise me at all looking around Paris with its billboard ads showing impossible beauty standards and images of women on television and in magazines. It’s a real problem. 

In what way does the French body paradox play into French women’s broader image of themselves?
French women are constantly self-objectifying and looking at themselves according to the outside world and judging themselves on their appearance. I see friends who will go on extremely strict diets even though in the US they would be considered thin. What I also find absolutely scandalous is that there are so many doctors in France who will prescribe diets to women who are a size 4 or 6 in the US. They are objectively a thin or average weight.

This also applies to pregnant women. A friend of mine, who is married to French man and is six months into her pregnancy, has noticed a difference between French and American doctors, and also the literature. When she read American books and spoke to American acquaintances, the general wisdom was that the health of the baby was the most important thing, so make sure you get the right nutrients to pass onto the baby. With the French doctors, the message was to watch what you eat otherwise you’re going to regret it in the long-term. The health of the baby comes second and the appearance of the mother first. 

Is this part of your impetus for creating the film?
I feel that feminism and being concerned about women’s issues actually gets a bad wrap in France. I hear a lot of people saying, ‘I don’t call myself a feminist – I see them as bra-burning, angry, frustrated women.’ But I come back and say, ‘But you are a woman and we are obviously still so far away from equality.’ They, men and women, think we are in a post-feminist world where all the battles have been fought and have been won, so now it’s something passive and there’s no need to keep on recycling the issues. It’s very frustrating, because I know for a fact that that’s not the truth.

If you look at the position of women in politics, it’s a teeny-tiny percentage in France, and in Italy, too. We are yet to have a female president in France. Or a woman occupying a very important post in the justice system and there are very few women who have big enterprises here. The wage gap is a huge problem; I think it’s 67 cents in the male dollar. There is definitely a big disparity in wages.

I almost feel like French women are trapped in the “feminine mystique” that Betty Friedan talked about in 1963, because their utmost concern is to create a picture of the perfect family and they are super-concerned about maintaining their appearance and their sexiness, and in terms of political rights, and economic power, not so much.

What’s interesting about France is that it is the country in Europe that has the highest natality: I think on average two kids for every family, but most families I know have three children by their mid-30s, and they get tax breaks because of that, so they have a lot of help from the state. But once you start a family that big, it’s very difficult to get integrated back into the work sphere. France promotes how great it is to have a big family, but all the burden of that actually falls on the woman. 

Is that because they don’t have institutional support? Who is helping support mothers?
There is amazing support available, where kids can go to a crèche when they’re really little. But at the same time, when you have three children, a lot of women think it’s too much. The women who have large families think that staying at home is just the easiest thing to do.

The Illusionists - bringing marketing trickery to light
What areas will you be focusing on with The Illusionists?
I identified four areas. The first is skin colour. I’m fascinated that the same corporations that sell skin-whitening creams all over Asia and Africa sell tanning lotions in Australia, Europe and North and South America. It’s cynical of them to promote those opposite ideals. The message is that you can’t be beautiful just as you are; you have to fight against nature and skin tone.

In South Korea and Japan, 50% of women use skin whitening creams on a daily basis, even if they are already white-skinned, because they see any impurities as unattractive and unacceptable. In India, women using skin-whitening creams are 70% of the population, every day, but the poor women are buying skin-whitening treatments that have chemical agents that are extremely aggressive and can even cause cancer. It burns their skin and ends up being uneven. All of this in the name of beauty!

In Europe, the message is that if you look too pale, you look sickly, so why not put on some cream and get brown? I’m fascinated by the marketing techniques being used. I’ve found a few videos used by big cosmetic companies that look identical in the way that they promote those products, but one is for Japan, where women are already white, and one is for India, where they are completely different. The cynicism of those corporations is fascinating to me.

I will also look at the obsession with looking eternally young. Wrinkles, up until the past, were seen as a sign of wisdom and older age, but now they’re completely demonised to the point that looking one’s real age is almost a taboo. An article in The New York Times in 2007 had the headline, ‘Is looking your age now taboo?’. I thought, ‘Oh, they’re just doing something sensational, that’s not possible’. But now it’s become a reality. Women are injecting toxins into their skin. I find that especially damaging for the self-esteem of older women who are already invisible in our media. Now, all the images we see of celebrities are retouched to the extent that a 60 or 70-year-old is bound to feel bad about the way that she looks because of those ideals.

