32 Women Who Saved
Entertainment This Year
From Rita Moreno to Channing Dungey to JoJo Siwa, these women made a difference in a time of transition
By Mary Murphy & Michele Willens
It was the year after the year. Masks may have remained on, but those who entertain us went back to work. TV and film production geared up, the Broadway lights have gone back on and movies returned to our neighborhood screens. Even award ceremonies have managed to combine live presentations with the virtual.
But Hollywood is still grappling with the lingering effects of the pandemic as well as the cultural reckoning that has shaped so much of what we see on screen — and how it’s produced behind the scenes.
For TheWrap’s fourth annual Power Women Summit, we celebrate 32 Changemakers who have navigated the changing business and entertainment landscape. This list includes women who challenged industry giants head-on (hello, Scarlett Johansson), broke barriers in male-dominated areas (the first women to do play-by-play at NBA games) and thrown on spotlight on the achievements of other women (like the lawyer and LGBTQ pioneer Pauli Murray).
Lynn Nottage, the Tony-winning playwright who has three new major productions opening on New York stages in the coming months, called artists working during the pandemic “the second responders.” We salute Nottage and the other women on this list who continue to respond, make us think, make us laugh, and make us want to be together again as we do our watching.
The Two Anitas:
and Rita Moreno
Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” has been eagerly anticipated for multiple reasons, including the buzz about Ariana DeBose, who plays Anita. She is a Tony-nominated actress (whose credits include “Hamilton”) who makes her feature debut in a role that won Rita Moreno an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress back in 1961 — and won acclaim playing a schoolteacher in Apple TV+’s send-up of old musicals, “Schmigadoon!”
Moreno, by the way, is still very much in the picture. The Puerto Rican born actress-singer-dancer, who turns 90 this month, makes an appearance in Spielberg’s version as a newly created character named Valentina. The EGOT winner was also the subject of an acclaimed 2021 documentary, “Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It,” which recounts her experiences in a Hollywood that has not always been welcoming to Latinas like her.
Many of us first saw her as that frightened young girl, trained by a horse-whispering Robert Redford to get back in the saddle. Who knew that Scarlett Johansson would turn out to be an Oscar-nominated actress, a Marvel marvel, and in, 2021, a giant-killer willing to challenge the most powerful Hollywood studio in court? In the spirit of Bette Davis, Johansson filed a breach of contract suit against Disney, alleging its decision to release “Black Widow” simultaneously on streaming and in theaters cost her (and others’) substantial financial losses. The suit was eventually settled but her chutzpah had impact.
As Jamie Lee Curtis wrote in Time Magazine (which named Johansson one of its most influential people of the year), “Whether as an assassin with a conscience, an actor with an emotional center, or, having just given birth to her second child, a fierce mother, the message is clear: Don’t f— with this mama bear.”
As a little girl in Chicago, Marlee Matlin remembers watching “The Wizard of Oz” in the days before closed captions without being able to understand the story. When she saw the film later, with captions, she was shocked. “The story was completely different than the one I had made up in my mind,” she said. An activist was born.
Since becoming the first deaf actress to win an Oscar, for 1986’s “Children of a Lesser God,” Matlin has been an outspoken advocate for streaming and online video outlets to include closed captioning for the nearly 10 million Americans with hearing loss. This year, she also finds herself back getting Oscar buzz for her role in the Apple film “CODA,” about the hearing daughter of a deaf family.
“This is the first time we have seen authentically deaf actors carrying a mainstream film,” Matlin said of the indie, which sold for a record $25 million at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. “This is a story about a family, not just a deaf family. It is about a child coming of age, a working-class small town, and a family that has fun.”
As for the exuberant sex scene with her onscreen husband, played by Troy Kotsur? “We make noise!” she said.
Sandra Oh, the Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild award-winning, and 12-time Emmy nominated actress, took on some of 2021’s thorniest issues in her Netflix series, “The Chair.” She plays the first woman to head her university’s English department, while dealing with sexism, cancel culture, transracial adoption and a budding midlife romance.
