Emmy winner joins filmmaker Abby Epstein to investigate dark side of contraceptives, women’s healthcare in “Sweetening the Pill”
Former syndicated talk show host and Emmy award winner Ricki Lake has been a pioneering indie filmmaker focusing on women’s issues for nearly a decade.
Her 2008 documentary “The Business of Being Born,” about the benefits of home-birthing over hospitalization, is a must-see in modern women’s medicine, as well as an early hit at the dawn of streaming.
Lake and filmmaker Abby Epstein spoke with TheWrap about their next film project, based on the book “Sweeting the Pill: or How We Got Hooked on Hormonal Birth Control,” and it’s premise, the increasing toxicity of modern birth control, as well as the advances Silicon Valley is making over Big Pharma and why the wariness of major content buyers led them to Kickstarter to finance the project.
TheWrap: “The Business of Being Born” was released in 2008, but it still has a cultural relevance, as well as in the medical community.
Abby Epstein: For something we funded ourselves, it’s still kind of the movie. Every single person who is pregnant is told, “You have to see this film.”
Ricki Lake: The fact that this film has had this eight-year shelf life — it’s taught in universities and colleges all over the country, from women’s studies and ethics to medical and nursing schools. It’s been incredible, and that’s basically what we’re trying to do now — what we did for birth, we’re trying to do for birth control. And that’s to empower the consumer with information. Not tell women what to do, but offering access to information and choice.
So how did the book “Sweeting the Pill” come to the two of you?
RL: The writer, Holly Grigg-Spall, reached out to both of us about this book, which was called, “Sweeting the Pill: or How We Got Hooked on Hormonal Birth Control,” and of course it sat on our desks for six months.
AE: It was this forever manuscript, I dragged it around until I finally read it on a plane, going to see Ricki actually. It was a weird “Aha!” moment. When we were first working on “Business of Being Born,” I never equated sexism or feminism with childbirth. I always thought that was a medical thing, and I didn’t see how women’s empowerment necessarily fit in. Ricki, however, knew they were related and wanted to share the experience. Holly’s book woke us up to what was going on behind the scenes.
Even something as simple as side effects we had both experienced from using birth control for decades — we started investigating and it felt like a really natural progression from our last film. So many women are trying not to get pregnant, and that’s the narrative we keep hearing. Women try not to get pregnant for 10 or 15 years, then they have babies, and then they have another 20 years of trying not to get pregnant. It seems like we’re still using our grandmother’s contraception. Most women are not very happy taking this stuff.
Why is that?
AE: It’s similar to birth in that the whole premise of birth control is ‘Periods are bad. Ovulating is bad.’ Like the female cycle is this horrible thing and we have to shut it down! Essentially, you are trying to prevent one thing with birth control: an egg from meeting a sperm. And instead of preventing that one thing, we’re medicating the entire system. One of the most fascinating things we’ve found is that the tech sector is leading the pharmaceutical sector with alternative birth control.
RL: There are so many apps out there. We’re following a few of them, a few have even become sponsors of our film. One being Kindara, and another one called Clue. They are these really fun, user-friendly apps that completely track your cycle, your mood swings, all kinds of side effects you may have. It basically leads to true body literacy. It helps you understand when you can get pregnant, when you can’t — and these are simple things you think that women know, but they don’t. Most women seem to think they can get pregnant any day out of the month, when the fact is there’s only a short window.
AE: These apps have a Basil Body Thermometer that syncs with the phone. They’re saying they are close to having a chip that you’ll spit on and stick into your phone. It will read out your hormone levels. We’re following that in the film, and how so many women in their early twenties are using these apps, IUDs, so many things women of our generation were unaware of. You have to find birth control that fits with the changing norms.
The film says there’s a bit of a darker side on the business end of Pharma when it comes to birth control, correct?
AE: Well, on the really dark side of the spectrum. We’re releasing a short on The Guardian website in two weeks based on our film — there was a Vanity Fair article about the NuvaRing that essentially said the newer hormones used in the NuvaRing and new birth control pills are a lot more dangerous than what we took in the ’80s and ’90s.
There are a lot more strokes and death, more mortality rates. So we’re following some of the families that have lost their daughters and what they’re uncovering about what is going on with some of the larger Pharma companies. They basically assimilate the cost of paying out these lawsuits like its the cost of doing business. It’s disgusting.
RL: And we’re not saying, ‘Take these things off the market.” But they’re not labelled properly. We’re meeting women who came very close to death, having gone to the doctor for weeks for symptoms that were not getting picked up. There’s no education, and at the same time the products are become more dangerous. Not to mention, you’re lucky if you get five minutes to talk to your doctor at Planned Parenthood.
There’s really no inform consent when it comes to this. In many cases we’re putting young, young girls on birth control for vanity reasons, for acne — 12-year-old girls, routinely for mild cramping or whatever. And it’s completely suppressing their systems and keeping them from having a real period. But a lot of awareness doesn’t make the healthcare system any money.
AE: And no one is studying this. If a young girl is taking the pill at 12 or 13, let’s say all those girls are staying on it for 20 years. No one is studying this! There are links made to fertility issues, there are links made to breast cancer. We talked to scientists, and no one is studying this longterm. We think this could be another little revolution if women see this and start asking questions.
You mention on your Kickstarter page that traditional entertainment companies have shied away from this project, can you expand on that?
AE: I think there were networks that were very interested, like, ‘This will be the Food Inc. of birth control!’ CNN Films was interested and, I mean, they weren’t throwing a million dollars at us. But, like with “The Business of Being Born,” everyone has a story and can relate and gets excited. Obviously it doesn’t have that commercial smell — like, we’re doing another documentary called “Weed the People” about medical pot and everyone wants to buy that film. This film is a little bit scary, because people can’t get around the facts. Some people think it’s anti-birth-control. We actually want people to have more access to birth control. Even for feminists, it’s a very fine line.
There seem to be a lot of women in Hollywood that would rally behind something like this, especially ones associated with health and lifestyle like Gwyneth Paltrow. Are you rallying them?
AE: We know a few of these women, we even spoke to, I won’t say her name, but a major YouTube star who is very on board with this. She said, ‘I believe in everything you’re saying, but I’m also a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood.’ So she has to talk to them. It’s touchy, it’s not clear-cut. We’re planning on reaching out though.
RL: No matter what, this really is the natural, next step for us in what we’re trying to do with our brand. It’s really fulfilling to have these women come up to us and thank us for the education we’ve given them. This subject matter brings up so many issues that boils down to true empowerment, so I really hope we’re successful with the campaign.
The “Sweetening the Pill” Kickstarter Campaign runs through July 3.