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From Burlesque Dancers To Tiger Trainers: Leslie Zemeckis Brings Women’s Untold Stories To Life

People

Even though she grew up in sunny Southern California, Leslie Zemeckis has always been an inside kid. “Still am," she says. That means books and movies have been lifelong friends. “I've always been a voracious, well-read, different genre kid. To me, there is nothing better than a good story.


I love movies. I love getting lost in stories and characters. To me, there is nothing more powerful than art – and especially movies and books."

Zemeckis is one of those people who became exactly who she dreamed of being when she was a kid. She is now the writer and actor she longed to be because, she says, “It interests me. Who knows where the passion comes from. I'm just lucky and driven enough to make my passion into reality."

Writing and documentaries were Zemeckis' first loves to be sure. At one point early on in her career, she was doing a one-woman cabaret, burlesque-type show and quickly realized she didn't truly know what burlesque was.

After researching it, she was disappointed at how underrated it struck her as being. “No one had done anything about the women strippers in burlesque. I wondered where did they come from; what did their family think, what did they do after burlesque died. We're talking Golden Age of burlesque 20s-50s. There is a huge resurgence today all over the world."

She immediately felt compelled to tell the story of burlesque in the words of the performers themselves. She called a friend who had a camera and said, “'Let's go make a film.' And we spent the next couple of years traveling around the country interviewing and filming these elderly performers. So many have since died. I had so many stories I decided to write a book. And now I'm on my third documentary and third book. I found a niche. My work highlights and focuses on women, in pop culture who in their day were very influential, but have largely been forgotten today. All were mainly marginalized and stigmatized. I like to shine a light on just what they achieved and how they did it."

Zemeckis is one of those people who became exactly who she dreamed of being when she was a kid.

Zemeckis says seeing her work out in the world for the first time and watching and hearing people respond to it is nothing short of thrilling. “Even though I've won a lot of awards, and been on some best-seller lists, what remains the most important thing for me is to have eyes on my work."

"These women I showcase were extraordinary and I want to share them with as many people as possible. It's never about me," she said.

Writing and film are a vital part of Zemeckis' existence. She has to write, she says, to express herself. “People need to read more, learn things. Think deeper."

The greatest challenge she's faced in her career won't surprise most. She got told no – a lot. How does she handle it? “I don't hear it. Just makes me reach further. No one was interested in financing my film. But I went ahead and shot it and Showtime picked it up and ran it for years." Zemeckis says that just having this career is truly of the happiest surprise of her career. “The best thing is creating your own work, your own path and not waiting for the opportunity so when it does come from an outside source. I was just cast in a couple of films as an actress. It's a surprise." Opportunity and fairness are the biggest challenges that Zemeckis says she has faced in the industry. But, she adds, her life is better than she ever imagined.

Her latest project is the film “Mabel, Mabel, Tiger Trainer," which was just released April 10, 2018 domestically on DVD and streaming platforms (Amazon and Vimeo). The feature-length documentary tells the tale of Mabel Stark, “an outcast who was rejected by her family, escaped poverty and abuse in rural Kentucky, and ultimately found her true passion in the eyes of a tiger. Circumventing the chauvinism of her time, Stark clawed her way up the circus hierarchy."

"The feature-length documentary tells the tale of Mabel Stark, "an outcast who was rejected by her family, escaped poverty and abuse in rural Kentucky, and ultimately found her true passion in the eyes of a tiger."

With my many years researching burlesque, Zemeckis came across the name Mabel Stark. Before Stark became a tiger trainer she danced in the "cooch" show. It made Zemeckis wonder - what does it take to train tigers? She became obsessed by the rumors of Mabel's story. There was a lot of mystery surrounding her life and work, and so Zemeckis began researching. “I've become a master researcher. I found a relative of hers, her last protégé, footage that hadn't been seen in decades."

The basics of Stark's story are this, Zemekis explains. Stark was born in Tennessee to poor tobacco farmers; grew up with a great deal of adversity; escaped, and stumbled on a circus winter quarters in California where she absolutely fell in love with tigers and wanted to work with them. She was told that she couldn't - for no reason other than that she was a woman.

“Well, she didn't listen to 'no' - I liked her already - and worked up an act eventually working with twenty-one tigers in the ring. She was mauled many times by her cats, but she never blamed them."

"She worked with what is called the 'kindness method.' Gently, patiently, and with kindness. Her cats were everything to her, and she dedicated her life to them. She doubled for everyone in the movies during her 30s and 40s, including Mae West who was a big fan of hers. Mabel's career, though tragic and inspiring, was over fifty years long. She is a major icon of the circus."

"She worked with what is called the 'kindness method.' Gently, patiently, and with kindness. Her cats were everything to her, and she dedicated her life to them."

Zemeckis calls film the perfect medium to capture people for a couple hours and entertain them. Makes sense since she is so drawn to really moving subjects and powerful projects, which somehow she just seems to find as she moves through life. “I can't tell you what moves me. But after I obsess over something long enough I know I have to make a film about it." Ken Burns is a major inspiration for Zemekis when it comes to film, specifically because of his talent for telling a story cleanly and thoroughly.

As for whether she is already brewing on her next project, Zemeckis says, “Of course. I've been obsessing over it for a couple years now. I've already shot a sizzle reel, and after Mabel is out in the world I will turn my attention to it. More on what it is later. I also have a book coming out in October, about a couple showgirls from the 1930s. I'm super excited about it. I've been working on it for years."

