Jess Jacobs, 25
Actress and Co-Founder of Invisible Pictures
In Hollywood, withstanding bias, sexism and ridicule is an everyday occurrence for women, given men’s executive positions in the industry. Actress Jess Jacobs, for one, was 24 when she started feeling a lack of respect from the companies she was auditioning for. “I was reading scripts where women characters were passive recipients of the world around them rather than active participants in it,” says Jacobs, who then launched a female-led, female-sourced production outfit of her own. “I wanted to use content creation and my experience as a storyteller to change the narrative.”
1. What made you choose this career path? What has been your greatest achievement?
I have worked as an actor since I was 15, so it’s really the only job I’ve ever known. As I’ve grown in the industry and as a woman, I have found empathy to be a critical trait, and being an actor is being a professional empathizer. My job is to put myself in other people’s shoes, to find the humanity in even the most difficult of individuals. However, after a number of years and a number of exciting successes, I was looking around and finding myself often feeling uninspired. I was watching women’s stories turned into niche films and television. I was reading scripts where women characters were passive recipients of the world around them rather than active participants in it. So it became obvious rather quickly: I wanted to use content creation and my experience as a storyteller to change the narrative and work towards bringing underrepresented communities who have been made invisible by systems and institutions around the world into the mainstream. And so Invisible Pictures was born. Between being an actor and being a producer, I am honored to embody multiple stages of the storytelling process. My greatest achievement has been my contribution to the building of a space to make all of those things possible, always in community with other artists and producers and creative minds.
2. What’s the biggest criticism/stereotype/judgement you’ve faced in your career?
Ask any young woman in Hollywood, and they’ll tell you that some version of “you’re too…” is a daily occurrence. Actresses, especially, are subject to every judgement under the sun. I also have been told throughout my career numerous absurd things. Besides the classic “you’re too old for…” right after “you’re too young for…” and so on. I was once told that I was tough to cast because I “didn’t have a quirk, like frizzy red hair,” as if that physical “quirk” was somehow my missing link.
I think the spark for me, though, really came when I wanted to produce my own content because I was tired of reading passive women characters, and someone told me that I couldn’t be a producer and be taken seriously as an actor simultaneously so early in my career. I was told I was too unknown to make a difference. I was told I was too small to change things. I was told I couldn’t pursue two passions at the same time. So, of course, I knew I had to go out and do just that.
3. How did you #SWAAYthenarrative? What was the reaction by those who told you you “couldn’t” do it?
The biggest limitation I have faced in my career is the immense amount of unintentional sexism that seeps into content at all levels of the media, from small independent projects to major network TV shows. This kind of content is not only uninspiring to me as an individual, but also sends the message of disempowerment to all women who consume the content and internalize these messages around the world.
The biggest stereotype I have faced in my career is the fact that walking into rooms with heavy hitters as a young woman is often met with a twice up-and-down and a patronizing smile indicating an obvious lowering of expectations. A lot of these limitations and stereotypes led me, in more ways than one, to rely on other people to tell me how to live my life. The messaging I had received was that I was not in a position to own my power or to be a leader. I was waiting for someone to give me a shot, rather than standing up and building my life, my career and my passion for myself.
4. What did you learn through your personal journey?
I overcame the stereotypes and limitations I faced by looking at all of them as opportunities. Every obstacle was a chance to learn something, to take a risk, to show myself what I was capable of. If the stereotype says pretty women can’t be intelligent and successful in business, then I would be sure to put on my favorite outfit for a meeting. If the stereotype says young women can’t be trusted with important responsibilities, I would take on more than anyone thought I could handle and confirm myself capable. And as much as I’ve learned, I am still working everyday to approach things as a woman rather than trying to beat a man at a man’s game. As a millennial, I have an instinct for digital content which is so valuable in the industry today and finding a producing partner with an expertise in traditional media was, and is, so much more fulfilling than trying to act like I can do it all alone. Before my 25th birthday, I co-founded Invisible Pictures, with my producing partner, Emmy-nominated industry veteran and one of the most incredible women I know, Audrey Rosenberg. We are dedicated to authentic stories which are not normally represented or elevated in dominant culture.
