‘The Wilds’: How Do You Avoid the Male Gaze? Strand the Female Characters on an Island to Start
[Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers for Amazon Prime Video’s “The Wilds.”]
Not to get too “12 Days of Christmas” about it, but on Amazon Prime Video’s “The Wilds” there are nine female leads, six female directors, four female executive producers, four female writers, and a female stunt coordinator. It’s a series by women, for women, and about women — and given the rigors of the emotional subject manner and the YA audience’s bloodhound instinct for phoniness, using a cast and crew composed of people who have actually been teenage girls makes perfect sense.
It shouldn’t be that audacious, and yet it feels like it is. It also breaks boundaries because of the cross-genre storytelling — it’s both a survival tale and a coming-of-age story — and the fact that many of the characters are forced to deal with intersectional bias in their arcs.
The logline is deceptively simple: Nine teenage girls are, ostensibly, headed to a female empowerment retreat in Hawaii. Things go terribly wrong, and the women have to form their own civilization and pecking order on a remote island. As it turns out, by removing a group of women from modern society, the show is allowed to create an environment where the Bechdel Test would never need to exist.
“From a storyworld perspective, we’ve really eliminated the presence of men from these young women’s lives by stranding them on a deserted island which is devoid of males,” said creator Sarah Streicher. “It allowed me as a writer — and then as the writers came on to the whole room — to really meditate exclusively on issues and emotions that women experience with a lot of specificity. In the stories that we tell about each girl, men drift in and out of their lives in big ways, but we are exploring each individual woman’s emotional experience through her lents and her subjectivity. That gives us a great opportunity to really just concentrate on how women grapple with issues that come at them in adolescence in a very focused way. And that feels important. That felt like a calling.”
Matt Klitscher/Amazon Studios
Those issues are wide-ranging and harrowing, and always presented in such a way that it is shown as an earnest exploration of character. Executive Producer Amy B. Harris previously worked on HBO’s “Sex and the City,” and so telling the stories of women wasn’t new to her; she knew the key was staffing with women to create authenticity.
“I’ve always, sadly, taken for granted that that’s part of what the experience is and should be,” she said. “When you were telling a story about young women — or women in their thirties — women help create and shape that. Everything about why people love a show is that they relate to the characters, and in order to do that, they have to feel like people they either know, or feel are like them.”
Actor Sarah Pidgeon plays Leah, a young woman knocked sideways by what she thinks is true love; over the course of the season she slowly comes to realize the inherent imbalance of the power dynamic of the relationship and that she’s a survivor of statutory rape. This, very importantly, results in her questioning her judgment of the inconsistencies she witnesses on island life.
“If it had been written or created by a man, it would not be the same story, the same tone,” she said. “I just have to continue to give Sarah [Streicher] props, because she’s incredible. It’s easy going up to Sarah and asking her questions, and she’s just so forthcoming with the information. It’s not like ‘This is mine.’ It’s ours.”
That atmosphere of inclusion resonated with the cast, composed mostly of women barely older than the characters they are playing. “As women, we get inherently drilled into us that we should pit ourselves against other women, and we’re always competing,” said Shannon Berry, who plays the wise-beyond-her years Dot. “But it’s so incredible to come into an environment where that is absolutely not the case and it’s all about supporting other women. It’s all about earning our power and being able to have a voice. Being 19 and doing the pilot and realizing how much power I did have — and how much respect other women had for each other on this show — it was just such an amazing environment to grow from.”
“I felt immediately understood by everybody and just immediate empathy for any experience that is uniquely female that we can go through,” said Erana James, who plays the rightfully enraged Toni. “Just like down to the small stuff. It’s like ‘Anyone got a pad?’ You know what I mean? It’s that level of comfort. I feel so lucky.”
Erana James and Jenna Clause in “The Wilds”
Matt Klitscher/Amazon Studios
Respect was also shown for casting true to the backgrounds of the characters; Jenna Clause plays Martha, who is indigenous, and the actor is a Cayuga Nation Wolf Clan Member of the Haudenosaunee People from the Six Nations Reserve located in Ontario, Canada. James’ character also is indigenous; James is of Maori heritage; her iwi are Ngāti Whātua o Ōrākei and Waikato Tainui.