Both the series and the ongoing pandemic took their toll. “I was constantly waking up to my broken belief system,” she said, “and to the realization of my own brainwashing.”
Oh credits her upbringing in Canada for her ability to sustain a decades-long career. “The stamina is because I was well loved as a child,” she said. “My grounding has given me a sense that I am never that far away from being me.” And that grounding helped her as she jumped from a supporting player in “Grey’s Anatomy” to leading roles in “Killing Eve” and now “The Chair” — two shows on which she also served as executive producer. “I am extremely prepared for the responsibilities that can come from the top of the call sheet,” she said. “I have been ready my whole life.”
It’s hard to imagine a better professional year than that enjoyed by Jean Smart in 2021. She won the Emmy (her fourth) portraying a stand-up diva-comedian in HBO Max’s “Hacks.” And she earned another nomination playing Kate Winslet’s truth-telling mother in HBO’s ”Mare of Easttown.” “They don’t make ‘em like Jean Smart anymore,” Hannah Einbinder, her young “Hacks” co-star, said.
Einbinder also witnessed the most difficult personal time in Smart’s otherwise stellar year, when her husband, Richard Gilliland, died in the in the midst of shooting the first season. “For her to come back and finish the season,” Einbinder said, ”is beyond my comprehension. She was able to communicate her needs, by asking for help and making everyone laugh.”
Her approach to the role proved that it wasn’t a case of typecasting. “Her character in the show is surrounded by walls that she has put up,” Einbinder said, while “Jean is open, caring and soft but just as funny and sharp.”
Jane Campion has always been highly selective. And most her selections have been worth the wait. While it’s been a decade since her last feature, 2009’s “Bright Star,” and four years since her “Top of the Lake” limited series wrapped up, the New Zealand-born director returned in full force with her new film, “The Power of the Dog,” which won this year’s Venice Film Festival’s Silver Lion Award. The Western, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Kirsten Dunst, isn’t the usual genre for female directors. But then, Jane Campion has never done anything predictable. Except for taking her time, choosing carefully and almost always delivering the goods.
and Betsy West
These two former TV newswomen have now become distinguished documentary makers. They’ve followed up 2018’s Oscar-nominated “RBG” with two more pics about trailblazing women: “My Name Is Pauli Murray” and “Julia,” which are both generating buzz on the festival circuit.
“Pauli Murray was an African American lawyer, activist, writer and nonbinary person whose towering contributions to civil rights and women’s rights have not yet received sufficient recognition,” West said. “Julia Child is, of course, very well known, but we think not sufficiently credited as a transformative figure who not only changed the way Americans eat, but opened up opportunities for women on television — including older women — and for women in the culinary world. Very different stories, but both of them thrilling and inspirational to us.”
While Cohen and West didn’t intend to have two films open in the same year, the pandemic had a funny way of disrupting the film world. “Frankly, we feel fortunate to have been able to focus on both these films during a difficult time,” West said, acknowledging the duo’s interest in narratives about unsung women. “We do focus on women’s stories and the stories of people who have been overlooked or marginalized or trivialized.”
Lesli Linka Glatter
Lesli Linka Glatter had her bags packed and was about to fly overseas to direct a project… when the pandemic struck. “From COVID to a world in total chaos to immense social change, 2021 was a game changer for all of us,” she said. “For someone who does ‘busy’ very well, being quarantined and wandering around in my pajamas for several months forced me to actually stop, find the opportunity in the chaos, and get priorities straight — or else go totally crazy.”
So she set to work on the Directors Guild of America’s COVID-19 Return to Work Committee to develop the protocols to safely return to film sets and launched Backyard Pictures with producing partner Cheryl Bloch. And this year, she was elected president of the DGA. Not that the DGA Award winner (for her work on “Homeland”) has paused on shooting new projects. She’s currently in Texas directing an HBO limited series, “Love and Death,” based on a true crime in 1980.