5. What’s your number one piece of advice to women discouraged by preconceived notions and society’s limitations?
My one piece of advice: Do it anyway. Society’s limitations are perpetuated by our willingness to let them have power over us. Preconceived notions are only notions. Go make your own rules.
During a recent meeting on Microsoft Teams, I couldn't seem to get a single word out.
When I tried to chime in, I kept getting interrupted. At one point two individuals talked right over me and over each other. When I thought it was finally my turn, someone else parachuted in from out of nowhere. When I raised and waved my hand as if I was in grade school to be called on (yes, I had my camera on) we swiftly moved on to the next topic. And then, completely frustrated, I stayed on mute for the remainder of the meeting. I even momentarily shut off my camera to devour the rest of my heavily bruised, brown banana. (No one needed to see that.)
This wasn't the first time I had struggled to find my voice. Since elementary school, I always preferring the back seat unless the teacher assigned me a seat in the front. In high school, I did piles of extra credit or mini-reports to offset my 0% in class participation. In college, I went into each lecture nauseous and with wasted prayers — wishing and hoping that I wouldn't be cold-called on by the professor.
By the time I got to Corporate America, it was clear that if I wanted to lead, I needed to pull my chair up (and sometimes bring my own), sit right at the table front and center, and ask for others to make space for me. From then on, I found my voice and never stop using it.
But now, all of a sudden, in this forced social experiment of mass remote working, I was having trouble being heard… again. None of the coaching I had given myself and other women on finding your voice seemed to work when my voice was being projected across a conference call and not a conference room.
I couldn't read any body language. I couldn't see if others were about to jump in and I should wait or if it was my time to speak. They couldn't see if I had something to say. For our Microsoft teams setting, you can only see a few faces on your screen, the rest are icons at the bottom of the window with a static picture or even just their name. And, even then, I couldn't see some people simply because they wouldn't turn their cameras on.
If I did get a chance to speak and cracked a funny joke, well, I didn't hear any laughing. Most people were on mute. Or maybe the joke wasn't that funny?
At one point, I could hear some heavy breathing and the unwrapping of (what I could only assume was) a candy bar. I imagined it was a Nestle Crunch Bar as my tummy rumbled in response to the crinkling of unwrapped candy. (There is a right and a wrong time to mute, people.)
At another point, I did see one face nodding at me blankly.
They say that remote working will be good for women. They say it will level the playing field. They say it will be more inclusive. But it won't be for me and others if I don't speak up now.
- Start with turning your camera on and encouraging others to do the same. I was recently in a two-person meeting. My camera was on, but the other person wouldn't turn theirs on. In that case, ten minutes in, I turned my camera off. You can't stare at my fuzzy eyebrows and my pile of laundry in the background if I can't do the same to you. When you have a willing participant, you'd be surprised by how helpful it can be to make actual eye contact with someone, even on a computer (and despite the fuzzy eyebrows).
- Use the chatbox. Enter in your questions. Enter in your comments. Dialogue back and forth. Type in a joke. I did that recently and someone entered back a laughing face — reaffirming that I was, indeed, funny.
- Designate a facilitator for the meeting: someone leading, coaching, and guiding. On my most recent call, a leader went around ensuring everyone was able to contribute fairly. She also ensured she asked for feedback on a specific topic and helped move the discussion around so no one person took up all the airtime.
- Unmute yourself. Please don't just sit there on mute for the entire meeting. Jump in and speak up. You will be interrupted. You will interrupt others. But don't get frustrated or discouraged — this is what work is now — just keep showing up and contributing.
- Smile, and smile big. Nod your head in agreement. Laugh. Give a thumbs up; give two! Wave. Make a heart with your hands. Signal to others on the call who are contributing that you support and value them. They will do the same in return when your turn comes to contribute.
It's too easy to keep your camera turned off. It's too easy to stay on mute. It's too easy to disappear. But now is not the time to disappear. Now is the time to stay engaged and networked within our organizations and communities.
So please don't put yourself on mute.
Well, actually, please do put yourself on mute so I don't have to hear your heavy breathing, candy bar crunching, or tinkling bathroom break.
But after that, please take yourself off mute so you can reclaim your seat (and your voice) at the table.