Articles | Posted by Julie Z on 12/17/2014

Dyllan McGee: The Force Behind MAKERS

Dyllan McGee

Like countless aspects of the women’s movement before it, MAKERS, the renowned digital and video storytelling platform of women’s stories, started with Gloria Steinem. More accurately, it started when filmmaker Dyllan McGee asked Gloria if she could make a documentary about her life. Steinem declined and instead directed McGee towards the women’s movement at large. McGee assumed countless films devoted to the women’s movement already existed. She quickly found that was not at all the case and the idea for MAKERS: Women Who Make America was born. The documentary tells the story of “the most sweeping social revolution in American history” – the story of women in America. From there, the online MAKERS platform, which aims to be “the largest and most dynamic collection of women’s stories ever assembled,” was launched.

Dyllan McGee recently sat down with Julie Zeilinger to discuss being a female filmmaker, what makes a MAKER and feminism. 

JZ: MAKERS notably started when Gloria Steinem turned down your pitch to make a film about her life. What do you think are the pros and cons of using many individual stories to tell a greater narrative about American women?

DM: Well, I think the challenges have been less about telling the stories and more about how to build an audience for them. When you do a film, you’re so frustrated that you can’t tell all the stories of the people you come across, so MAKERS has been incredible in that we get to tell everybody’s story and then weave them all together into a narrative. The challenge of doing shorter stories is more about just building awareness that they’re there. People go to websites today because something brings them back on a daily basis, whether it’s news or whatever. So we constantly try to think about how we build our audience. AOL has been the best partner in the world for that. Being able to bring the MAKERS platform together with AOL has been the secret to success.


What do you think is so compelling about the medium of film as opposed to the written word or even radio? How does video change the way viewers can engage with these women’s stories?

Hearing it in their own words – I think there’s nothing better than hearing somebody’s story in their own voice. I think there’s an emotional connection through the video that you don’t necessarily have through the printed word or even the audio. When you can actually connect with somebody’s face and see that emotion – I would say emotion is at the heart of it.


It seems that in addition to having accomplished incredible things, all MAKERS also have really compelling, emotional stories to tell.

And that’s – you put your finger on a really important part of MAKERS because everybody says “Well, why hasn’t such and such been a MAKER?” and I say, “Well what’s her story?” Just because you’ve accomplished something incredible doesn’t mean you’ll be the best MAKERS piece. You’re a maker, and you’re incredible, but we select people not only because they’ve accomplished incredible things, be it big or small, but because they have a compelling story.


What are the main criteria for selecting MAKERS?

We have three criteria. One is that they have to be a groundbreaker, meaning a first in their field. So something they’ve done is a first as a woman. The second is a role model, someone because of what they’ve done have opened doors for other women. And third is women who are actually doing activist women’s work, so their work is dedicated to advancing women. So you don’t have to have all three. Many of them do have three, but those are our guiding principles that we put together at the very beginning of the project with a group of scholars.


I’ve read that you also ask every single woman you interview whether or not she’s a feminist. Do you remember any notable responses or themes in MAKERS’ responses?

We do ask every single woman. It’s just fascinating to me when someone has accomplished so much that they can say they’re not a feminist. And I don’t fault them for it. But when you read the definition, everyone is a feminist. MAKERS really is about celebrating the feminist movement and the women’s rights movement and inspiring the next generation to become their own leaders in their own way. I would say the majority are feminists and I think celebrities are also starting to take on the word, which helps. And when you do look at the millennial generation, supposedly, they identify with feminism more than other generations.


Have you noticed common themes among the MAKERS? Are there certain practices they do or things they believe? 

Their ability to overcome failure. Failure comes up in each and every interview. And not worrying about being liked comes up a lot. Upbringing – a lot is being brought up to believe you could do anything you wanted so having that grounding at a young age. Parents who had, whether two girls, a boy and a girl – treating everyone equally, we hear that a lot. It’s just that fearlessness. We did this thing called – I was curious if there was a DNA of a MAKER. So we started asking the women “either/or” questions. And this was not a scientific experiment that we went through, it was more out of curiosity. It was silly questions like “iPad or notepad”; “higher verbal or math score”; “domestically skilled or domestically challenged”; “early bird or late riser” – of course with that one I was always scared, if everybody answers “early bird” then I’ll never be a MAKER. But what we found, and at first when we did – I can’t remember, about a hundred or so – we put together the results and it was 50/50 in almost every category. And I was disappointed at first. But what I realized is there’s actually no DNA of a MAKER and it’s the best result we could receive because MAKERS come in all shapes and sizes. Anyone can do it.


