Hollywood’s backlots are not how you would imagine. Aside from the golf carts and sound stages, the atmosphere is like any corporate park. Employees in business-casual gather for meetings and take calls in corners; maintenance guys stalk the perimeter. It’s no Singin’ in the Rain. This past year has taken the shine off Hollywood’s picture perfection. The studios became less an escape from the real world and more a representation of the way women are abused, gaslit and compromised across industries. A year ago, the Times Up movement was spearheaded in these environs, and women in all workplaces continue to require support.
America Ferrera is no stranger to the graft or struggle. Currently producing and acting in a new series of US sitcom Superstore (made by Ferrera’s production company, Take Fountain), the 34-year-old is wrapping up at the end of a Friday at Universal Pictures. She appears pushing a stroller containing her four-month-old son, Sebastian. The actress came back to work 10 weeks after giving birth and considers that a luxury. “I can’t even imagine what it’s like for women who don’t have the option,” she says. Her T-shirt has the words ‘Phenomenal Woman’ across her chest, which is something of an understatement.
Ferrera is known internationally as the lead in Ugly Betty, a show that ran for four seasons and broke ground for Latina women in mainstream television. But outside of that, she has spent her life stacking up extraordinary achievements. To name just a few, she opened the inaugural Women’s March in Washington, DC; won the Ally for Equality Award for her work with the LGBTQ community; was a pivotal instigator in the Time’s Up movement, speaking out on abuse she suffered aged nine; and publicly addressed immigration rights in the debacle around separated families. She has also just released a book entitled American Like Me, featuring voices of Americans from immigrant backgrounds.
“If we allow BRAVE voices to take the backlash, then we’re communicating that no one CARES. We can’t stop FIGHTING. Even though it can get overwhelming”
Last week, Ferrera publicly supported Professor Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who was allegedly sexually assaulted by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. More than 25 years after Anita Hill accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment, women are still clamoring to be heard in the halls of power. Ferrera argues that it’s worse in the current climate. “People are so tired of the daily assault on all of our values that this feels like just another thing. But we can’t let it be just another thing,” she says. “I couldn’t live with myself if I stayed silent.”
Women have nothing to gain by coming forward, we know that. Ferrera reckons Ford resisted speaking out because she knew she’d be used as political fodder. “We are defining our culture every day. If we allow brave voices to take the backlash, then we’re communicating to millions of people everywhere that no one cares about you. We can’t stop fighting,” she says. “Even though it can get overwhelming.”
Ferrera grew up in Los Angeles, the youngest of six. Her parents were immigrants from Honduras, and her father returned there after her parents divorced. Ferrera always wanted to act and landed her first movie role, in 2002’s award-winning Real Women Have Curves, while in high school. Despite that, she went to the University of Southern California, double majoring in theater and international relations, and met her husband, Ryan Piers Williams, along the way. “I was the kid flying between movie sets and writing term papers on the airport floor,” she laughs.
The first time Ferrera decided to use her platform publicly was during the 2008 presidential primary. While campaigning for Hillary Clinton, she became obsessed with an issue far bigger than candidates – the electoral disengagement by people of color. “If your parents never engaged, why would you? If nobody is asking you to show up, what’s the difference? If we’re completely disenfranchised, it doesn’t matter how many of us there are,” the actress explains. Working on the ground thrilled and educated her, and she became engrossed in healthcare, immigration and environmental issues. Policy was no longer hypothetical for her. “If I sit and stare at a newspaper, I just have to imagine the people,” she says. “When I get on the ground, it’s a jolt of energy.”
Ferrera researches issues like she does roles. It’s symbiotic: the roles she chooses are judged through their potential to create understanding. She considers herself, however, to have also had fortune on her side, particularly in her early career. Real Women Have Curves and Ugly Betty were anomaly projects and allowed her the freedom to express her truth. “I am who I am,” she says. “I don’t fit in traditional boxes for women on screen. When I became an actress, my mere presence was a revolution because I wasn’t supposed to exist in this industry.”