It’s rare for one playwright to have three shows simultaneously play on New York stages. But then Lynn Nottage is also the first and only woman (not to mention one of color) to win two Pulitzer Prizes, for “Ruined” and “Sweat.” Her new comedy, “Clyde’s,” just opened on Broadway, where the high-profile new musical “MJ,” based on the life of Michael Jackson, begins performances in December with a book by Nottage. And an opera based on one of her first plays — “Intimate Apparel,” the story of a lonely, single African-American woman who makes her living sewing corsets and ladies’ undergarments — debuts in January at Lincoln Center Theater.
“I began 2021 in a place of uncertainty and cultivated stillness,” Nottage told TheWrap. “But, like many of my colleagues, the pandemic and this moment of social reckoning forced me to examine the practices of our cultural institutions, and as a result, I felt compelled to actively agitate for more diversity, inclusion and compassion within our industry.”
After laying low since the 2016 box office disappointment “Jupiter Ascending” and the short-lived Netflix series “Sense8,” Lana Wachowski returns this month with a new installment of the sci-fi franchise that made her famous: “The Matrix Resurrections,” with original stars Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss. This time, Wachowski is working without her sibling, Lilly, who co-wrote and co-directed the original trilogy that grossed an astonishing $1.6 billion between 1999 and 2003.
Resurrection is a familiar theme for Lana Wachowski, who more than a decade ago became the first major Hollywood director to come out as transgender. “When I was young, I wanted very badly to be a writer, I wanted to be a filmmaker, but I couldn’t find anyone like me in the world and it felt like my dreams were foreclosed simply because my gender was less typical than others,” she said at a Human Rights Campaign event in 2012. “If I can be that person for someone else, then the sacrifice of my private civic life may have value.”
As the newly named president of Disney Branded Television, Ayo Davis oversees a whole lot of content: from streaming platforms to The Disney Channel to Disney XD and basically all Disney networks aimed at family audiences. “I’ve done the job six weeks and I feel like it’s been a year,” she said with a laugh.
In her two decades at Disney, she’s cultivated relationships with top talent like Kerry Washington and Eva Longoria, always focusing, she said, on “producing content that reflects the world we live in.” She played key roles developing series like “black-ish,” “How to Get Away With Murder” and “The Good Doctor” as EVP of talent and casting at ABC Entertainment and Disney+. “I have always been about taking the opportunity to shift negative narratives to a more positive culture, and that’s never felt more urgent.”
What old boys network? After leaving her job as president of ABC Entertainment in 2018 to lead the drama division at Netflix, Channing Dungey said Warner Media Chairman and CEO Ann Sarnoff reached out to her last fall to replace Peter Roth as head of Warner Bros. TV, a position where she has oversight of more than 100 projects for streaming and cable as well as broadcast networks and local stations. Dungey relishes being on the production side of Hollywood, working with creators like Mindy Kaling, Kaley Cuoco, J.J. Abrams, Tara Hernandez and Chuck Lorre. “I don’t have to say no to anyone, I can say yes and just find the right platform,” she said.
Warner received multiple Emmy nominations in 2021, for everything from “The Flight Attendant“ to “Ted Lasso.” “Some people didn’t want to watch it at first,” she said of “Lasso,” noting how it transcended its setting in the world of British soccer. “Of course, when you realize it is a show about friendship, and so much more, it is joyous.”
Looking ahead, Dungey’s Warner TV is developing new shows by female producers, such as a Los Angeles Lakers project with Kaling and Lakers executive Jeanie Buss, and “Shining Vale,” a comedy horror project starring Courtney Cox, Mira Sorvino and Greg Kinnear, co-created by Sharon Horgan. “Women showrunners have a different perspective and a different vision,” Dungey said. “They know how to write, and they know how to lead.”
As EVP of inclusion for NBCUniversal’s film division, Janine Jones-Clark is helping to reshape how the media giant operates both in front of and behind the camera. “We are not about checking off boxes here, but about finding talent who have multicultural perspectives,” she told TheWrap. “This kind of work has now become a real part of the business.”