Zemeckis hopes to continue to work, bringing interesting stories to film, TV, and books, and she has a vital piece of advice for women when it comes to pursuing their dreams. “Don't wait. Do what you can to create now, on whatever level it is. Don't believe no. Don't have excuses. Just do. And 'do' happily with passion and interest and kindness and be ethical in your work."

Career

Male Managers Afraid To Mentor Women In Wake Of #MeToo Movement

Women in the workplace have always experienced a certain degree of discrimination from male colleagues, and according to new studies, it appears that it is becoming even more difficult for women to get acclimated to modern day work environments, in wake of the #MeToo Movement.


In a recent study conducted by LeanIn.org, in partnership with SurveyMonkey, 60% of male managers confessed to feeling uncomfortable engaging in social situations with women in and outside of the workplace. This includes interactions such as mentorships, meetings, and basic work activities. This statistic comes as a shocking 32% rise from 2018.

What appears the be the crux of the matter is that men are afraid of being accused of sexual harassment. While it is impossible to discredit this fear as incidents of wrongful accusations have taken place, the extent to which it has burgeoned is unacceptable. The #MeToo movement was never a movement against men, but an empowering opportunity for women to speak up about their experiences as victims of sexual harassment. Not only were women supporting one another in sharing to the public that these incidents do occur, and are often swept under the rug, but offered men insight into behaviors and conversations that are typically deemed unwelcomed and unwarranted.

Restricting interaction with women in the workplace is not a solution, but a mere attempt at deflecting from the core issue. Resorting to isolation and exclusion relays the message that if men can't treat women how they want, then they rather not deal with them at all. Educating both men and women on what behaviors are unacceptable while also creating a work environment where men and women are held accountable for their actions would be the ideal scenario. However, the impact of denying women opportunities of mentorship and productive one-on-one meetings hinders growth within their careers and professional networks.

Women, particularly women of color, have always had far fewer opportunities for mentorship which makes it impossible to achieve growth within their careers without them. If women are given limited opportunities to network in and outside of a work environment, then men must limit those opportunities amongst each other, as well. At the most basic level, men should be approaching female colleagues as they would approach their male colleagues. Striving to achieve gender equality within the workplace is essential towards creating a safer environment.

While restricted communication and interaction may diminish the possibility of men being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment, it creates a hostile
environment that perpetuates women-shaming and victim-blaming. Creating distance between men and women only prompts women to believe that male colleagues who avoid them will look away from or entirely discredit sexual harassment they experience from other men in the workplace. This creates an unsafe working environment for both parties where the problem at hand is not solved, but overlooked.

According to LeanIn's study, only 85% of women said they feel safe on the job, a 5% drop from 2018. In the report, Jillesa Gebhardt wrote, "Media coverage that is intended to hold aggressors accountable also seems to create a sense of threat, and people don't seem to feel like aggressors are held accountable." Unfortunately, only 16% of workers believed that harassers holding high positions are held accountable for their actions which inevitably puts victims in difficult, and quite possibly dangerous, situations. 50% of workers also believe that there are more repercussions for the victims than harassers when speaking up.

In a research poll conducted by Edison Research in 2018, 30% of women agreed that their employers did not handle harassment situations properly while 53% percent of men agreed that they did. Often times, male harassers hold a significant amount of power within their careers that gives them a sense of security and freedom to go forward with sexual misconduct. This can be seen in cases such as that of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and R. Kelly. Men in power seemingly have little to no fear that they will face punishment for their actions.


Source-Alex Brandon, AP

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook executive and founder of LeanIn.org., believes that in order for there to be positive changes within work environments, more women should be in higher positions. In an interview with CNBC's Julia Boorstin, Sandberg stated, "you know where the least sexual harassment is? Organizations that have more women in senior leadership roles. And so, we need to mentor women, we need to sponsor women, we need to have one-on-one conversations with them that get them promoted." Fortunately, the number of women in leadership positions are slowly increasing which means the prospect of gender equality and safer work environments are looking up.

Despite these concerning statistics, Sandberg does not believe that movements such as the Times Up and Me Too movements, have been responsible for the hardship women have been experiencing in the workplace. "I don't believe they've had negative implications. I believe they're overwhelmingly positive. Because half of women have been sexually harassed. But the thing is it is not enough. It is really important not to harass anyone. But that's pretty basic. We also need to not be ignored," she stated. While men may be feeling uncomfortable, putting an unrealistic amount of distance between themselves and female coworkers is more harmful to all parties than it is beneficial. Men cannot avoid working with women and vice versa. Creating such a hostile environment is also detrimental to any business as productivity and communication will significantly decrease.

The fear or being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment is a legitimate fear that deserves recognition and understanding. However, restricting interactions with women in the workplace is not a sensible solution as it can have negatively impact a woman's career. Companies are in need of proper training and resources to help both men and women understand what is appropriate workplace behavior. Refraining from physical interactions, commenting on physical appearance, making lewd or sexist jokes and inquiring about personal information are also beneficial steps towards respecting your colleagues' personal space. There is still much work to be done in order to create safe work environments, but with more and more women speaking up and taking on higher positions, women can feel safer and hopefully have less contributions to make to the #MeToo movement.