Inside the High-Stakes Quest to Make ‘American Factory’ a Documentary Hit

Julia Reichert’s film wants to change hearts and minds—and won an Oscar in the process

Laura Tillman
GEN
Published in
13 min readFeb 9, 2020

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Photos: Ali Lapetina

JJulia Reichert hugged the 16mm print of her first film, Growing Up Female, to her side as she crossed the country by Greyhound bus in 1971. Each tour stop began in a living room, where a handful of women watched people a lot like themselves talk on-screen about their experiences of female socialization in American life. There was no link to send, no DVD to burn — if they wanted to share the film, they had to keep Reichert and her print in town long enough to stage a larger screening.

Growing Up Female follows women as they go about their routines at home and work, and they tell Reichert about their perceptions, frustrations, and how they’d found themselves trapped in boxes that looked like choices: family obligations that prevented them from getting an education that might lead to a better job, unfulfilling roles at home, pointless competition against other women for “the most boyfriends.” And while Reichert the interviewer asks deceptively simple questions, her message is made explicit in voiceover, in which she asks, in part, “What has become of the American woman, if unquestioning little girls accept offerings of dolls and makeup kits, and young tomboys find that roughhousing and being strong are not part of Grown-Up Woman’s world?”

The screenings ended in a flurry of discussion, Reichert recalled. “People start saying, ‘yeah, things are stacked against us. We are taught these things in class. We are taught to be beautiful and skinny, not smart.’” Then, men in the audience would stand up, “angrily, and, threatening with their fists would say, ‘Ah, you ought to make a film about men, men are oppressed, too!’ And the women would stand up and say, ‘Sit down, shut up, this is for us!’ And the men would say, ‘No!’”

The women in the audience, as during an Athens, Ohio, screening, then retreated to another room so they might talk in peace. Later, those women would turn their conversation into action, inaugurating the Athens Women’s Health Center, and send a postcard to Reichert with their thanks. Growing Up Female would launch Reichert’s career and be called the first film of the modern…

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Laura Tillman
GEN
Writer for

Journalist and author based in Mexico. Biography of Chef Eduardo “Lalo” Garcia forthcoming from W.W. Norton in 2021. www.lauratillman.net @latillman