Amy Sewell

In honor of Women's History Month, we had the opportunity to chat with filmmaker Amy Sewell. Amy wrote and produced the hit documentary film, Mad Hot Ballroom about inner city elementary school students who compete in a citywide ballroom dancing competition. Her most recent documentary, "What's Your Point, Honey?" captures three age groups of women to show us how far women have some and how far they still have to go. The movie is now available on Amazon, iTunes, and through She has 11-year-old twin daughters, Raquel "Rocky" and Samantha "Sammy" (named, as she and her basketball coach-husband say to "transfer to the court").

Q: What is one of the most important things you think mothers should teach their daughters?
AMY: I think mothers and fathers teach by doing. Kids will listen for only so long, right? Like the Far Side joke about what dogs hear? "Spot, blah, blah, blah." It's more about actions. I think the most important a daughter can "acquire" is a sense of self-love and respect that a mother has for herself. I can talk all I want about the importance of girls being equal to my daughters, but boy, when I get up and doing something to make a difference, do their eyes open up and their ears perk up. Last year, one of my 5th-grade twin daughter confiscated the baseball bat from the boys who wouldn't let the girls play. She marched around, creating a "conga line," all the other girls falling in behind, marching, she waved the bat up and down and had them all chanting, "Equal play for girls!" It was a big moment for me. I came to pick up my daughters and word had obviously spread with other mothers coming up to me saying, "I heard what Rocky (Raquel) did today — awesome!" The other twin20educated all her teenage camp counselors about feminism last summer. The counselor called just to tell me this. So it's really what we do.

Q: What do you hope women (of all ages) will get out of your film?
AMY: I hope they will have that "click" moment where they wake up and start to really see things for what they are. I hope they learn that they are NOT equal and are motivated to do something about it. It is illogical that women are not equal — does not compute. It is up to us — all of us — all ages — heels or no heels — to demand equality. I'm tired of waiting for it AND it is obvious that even if we ask for it, we don't get it. There are ways — radical — but we have so much power. We are 80% of the purchasing power (i.e. we decide where and how 80 cents of every dollar is spent), we are 51% of the U.S. population. We raise the future workforce. If we are 'commodified' by society, well then what IS the price of our womb and our child-rearing skills and talents. Think about that. We actually, in theory, should earn more than men. We do more — 1st and 2nd shift….still!
We could boycott companies that don't speak to us. We could only employ or hire women. We could stop breeding. All of these things are very radical but I dare say would be crazy-effective. You want to see what we are worth in a New York minute? This would get people talking. Why not? What's it going to take? Nothing has worked yet. Worth the experiment me thinks!

Q: Was it hard to be both a parent and a filmmaker during the process of shepherding their movie to the big screen? How did you balance both work and home life during that time?
AMY: I have never had a nanny. I worked it out with my husband, who in turn became a feminist through the whole process. I relied on the "net" of friends who are mothers. There are a core of us who do this for each other. My job is not steady enough for steady help, nor is our income. Also, as you'll see from the photo, I put them to work. Marian Wright Edelman said, "You can't be what you can't see" which is the foundation of both the film and my new book due out in May — She's Out There! The Next Generation of Presidential Candidates (LifeTime Media. In the photo my girls are helping me prepare for a shoot. One is actually a pretty decent DP and the other could make a fine director…or actor… some day — it's a toss up!

Q: How was it having your daughters participate in the making of the film? Did they bring any interesting insights that you hadn't considered until they "spoke up" about it?
AMY: We actually didn't want them in the film. We did a research shoot one day — about 8 hours — with 18 8-year-olds to see who said what and who popped on film. We had intended to find other kids but as it turned out, apples don't fall far from the tree, our daughters (mine and my filmmaking partner Susan Toffler's daughter) had the most to say — about all kinds of issues. I think there was a familiarity with the project in addition to the fact that they all get their passion from seeing our passion about issues. To make it as objective as possible, we had Claudia Raschke-Robinson (our DP) direct them and we stayed clear. This seemed the way to go after Susan "fired" her daughter one day, and her daughter refused to leave stating "It's a documentary. You aren't paying me. You can't fire me." Yes, best to stay clear.
They also served a purpose in the film — acting as the three little Michael Moore's — cuter I might add — out asking the tough questions — Why haven't we had a female president? Why not? Are we going to have one? When? An who?
They did well. I'm proud of all three of them. They've changed a lot since then. Regardless of being surrounded by the constant fight for gender equality, the "feminine role" that Gloria Steinem speaks about in the beginning of the film has descended on them. Yes, at 11-years-old now, it's fascinating and scary. Toffler and I are trying to reign the horses but hormones are powerful!

