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How 'Ocean's 8' Staged a Feminist Coup in Hollywood

A conversation with the film's co-writer and co-producer Olivia Milch about hiring a diverse cast and writing all-female leads.
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Ocean's 8 Rihanna

When the trailer for Ocean's 8 came out in December of 2017, two months after the first Harvey Weinstein story broke, the #MeToo movement was still gathering steam. The all-female prequel to the beloved Ocean's franchise promised escapist glitz and punchy one-liners delivered by eight boldface-named stars—a sparkly distraction from the demoralizing crush of the news cycle.

"It was a healing experience to see a group of women in the trailer—and feel like you could just celebrate them being together," co-writer and co-producer Olivia Milch says. "You didn't have to feel nervous or worried that something awful was going to happen."

Dressed in shimmery, body-hugging gowns, the eight female leads conspire to pull off a daring jewelry heist at Vogue's annual Met Gala. Led by Debbie Ocean (played by a steely eyed Sandra Bullock), the crew pools together their skills—which include computer hacking, jewelry-making, pickpocketing, and impersonating waitstaff—to steal Cartier's "Toussaint," a rare diamond necklace valued at $150 million.

The dreadlocked and drug rug-wearing character Nineball (Rihanna) hacks the Metropolitan Museum of Arts' high-tech security system, all while smoking pot and dispensing smoldering, all-knowing stares. Tammy, a polished, cardigan-wearing mom whose side hustle is a scamming business run out of her garage (Sarah Paulson), embeds with Vogue's event-planning team to use table logistics for the group's advantage. Fashion designer Rose Weil (Helena Bonham Carter), who is in debt to the Internal Revenue Service, uses her charisma and design prowess to persuade the event host Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway) to wear a custom-designed dress—as well as the six-pound diamond necklace.

"It's important for men and women to see powerful, badass, excellent women doing their jobs well," Milch says. "And it's incredibly satisfying to see eight women on screen who are central to, rather than appendages of, the story."

The protagonists parody well-worn archetypes (e.g. a high-strung event planner, a self-absorbed celebrity host, the "crazy" ex-girlfriend) with aplomb. It's a kind of jiu-jitsu, on the part of the characters but also of the film: By exaggerating so-called "feminine" qualities (status-seeking, superficial, and narcissistic) with tongue-in-cheek humor, Ocean's 8 uses sexist stereotypes in order to crack them open—and to get the jewels. Ultimately, the butt of the joke is the male characters who underestimate the women rather than the women themselves, who work together toward a shared goal—all without petty digressions. As Debbie deadpans: "A him gets noticed. A her gets ignored. For once, we want to get ignored."

In the recent wave of New York-based grifter stories, including those of Anna Delvey, and of a former Vogue staffer, women steal large sums of money from their "friends," co-workers, and acquaintances; in Ocean's 8, they steal from Cartier, a massive, luxury goods company. In this version of the theft narrative, the heist feels somewhat justifiable: they're gaming the system, after all, not an individual person. (If this all feels more like glorified product placement than a scheme to undermine a powerful luxury goods conglomerate, consider that Cartier was an official partner of the film.)

Audiences might flinch when Cate Blanchett's character calls a group of people "a bunch of pussies." But, as Milch asserts, "women—and also pussies—are deep and strong and perseverant and the givers of all life and the ground zero of all existence and really kind of miraculous, powerful things."

"We need to shift our language to accurately reflect what we all know to actually be true," Milch says, "which is that women are powerful."

Unlike in the other Ocean's films, the characters here don't flash knives or semi-automatic pistols to demonstrate power or to advance their master plan. "I think that the greatest weapon in this film is intellect," Milch explains. With the exception of a razor-sharp, prison-style toothbrush, which Debbie uses to threaten her ex-lover, an egotistic gallerist named Becker (Richard Armitage), there are no weapons used on screen.

In filming the 2018 Netflix movie Dude, Milch says she was committed to hiring a crew that was 50 percent women and a cast that was 50 percent people of color. She says she maintained similar priorities on the set of Ocean's 8 in assembling a diverse cast and crew. "We wanted audiences to connect to different characters, to identify themselves on screen" she explains, as well as to "reflect what New York City actually looks like and feels like." Since the heist takes place at an elite and decadent event chock-full of celebrities peacocking on a red carpet (Kim Kardashian! Heidi Klum!), it requires a certain stretch of the imagination to see this cast as reflective of "real" New Yorkers. But certainly, they're a racially diverse group.

When men do appear in the film, it's in supporting roles—effectively accessories to the women who drive the story. The only apparent love interest is Armitage's character, really more of a pawn (and target for revenge) than a real love interest. The result is a high-budget summer blockbuster that models how other television and film projects can pass—or ace—the Bechdel test.

As Milch concludes: "The balance of the universe is restored because [Becker] gets what he deserves. And that's a particularly satisfying experience in the moment that we're in."