In her youth, Ferrera was naïve about racial discrimination and sexism. “I said to myself: ‘This is America! In America, anyone can do anything. Who cares that I’m Latina, short, chubby, not the picture of perfection? America favors the underdog, and anyone willing to work hard can achieve their dreams.’” Once she started auditioning, the limitations became clearer. She was presented with stereotypical, insulting roles. Then Real Women Have Curves scored her a career. “I thought, ‘Here I go, off to the races!’ [And] I continued to expect opportunities, even though it was unrealistic, because why shouldn’t I?” she says. “The dream I had was a ridiculous dream. My career is against all odds.”
Ugly Betty was a show that should never have aired, says the actress: “We don’t make shows about ugly brown girls who have grit.” Few Latina-led shows have followed suit, and representation is currently at a high of just 7%, which is why Ferrera has never felt afraid to be vocal. “Being an actor is my profession,” she says. “It isn’t who I am and it certainly isn’t where I came from. The notion that I shouldn’t fight for the world that I wanna live in, because it might threaten how people see me, isn’t an option.”
“So few WOMEN are in positions of decision-making. We cannot ACCEPT that; that all things being equal, women are less qualified. No! All things are NOT equal”
On January 21, 2017, women the globe over donned pink hats and hand-made signs, and marched. Ferrera was at the epicenter in Washington, DC. She was the first speaker of the day. She had no idea until 24 hours before. “I didn’t torture myself writing a perfect speech,” she says. “It seemed so obvious what needed to be said. I was brimming with the urgency to represent the millions of people who had so much to lose.” She thought of all her loved ones, her Muslim, Latino, black and LGBTQ friends. “None of us knew how historical the march would be. We’ve lost so much ground in this country going backwards, making people’s lives less equal and dignified. I think back to that day: we’re not alone, people will show up.”
As galvanized as the women’s movement has become, there remain difficulties with intersectional feminism: white feminists who don’t understand the nuances of fighting the unique battles of women of color. Ferrera is diplomatic about this. “I’m constantly asking: how do we need to be with one another differently? There are no easy answers.” For progress, difficult conversations must be had. “We are cannibalizing our own movement. The side that wants to go backwards isn’t confused about what unites them. We have a harder job because we’re trying to move a mass of people who are inherently diverse.”
“I don’t want MEN to feel like there isn’t a place for them. That’s how WOMEN feel. We don’t need to make men feel the same. We can do it BETTER”
You wonder if Ferrera would run for office herself. She’s not sure. She’d rather first prioritize equal representation – not just in politics. “Of course I wanna see a woman president, but that’s not gonna solve the problem,” she says. “We need 50% women on our boards; we need 50% women in front of and behind the camera. We need to look at the tech industry and Wall Street and see women. So few women are in positions of decision-making. We cannot accept that as a natural phenomenon; that all things being equal, women are less qualified. No! All things are not equal.”
When Ferrera was pregnant, she thought she’d have a girl. So did all her friends. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, what am I gonna do with a boy?’ Then I quickly realized what an opportunity that was. I’m approaching it as I’d approach raising a girl. I just want him to feel his worth.” Having a boy has made her re-group on statements such as ‘the future is female’. “I have to think twice about the way I talk about men. I don’t want my son or my husband or the men in my life to feel like there isn’t a place for them. That’s how women feel. We don’t need to flip that and make men feel the same. We can do it better.”
US politician and attorney Kamala Harris has a mantra that Ferrera subscribes to: we don’t have to run the marathon alone; it can be a relay race. “No one can do it alone and no one can do it all the time,” says Ferrera. “That’s why there are so many of us. We show up when we can. Sometimes we have to pass the baton and go live our lives, catch our breath, and remember what makes us happy.”
The people featured in this story are not associated with NET-A-PORTER and do not endorse it or the products shown.