Q: What changed for you as a women when you had daughters? Did you notice more about the way women are treated, are there things you want to see undone before your daughters are grown, things you are suddenly more aware of from a gender perspective than you were when it was just you?
AMY: I think when it is only you that you have to care for, you let things slide a lot more. The distasteful remark from a male co-worker, the fact that a colleague at work made $20K more than me and worked at the same company less time and when I asked why, he said it was because h e had a MBA (well, so did I), the fact my nickname was Blondie at the Detroit Press Club when I worked for the automotive press and I let it slide, all these things you balance and weigh them out because you feel like its just you and you have to deal (or risk getting marked or even alienated from future promotions or even fired for being "difficult"). But when you have daughters and you start to see not only the blatant stuff but also the subtle invisible baggage that is being delivered to them full force (vodka ads that are a block from the school that demean women — women with a tie around her neck posing doggy-style, back end out, rap songs that demean women that play at 5th-grade dances — the song called "Crank That" — otherwise known as the Soldier Boy song that all the kids do a "line" dance to — the words in that song talk about a "superman that girl" which is where a guy ejaculates on the girl's back and sheet sticks to it. Now I don't know about you, but I don't think that song is appropriate for 5th-graders. Heck, I don't think it's appropriate at public sporting events where it is often played. This is what Toffler and I call the "invisible gas" that seeps into our society and really, kills us, as women. It's misogyny at its most deadly. There are thousands more examples and this is when, as a parent, it kicks in. It is so destructive and we don't even know it is happening. I mean just look at the Victoria's Secret scene in our doc. Guys have come to expect this to be the norm and this is a level we have some how had to accept — where to do you from there? Only down. I could go on and on but its everywhere.
It would be great for middle and high schools to incorporate women studies classes, mandatory if it were up to me, just to point this all out. Believe it or not, if you educate boys young, they get it and they too don't think it is nice or fair. It's amazing what we could do if we could get someone at the top (in government, business or industry with enough power to make a difference) to pay attention.

Q: Given their participation in the film, have your girls developed any sort of interested in politics or feminism?
AMY: Absolutely. For one thing, they are not afraid to say they are feminists! That's more than I can say for last year's class of the New York University's Stern School of Women MBAs. When I asked over 100 young women graduate students how many of them identified themselves as feminists, only 1/4 raised their hands. ( "Stern MBA Women — you are going to hopefully run or help run corporations — you cannot be afraid of a word that upholds the common preface of democr acy — equality for all!")
My daughters are not afraid of making themselves heard when it comes to equality (or any other social justice cause for that matter!) and more than that, they feel quite secure knowing the boys will still like them. They think the boys really like it when the girls are just as good and just as tough. Well, this is what they see at home too with regard to the relationship between me and my husband Charlie (who is a coach by the way — and coaches both girls and boys — he is tough on both genders). This is a change from when I grew up.
I want them to do something they are passionate about but if one of them decides to run for an office, I'll be happy to help her. I think being a public servant is an honor and, if done well and done right and you keep your bearings straight, it is an honorable thing to do. To better society, to me, there is no higher calling.

Q: Best part about being a mom?
AMY: Knowing my kids are their own people and knowing I'm just here to guide and direct them to be good citizens and thoughtful and caring human beings. I like who they are and who they are becoming. It's a wonder to watch them "become." I think the y are turning out to be interesting and vibrant and compassionate individuals. I hope they "apply" their "gifts" to all things in life in a helpful and community-driven way.

Q: Hardest part about being a mom?
AMY: It's a constant monkey on my back about figuring it out how to "do it right" when there is no exact "right." I feel like I have a handle on not passing on some of my "known baggage" but I fear the baggage I might pass on that I'm unaware of! Somebody once told me that you have a 50/50 chance of screwing up your kids and as a poker player, that's like getting pocket 8s! That is tough hand to fold and a tougher hand to play!