Since joining Universal in 2017, Jones-Clark has helped shape new projects like “Hobbs & Shaw,” “Dear Evan Hansen” and next year’s “MInions: The Rise of Gru” with diversity and equity in mind. (One quarter of all of Universal’s feature releases in 2019 had a nonwhite director, topping all other major studios.) She’s the rare diversity executive to sit on a studio’s greenlight committee, and has worked to expand a relationship with the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media as well as programs for writers and composers from underrepresented groups. “My goal is to take everything up a notch, getting more wins on the board,” she said.
Credit Minyoung Kim, the VP of content for Netflix Asia-Pacific, for the year’s biggest sleeper hit and surprise global phenomenon: the South Korean limited series “Squid Game.” Kim had been a fan of director-creator Hwang Dong-hyuk’s work since “Silenced” in 2011, and knew that he had been kicking around the idea for a hyper-violent dystopian feature film — that nobody wanted to produce. “He had the idea for the story more than a decade ago but at that time studios in Korea felt it was too unrealistic and violent to produce as a film,” Kim said. “Fast forward to 2018. He brought the idea to Netflix because of the reputation we had built. To be honest, there were mixed opinions even within the team on whether we should make this show because it was so different from the success formula of this sort of genre but it was bold.”
And that is what ultimately convinced Kim and her team to greenlight the project. “We saw the vision and fell in love with it,” she said, noting that the streamer worked with Hwang to flesh out his original idea. ”Edgier female characters like Saebyuk, Jiyoung and Minyeo came to life,” Kim said, ”and he added one of the most loved characters, Ali.”
While Kim’s team suspected they had a hit, she said, “We just didn’t know how big this would become only because we didn’t know what we had never experienced before.“ In fact, Netflix reported that viewers watched 1.65 billion hours of the show in 28 days following its Sept. 17 premiere.
and Sarah Harden
Though she’s been all over our screens in the last year, Reese Witherspoon has had an even bigger impact behind it. In August, she sold her Hello Sunshine production company at a $900 million valuation to a new Blackstone-backed outfit formed by former Disney executives Tom Staggs and Kevin Mayer.
Witherspoon’s taste has been nothing less than impressive: optioning female-oriented books like “Big Little Lies” and “Little Fires Everywhere” before they became bestsellers — and then turning them into hit limited series. In 2021, “The Morning Show” aired a second season on Apple TV, and Witherspoon’s name and face are all over it. Hello Sunshine CEO Sarah Harden will join the actress on the board of Staggs and Mayer’s yet-to-be-named holding company and continue to oversee day-to-day operations.
“Today marks a tremendous moment for Hello Sunshine,” Witherspoon said in a statement. “I started this company to change the way all women are seen in media.” And if that doesn’t make her a Changemaker, what does?
She is direct, consistent and tells it like it is. As the first press secretary in the Joe Biden White House, Jen Psaki has won plaudits — and many social-media views for her exchanges with right-wing journalists like Fox News’ Peter Doocy. “Jen is excelling at one of the highest-pressure jobs in America,” said Robert Gibbs, who performed the role for President Obama. “She does it with a steady gracefulness during some of the most consequential times in our history. She has made the questions and answers between reporters and the White House inside the Briefing Room relevant again, and that is no small thing for our democracy.”
Linda Douglass, a former network reporter who has known Psaki a long time, also offered high praise. “Jen is one of those rare people in the political world who is actually just who she seems to be: incredibly smart, unfailingly gracious, witty, supernaturally organized, kind and — when she needs to be — tough as nails. And when she says no or disagrees with you, she is respectful but firm and clear.”
After stints at CBS and ABC, the British-American Yale grad has landed at CNN as its chief international correspondent — racking up scoops (and air miles) in far-flung locales. She was the first Western journalist to visit Myanmar after last January’s coup, then traveled to India to cover the pandemic’s second wave there and then landed in Afghanistan for almost a month as the country unraveled following the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
“The fall of Kabul was the most intense journey,” Ward said. “We were one of the few crews that were on the streets talking to people — most of the others were at the airport. We knew the people were witnessing history in the making and we really wanted to get a sense of how they were feeling.” Ward’s past experience covering the Taliban gives her some optimism. “I don’t think they are corrupt or stealing from the people, but I also don’t think they are ready to govern,” she said. “I’m most scared for the young women there who are watching their dreams disappear.”