“My whole career has never been [playing] Pakistani,” said Sophia Ali, who portrayed Dr. Dahlia Qadri on “Grey’s Anatomy,” and now plays cello prodigy Fatin on “The Wilds.” “It’s always been ambiguous, or Indian, or something I’m not but I could pass as. […] As a Pakistani-American, I’ve always wanted to portray a young woman in a very normal life, because I feel like there is a lot of stereotypes that come with Islam. This checked off everything on my list. It’s beyond what I ever envisioned for myself as an actor.”
“It’s so important that diversity be a part of shows so that we really see the world as what it is, but oftentimes it feels like they’re trying to slot in diversity,” Harris said. “And what I loved so much about the script was it was inherent in the storytelling. People were from all different walks of life, different socioeconomic, different religious backgrounds, different parental backgrounds, obviously different ethnicities.”
There was a visual shorthand to help communicate these differences in an authentic way, according to costume designer Joshua Marsh and hair and makeup head Susie Glass.
“It starts with the casting, because it was so brilliant, not just having actresses that are so diverse, but having characters that are so diverse,” Glass said. “It actually made it a little easier because it wasn’t a cookie-cutter world, where they had to look easy, breezy, beautiful all the time.”
This extended down the specifics of costuming across three timelines: the two consistent set pieces of the island and the interrogation space — and then the expansive worldview of each character’s wildly different home life. “The flashback timeline is truly a beautiful, incredible gift,” Marsh said, “to get to explore these backstories with such depth, and such dignity and detail.”
Matt Klitscher/Amazon Studios
These visual cues for the characters were set from the start in the pilot of “The Wilds,” which was directed by “The Spy Who Dumped Me” writer/director and “Booksmart” writer Susanna Fogel. Multi-hyphenate Fogel’s participation gave the cast a first-hand look at the scope of careers available to women in the entertainment space — alongside those where women still need to make inroads. For Clause, “The Wilds” is her first professional acting job, and the majority-female experience on set helped her learn the ropes. “They can help you, give you their advice, help you prepare,” she said. “It really makes me feel like I’m not alone in this, that I’m not the only one. After all these months, it’s just another day at work now.”
“I’m pretty new to this business, but [the female cast and crew] still strikes me as this exhilarating, inspiring taboo — which is sad!” said Helena Howard, who plays the bookish, perpetually journaling Nora. “You can look over and see these women with some really incredible legacies behind them, watching our work and giving direction. What is most surprising was that, although there are a lot of women in big positions on the set, a film crew is usually male-dominated. We watched 12 minutes of a compilation of the stuff we’ve done before our Christmas  hiatus, and it was just so funny to have these big grips and camera guys come up and be like, ‘That was awesome, I can’t wait to see it.”
Executive Producer Jamie Tarses is the former president of ABC Entertainment, the first woman — and one of the youngest people — to hold the post for an American broadcast network, and she received her share of snippy, gender-biased media coverage as a result. (A famous New York Times profile in 1997 describes her hair, clothes, and car in the first paragraph.) She knows full well the decades-long fight to have female voices represented on television as more than mere, pretty tokens.
“When interviewers ask: ‘What is one of the things that you’re most proud of on this show so far?’ it’s that we’ve managed to make it primarily women in front of and behind the camera in the creative positions that have power in the show,” she said. “That doesn’t happen very often, and it ought to be happening more. It feels good to be a part of one.”
But, to get down to brass tacks: None of this inclusive casting and women-based storytelling matters unless there is interest in the marketplace for the story. And to that end, Tarses said “The Wilds” was a success. “From a purely sort of commercial standpoint, even when the script was taken out, there was a lot of interest in it,” she said. “There was a sense in the ether that people were looking for stories from a female point-of-view that empowered young women or women in general. The timing happened to be right to tell this kind of story.”
All 10 episodes of “The Wilds” are now available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.
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