Your Favourites:

Growing up, what was your favourite book?
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. I felt like the message was that we all have a purpose on this planet, large or small, and its important to honor and respect that purpose — whatever it ends up being. As a poker player, I'm into seeing patterns of all kinds. Getting older, one can see patterns in your life with things you do, people you've met, interests, etc. I have always loved my current age because as I get older every year, these patterns become more clear. I think when purpose is actually figuring out how to use some of these patterns for the good of all and knowing these "gifts" and what you have to offer the world helps you to leave it a better place.

What was your favourite toy?
No thought about it — any bike I've ever had — from my Schwinn Stingray with the flower banana seat to the my Schw inn lime-green racer to my current city cruiser — to me bikes are freedom — they were a way to go anywhere growing up and I continue to love to ride my bike. Of course, in NYC, and yes, I wear a helmet, I'm just hoping not to get clipped by a taxi!

Who was your inspiration and why?
I think it is hard to state one inspiration or even two or three. I'm inspired daily! It is just natural for me to look for and then watch women who inspire me. However, I must point out that I look for and watch men who inspire me too. I looked for people who had the traits and skills I wanted to have and then found out how to acquire or develop those characteristics.
I have to say that there are so many I cannot list them. I will say I am driven daily by one sentence that Gloria Steinem said when I interviewed her for the documentary in reference to how to handle people who say to me (particularly women older than myself) to be thankful or grateful for how far we've come. Gloria replied that she wasn't thinking about the women who got her the vote when she was fighting for wage equity and reproductive rights in the 70s. She stated, "Gratitude never radicalized anyone" and I live by it as it is illogical we are not equal and I will not stand for not being equal in my lifetime.
Overall, my inspiration really comes from my environment. My foundation was solid from birth. I inherited my father's energy and gregariousness and my mother's intuition and focus and naturally was lucky enough to put those traits to work for me. Additionally, I have parents who gave me the tools but then stepped out of the way. They provided the safety net (more important than anyone ever recognizes and I don't mean financially — I mean emotionally) and then were wise enough to not strap on any strings. I only hope I can do the same and be the same way for my own children.

What was your favourite movie?
Believe it or not, I was influenced by the movie "Billy," where Billy, the main character, played by Patty Duke, tries out and makes the boys track team and through adversity from the players and the townspeople, beats the pants off her opponents! She would crouch down, ready to take off in a race, and get this beat in her head. Moving her head to this beat (if you watch it now, its so corny but I still love it), she'd take off and run like the devil. I thought back then, I must have been six- or eight-years-old, "Oh, that's what you have to do….you get a beat in your head and you just do it." I still have that beat in my head.

I know you have two daughters, what do you hope they will be inspired to do?
I am careful not to project my social activist causes on to them. They are only 11-years-old and need to develop their own sense of selves, and that includes what they think is worth fighting for. But that would be my only desire with regard to "shaping" them or helping to guide them in their journey of life — to make sure that they have the opportunity, the will and the wonderful luxury of feeling there are things worth fighting for. That's not only a right in this country, it is a privilege — not to ever be taken lightly or for granted and I think, something that shouldn't ever be ignored. This is what makes thee United States, thee United States. Even if, with regard to my personal social justice cause of feminism and gender equality, we've been fighting from the second position since the beginning of time, as the perpetual underdogs, it doesn't matter. What matters is that we have the freedom to fight! Wow. Thank you God. Thank you to my sisters throughout time who have picked up the ball, went for slam dunks in their days, and then passed it on. We as women sit on their shoulders and we must remember that we have to make sure the future generations of women get up and sit on our shoulders too.

If you could tell your younger self one thing you know now, what would it be?
I have a very athletic build and I wish I would have known to play more sports — even to try out for the boys teams then and cause a stir because there were no girls teams. I was a competitive swimmer but races were gender specific. I was a competitive sailor but even then, I was crew and could only helm my own boat when I, at 14 years old, saved my money and bought my own boat and entered races. I was just coming of age when Title IX came into effect and it hadn't "caught" on in the schools yet. If I were my daughters ages now, I'd play every sport and I know I'd be damn fierce!

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