As for her own dreams, Ward always wanted to be doing exactly what she’s doing, and is happy to see others doing it as well. “I am absolutely seeing more and more women doing a brilliant job of conflict reporting. And it’s important, because in many Muslim countries, men aren’t allowed into women’s homes. So only we can get certain stories.”
Since launching her “Crime Junkie” podcast four years ago, Ashley Flowers has built a remarkable 350,000 followers and consistently ranks in the top 5 on Apple Podcasts and Spotify — and then built her own podcast network, Audiochuck, for shows like “Anatomy of a Murder,” “Park Predators” and “CounterClock.” In October, she signed a substantial deal with Sirius XM to grow her audience even more.
Flowers’ interest in the dark side of human behavior is nothing new. “I’ve been drawn to the true-crime space from a young age, and I put my interest to work as an adult by volunteering with, and eventually serving on the board of, my local chapter of Crime Stoppers,” she said. “The closer I got to these real-life stories, the more I realized there were all kinds of ways to help. So, I decided to put my skill set to work in a way that would create an impact and specifically the intersection between true crime and entertainment.”
Kara Swisher has been described as Silicon Valley’s “most powerful tech journalist” — but in recent years, she’s also become the hardest-working person in media. She’s an opinion writer for The New York Times who hosts not one, not two, but three popular podcasts. She covers tech on “Pivot” for Vox (which she described as “fun, fast and growing like crazy”), interviews fascinating people for “Sway” for the Times (“more august and serious”) — and recently added a bonus podcast in conjunction with HBO’s “Succession.” “I found real-world counterparts — like Mark Cuban — to assess the episodes,” she explained. “Overall, the podcasts have allowed me to broaden and build an audience, and to stay topical.”
Not that she needs to build more of a reputation. “The tech world either loves or hates or fears her,” CNN media reporter Brian Stelter said.
“In fact, they almost all take my calls,” Swisher told TheWrap.
Almost all. She is proud of the fact that just as the pandemic was starting, she predicted that big tech companies — particularly Facebook — would become “stronger and richer than ever.” That’s one reason why Swisher decided to move to Washington, D.C., to be closer to regulators (while keeping her home in San Francisco). “Congress is finally paying attention in a serious way,” she said. “This is an industry that has not been regulated by anyone.”
She’s also proud that her Code 2021 event at the Beverly Hilton was one of the first large gatherings post-pandemic — where her interview subjects included Elon Musk, Ted Sarandos, Marc Benioff and Ari Emanuel. They may be scared of her, but they don’t say no to Kara Swisher.
The Music Makers
As Adele liberated herself in 2021, she liberated millions of fans. The five-time Grammy winner gifted us with a new album, “30,” and a one-night-only concert on CBS from Los Angeles’ Griffith Observatory that became he most watched special since the Oscars. In a new interview with Oprah, she spoke honestly about the despair, anxiety, physical and emotional pain she has suffered over the last few years. She glowed discussing the new man in her life (sports agent Rich Paul) and expressed pride in her decision to give up drinking. And she just announced a three-month residency at Las Vegas’ Caesars Palace starting in January. She has a glamorous new look, a healthy attitude and, yes, that remarkable voice.
Once regarded as the “next” Billie Eilish, Olivia Rodrigo crafts lyrics that may remind you more of a cityfied Taylor Swift for bringing boyfriend angst to life. “Drivers License,” which put her on the musical map with it’s take-that attitude toward an ex widely assumed to be her “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” co-star Joshua Bassett, was the first song to top 1 billion streams this year.