Speaking of overcoming failure, I think there’s a lot of pressure on women to be perfect and that often holds women back. What are your thoughts on that? Has that come up among MAKERS?

I think our MAKERS haven’t experienced that because that’s not in their DNA. So it’s fascinating, I think there’s a lot of talk about that, but when you actually talk to our MAKERS one of the things that’s made them MAKERS is that they have been fearless and they haven’t been afraid to ask for raises or not be liked or whatever it may be. But I think if you study why women aren’t making it to the top those reasons are at the very core of it.


MAKERS focuses on the American women’s movement. What do you find so compelling about the stories of women in this country particularly? 

Well, we are going global. So we’ve launched MAKERS China and the next step for MAKERS is to start replicating the models in various different regions. So it started because I wanted to tell Gloria’s story and she said nobody had told the story of the women’s movement, which I couldn’t believe and then lo-and-behold nobody had. So it started more from a filmmaker wanting to tell a story that had never been told. And obviously it’s a story that, for me — I was born in 1970, right at the height of feminism and Gloria Steinem and all of that and I grew up saying, “I’m not a feminist but I believe in women’s rights.” So I think I blossomed into feminism later in my life and so was excited to kind of explore and understand what took me so long. As soon as you know all of this history and all of these stories how can you not be a feminist and appreciate everything all of these women have done to open doors for us? The history is so important and the way we try to tell the stories is through humor, we have celebrities in there – it touches on everyone in some way.


How has your work on MAKERS shaped your life? Have there been certain interviews that really changed the way you think about life or inspired you to implement change?

It’s funny I think it’s completely transformed my life. I don’t think I knew how much work was still left to be done. And I went to a great high school, a great college, not knowing the story and kind of feeling like I could have it all. So it’s opened my eyes – I think if you had asked me, if you had said “there’s still more work to be done” I would have said “No, no we don’t need to talk about this anymore.” So I’ve realized how important it is and even when you’re not personally feeling any sexism, there’s so much unconscious bias that’s going on and if we want to move the needle, I have to claim my part, too.


You have two sons – has it changed the way you’re raising them?

Completely. I have two feminist sons, self-proclaimed, say it more than they even need to. My favorite story is that my older son was in the play Hello, Dolly which is a very dated musical. And I’m a musical theater junkie, and there’s a song that says “it takes a woman to keep a house clean” and my little son turned to me and said “Mom, Gloria Steinem would not like this play.” And I realized that I had done a good job. We have in our household something called a “Makers Moment” so if we notice when anything sounds remotely sexist or we have to ask “why isn’t there a woman here?” it’s a makers moment. I think the next wave of the movement is bringing men into the dialogue.


Do you plan on incorporating men into MAKERS or do you feel strongly about focusing only on women’s stories?

No, we’re very much trying to think about how to integrate into what we’re doing. We’re doing a conference and we’re trying to get more men involved on stage and in the audience. Our website’s audience is 50 percent men. When we branded the show, when we put together the name MAKERS, the idea was to not have women in the title because these are stories that are for everybody. They’re put together because they’re good stories. We want teachers to have no excuse in the classroom not to teach stories about women, so that’s why we have stories about mathematicians and firefighters – anything any teacher is teaching, they should be able to find a MAKERS story they can plug in.


Do you have any advice or final thoughts for readers of the FBomb?

My advice is – first of all it’s funny everybody always asks, “What advice would you give your teen self?” If anything I try to channel my teen self. When I was a teen, I was – nothing could get in my way, I was absolutely fearless. I think my fear has come as society has slowly wrapped its arms around me. So I think, first of all just enjoy life and find your passion. But that’s kind of an easy answer. It’s that you are in control, nobody else is in control but you. People think buy into that whole idea of having to be perfect to get a raise or to succeed. I think it’s just that idea of you’re in control of your destiny. If you’re not happy you can change that, if you’re not getting what you want you can stand up and ask for it and nobody else is in control of you. And don’t be so afraid of criticism. Criticism is the best gift: it’s how you get better. If you’re always afraid, then you’re never going to get any better.


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