I know from personal experience with my mother, who was gorgeous in her youth and is still beautiful, who at 62 grimaces or shies away from the camera whenever I try to photograph her. It’s heartbreaking to me to see how much of an epidemic this problem has become. I was at a wedding in a village in Italy last year, and this village has 5000 people, and a 75-year-old woman living in the village said to me when I was taking her photo, ‘Oh, I hope you are going to Photoshop the wrinkles out of it.’ It startled me that this older Italian woman knew what Photoshop was, and that she asked me to remove her wrinkles – it was disheartening.

I also talk about the obsession with being thin, because it’s something that one can see across cultures. There are very interesting case studies that show the influence of television and mass media on people’s drive to be thin. And I have a section on cosmetic surgery, and breast surgery in particular, because I was particularly inspired by a chapter in Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth that discussed her views on breast surgery. She said women who had the surgery were mostly driven by the fact our culture completely censors and blocks out any images of breasts that are not the “official breast”. If you look at breasts in films or pornography or pictures in magazines, it’s like they don’t even move – they are gravity defying, perfectly round and the nipples are exactly the same, which is completely contrary to nature. There are as many breasts and body types as there are women.

I also talk a lot about men and the beauty myth, because they are starting to be targeted and affected as well. And also the marketing of unattainable beauty to kids, girls and boys. 

It’s often seen as just a women’s battle..
I’ve noticed a real sea change in the way men have been treated by the advefrtising industry in the past 10 years. It used to be that only gay men would be targeted for sales of clothes and cosmetics, fragrances and creams, but now it’s increasingly heterosexual men. I’ve found a lot of ads for moisturising creams, which are not called moisturising creams because that’s too feminine. They are the same products women use, but they have to sound more masculine for guys. In their descriptions you find very strong words like “active” and “fighting this” and “energising that” and “tonic”, which is again fascinating to me.

In my private life, I’ve noticed with my male acquaintances that if you really pay attention, you see that they also have a lot of insecurities when it comes to their bodies. They’re not attacked in the same way that women are – with men, it’s mostly about their hair and their gut, their stomach. But there are entire industries devoted to making up new insecurities for men, so they are definitely a new segment and it’s getting fierce.

Three Days To See still captured at the Met
Can you tell us about your cinematic work?
The films I’ve done in the past year, where I was the cinematographer and not the director, were both projects about women and they allowed me to work on something that was very inspiring and on two messages that were really close to my heart.

One was a friend from university doing a film about Helen Keller, and he wanted a feminine, delicate dreamy touch with the images, so I spent about a month in the US filming for him. We ended up filming inside the Metropolitan Museum in New York opened just to us for a couple of hours in the morning – it was breathtaking.

I felt it was an important project because it informs people about her life, but at the same time there is also a parallel story about a 17-year-old blind girl, who lives just outside of Boston at the Perkins Institute for the Blind, where Helen Keller actually spent time. She’s absolutely inspiring in every way you can imagine. I don’t mean to make a pun but it was eye-opening to me. I felt so fortunate to work on the project.

I had to read a lot of literature about Helen Keller, a lot of her books and books about her. I felt everyday extremely fortunate to have my sight, and I tried to see things from her point of view: she was very disappointed by friends who had sight who could not describe what they’d seen the previous day in detail. Now I really pay attention when I go outside. And I am very grateful for what I have.

It ties into The Illusionist because there are a lot of women who have a really bad body image, and they’re crippled by that, but if they just stopped for a second to think about all the things that their bodies can do for them, it would probably be uplifting. So instead of focusing on what you can’t achieve, by looking at unattainable images, if we shift the focus to what we can do – dance, go out, bicycle rides, using all your senses – then we could be more like Helen Keller.

It really pushed me to think hard, particularly about people with disabilities. Able-bodied people are run down by so many trivial problems, that if they really saw what life was like for people who are limited, they would have a completely different perspective, and maybe not care so much about having gained three pounds.

When did you start No Country For Young (and Old) Women? What was the impetus?
I started that in October 2009. I basically had spent a whole month in the US in September – I’d won a scholarship for a women’s conference and ended up staying in New York, and meeting friends and working on other projects. When I came back to France and picked up a business magazine, I was shocked to see that there were no images of women in the articles; only white men, mostly middle-aged, 50 to 70 years old. The first picture I found of a woman was around page 70 and it was in an ad for a car; it wasn’t even a businesswoman!