She signed with Geffen Records, landed the musical guest spot on “Saturday Night Live,” and even met with President Biden at the White House (where she urged other young people to get vaccinated). And she capped the year by scoring four Grammy nominations, including Best New Artist as well as Song and Record of the Year. All before turning 19.
and Mina Kimes
Women at ESPN are gradually emerging as on-camera stars, even in male sports like the NBA and NFL. This year, Malika Andrews replaced Rachel Nichols as the host of the network’s popular “NBA Today” show after serving as the youngest sideline reporter during the NBA’s pandemic-inspired bubble. She concedes that the journey has been rough. “If anyone can get through a calendar year and have it be entirely positive, please give me their number,” she told TheWrap. “2021 was challenging. We continued to live through a pandemic and have painful discussions about equality.”
And Andrews stressed that many challenges remain for female sportscasters. “Barriers remain for women, full stop,” she said. “So as long as those obstacles exist – from equal wages to workplace harassment to paid family leave – they will continue to be there for women who work in sports and sports journalism as well. Women still often have to be twice as good as their male counterparts just to be seen.”
Mina Kimes has also made strides as the first female NFL analyst at ESPN, where she appears on “NFL Live.” The Seattle native traces her love of the game to her father. “It was a private part of my life for a long time,” she said.
and Kate Scott
Lisa Byington and Kate Scott made sports history this fall by becoming the first women hired to provide full-time play-by-play analysis during NBA games — Byington calls plays for the Milwaukee Bucks, while Scott is in the booth for the Philadelphia 76ers. Scott said she hopes one day she can pay it forward and encourage other women to pursue their athletic dreams — including in men’s sports.
“I understand the groundbreaking nature of this hire, and I appreciate the fact that during this process that aspect was addressed, but never made a primary focus,” Byington said in a statement. “In fact, I applaud the Bucks for taking the first steps toward making hires like this more of the norm in the NBA. Because it’s time.”
The Influencer / Activists
Simone Biles, Selma Blair and Naomi Osaka
They are three women accomplished in their fields: on the beam, on the screen and on the court. But in 2021, they became newsmakers for going public with physical and mental issues.
Naomi Osaka was first, when she dropped out of the French Open after being fined for not wanting to do daily press conferences. Then she skipped Wimbledon, but returned for the Tokyo Olympics and the U.S. Open, where she performed poorly. She said she needed to step away from tennis to deal with threatening anxiety issues. The response from people, famous and not, was immediate and meaningful. “Yes, the outpouring of support was amazing and so touching. It really helped a lot,” she told TheWrap. And while some feared she’d leave competitive tennis for good, Osaka said she planned to play in January’s Australian Open.
Last summer, U.S. gymnast Simone Biles boldly decided to prioritize her “well-being” over her dream of shattering (more) Olympic records when she dropped out of the Tokyo games after a high-flying vault went wrong. The winner of four gold medals at the Rio Games in 2016 was expected to dominate the women’s gymnastics events, but she has been open about her anxiety — and how USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar sexually assaulted her as a teen. (In 2017, Nassar was sentenced to 60-plus years in federal prison for his crimes against Biles and scores of other gymnasts). “I’m trying to navigate my unique mental health issues,” said Biles, who recently partnered with the health and telemedicine app Cerebral.
Finally, actress Selma Blair recently released a powerful Discovery+ documentary, “Introducing Selma Blair,” breaking her silence about her battle with multiple sclerosis. “People will write your story if you don’t,” she explained.
She said goodbye to the bow, the ponytail and the bling when she showed up in a sexy black gown, hair draped behind her shoulders, on the red carpet at the American Music Awards. It’s clear that during this wild and wacky year JoJo Siwa has grown up. After coming out as pansexual, the 18-year-old singer and social-media star became the first person to have a same-sex partner on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” — where she finished in second place despite her insecurities about picking up new dance routines and performing them to millions of viewers. “I feel like I am learning Chinese,” she said in a recent interview. “I don’t know what I am doing.”
Siwa is launching a new reality show, “Siwa’s Dance Pop Revolution,” on Peacock, appearing with her mom, Jessalynn, in a search for the perfect tween pop group members.
See last year’s Changemakers List of influential women, from actress-director Regina King to Netflix global TV head Bela Bajaria to NBC News star Savannah Guthrie.