I was really outraged because at the conference I’d seen Gloria Steinman speak and Helen Thomas, who at that time was still a reporter at the Whitehouse at 85, and Isabella Allende, and a lot of really inspiring activists and women doing incredible work. In France, everywhere I looked, women in the professional arena seemed invisible, or they were occupying spots that were not that important. You would only see men at the top of industry and politics. I was really disappointed by that.

I felt a little bit of rage, so instead of complaining to everyone I knew, and my boyfriend who has to hear every day about my body image findings and feminism, I decided to channel my frustration into the website. The reaction was incredible from the beginning. I got emails from a couple of people saying they wanted to be volunteers – people who didn’t know me; two people in the US, and then I found one in Paris as well. We started interviewing acquaintances and friends, and then friends of friends, and we basically expanded our reach and we started doing research online of inspiring women we came across in articles and on websites, and they always said yes enthusiastically to being interviewed.

I ended up approaching the CEO of ‘85 Broads’, which is an association of professional women in the US, it’s an exclusive network, and she ended up responding to the Q&A within 24 hours. And that interview was like the tipping point. The reaction to that interview was incredible and that got us a really large audience. I was asked to join 85 Broads and through that I was able to ask a lot of inspiring women who belong to the network to be interviewed, to the point now that, for the past six months, I haven’t had to send requests – we’ve just been receiving nominations, and women have been contacting us to ask to be featured on the site.

It’s the project I’m most proud of so far; it makes me happy probably more than The Illusionists, because I see it as a really positive platform that celebrates women, and the kind of feedback that I get is amazing. A couple of weeks ago I got a really sweet email from an Indian woman who wanted to nominate her mother. This Indian woman works for NASA and she said, ‘My mother is my role model – she staid at home but she’s so interesting and she raised the whole family’, so I asked the both of them to fill out a Q&A for us, which I’m going to run probably at the end of August.

Now, if I look at my address book for No Country For Young Women, I can see so many amazing individuals, and I feel that even my personal life is enriched as a result of that. Now, when I travel, if I go to New York or London, I have a lot of women to call up and meet for coffee and they are very open and very generous in the way they live their lives – they are women who love to help other women. 

You said you felt very nurtured in your early years, so you are giving back…
Yes, I felt like I really wanted to give back and to provide a guide for women who are in school, because going from school where you’re in an environment that’s very nurturing, almost like a cocoon, into the real world, can be quite traumatizing, your professional life, particularly if you are in a traditionally male profession. So my number one desire with NCFYW is to provide younger women, who are still in high school or university, with real role models in a lot of different careers.

If they log onto the site and they search for women in architecture or construction or science and technology, they can see what their experiences were like. I hope that through those interviews that they can see that if you persevere and you work hard and you try to help others, that you can succeed. Cherie Blair said during a conference I attended at the OECD last month that to encourage girls, we need more positive role models. I can't tell you how many times I've been tempted to create a T-shirt that says, "This is what a filmmaker looks like".

Further reading:
Elena interviewed by Women in Hollywood
The Illusionists Facebook page
Elena's personal site

Elena's CV: After graduating from Boston University with a degree in Mass Communication, Elena spent a semester in London, working as an intern at the Royal Academy of Arts. She subsequently pursued a Master’s Degree in Visual and Media Arts from Emerson College, focusing on Film Directing. Dove Sei Tu is her first feature-length film, a 90-minute drama set in between Milan, Lake Como, and Rome, Italy. Recent projects include the experimental documentary Direction, shot in Tokyo and Paris, and Ideal Women, a short documentary juxtaposing beauty ideals in the art world vs. mass media, commissioned by ARTE Web and the Louvre Museum. Elena has also been working as cinematographer for two feature-length documentaries: Three Days To See (dir. Garrett Zevgetis) and Lili’s Journey (dir. Laetitia Belmadani). Elena shares her time in between Paris and Milan.

Girl With a Satchel


meg said...

this is fascinating. why do french women not get fat? because they are terrified of how they will be perceived. very sad.

Pips said...

Very, very interesting article! And a great interview too. I've read a lot of books on the elusive French chic, but it's fascinating to hear about fear being the driving force behind it.
Erica, have you seen the film Miss Representation? Would be interested in hearing your thoughts on it!