Making a Difference in Women’s Lives
Programming with empathy has been more than good business for Lifetime; it’s lifted up victims and amplified unheard voices
BY Carita Rizzo
Lorena Bobbitt, whose name became synonymous in the early ’90s with the horrific climax of her marriage, had been pitched many versions of her own life, for the purpose of immortalizing it on-screen.
“Each time these companies had their own ideas and ways that they wanted to do the project. I would have had little control or say about the project,” says Bobbitt, who now goes by Lorena Gallo (her maiden name).
It wasn’t until she was approached by Lifetime during the emergence of the #MeToo movement that Gallo felt the horrors of her past worth revisiting. “I felt that my input was important and that they truly understood the message I was trying to relay about domestic violence,” she says.
Gallo is the narrator of the biopic “I Was Lorena Bobbitt,” and her account of her marriage makes the viewer recoil in discomfort long before it reaches that infamous ending. The film, however, is no fetishization of one woman’s misfortune, but a reminder that no matter how isolated victims of domestic abuse are made to feel, they are not alone — not in numbers, nor in lack of support. “Many people can relate and connect with my story about domestic violence, abuse and sexual assault,” says Gallo. “I have gotten so many positive letters and notes from people all over the world.”
Through its original movies, the network has been highlighting the
strength of women in difficult circumstances since its launch in 1984, but in recent years Lifetime’s commitment to amplifying the individual perspective has deepened.
This fall, retired Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman shines a light on sexual abuse in the three-hour documentary special “Darkness to Light.” Realizing the impact of speaking out about her own experience at the hands of a U.S. women’s gymnastics team doctor, Raisman now helps survivors of sexual abuse tell their stories in hopes of encouraging others to open up. “So many people suffer in silence and too often survivors are left feeling alone on their journey, asking questions such as, ‘What if people don’t believe me? What will people think of me? Will I feel this way forever? Is this my fault?’” says Raisman. “I wanted to create an environment for other survivors to be heard, grow and find their strength, and provide viewers with the necessary tools to help recognize and prevent abuse.”
Raisman chose to partner with Lifetime because of the network’s commitment to tough subjects. “I feel grateful I have a platform and can hopefully create positive change with that,” she says. “When one survivor shares their story, it can open the door for another survivor to feel safe to do so and feel validated. I hope this project helps people feel less alone and inspires them to have important conversations about the warning signs of abuse. For survivors or anyone who is struggling, I hope they know that they will be OK and there is hope.”
Empathizing With Personal Stories
From domestic and sexual abuse, to LGBTQ rights, to social injustice, Lifetime keeps taking on complex stories and making them personal. In the footsteps of “Flint,” which demonstrated how grassroots activism led by women in the Flint community raised awareness of the Michigan water emergency, Lifetime now tackles the ongoing U.S. border crisis through “Torn From Her Arms,” the real-life story of Cindy Madrid (Fátima Molina) and her 6-year-old daughter, Ximena (Camila Núñez), who fled violence in El Salvador, only to be separated at the border.
In the film, Judy Reyes portrays Thelma Garcia, a Texas immigration lawyer who works tirelessly to reunite the pair. “As a Latina and first-generation American and mother, I find the separation of families the ultimate cruelty and one that we need to help people understand,” says Reyes. “Upon reading the script, I was moved by its authenticity, heartbreak and urgency.”
But it is not only tugging at viewers’ heartstrings that appealed to the actor. To Reyes, an up close and personal perspective on a topical crisis can penetrate people’s awareness in a way that news often fails to do. “Pop culture can use the arts to tell the stories of those who are often deemed invisible,” she says. “Film and social media can shine a light, inform and point out injustices to and about those who perpetuate them. The virtual voice is extremely powerful, often enough to create the change we’re looking to see.”
As with Gallo, the emphasis on women’s perspectives of a national crisis — both in front of and behind the camera — was part of the appeal for Reyes to collaborate with the network. “It’s really important to see ourselves and our stories told through our lens and experience,” says the actor. “Lifetime is a great home for this film, because its key audience has an opportunity to not only relate, as women and women of color, but sympathize with the women who survive and expose these [horrors].”
There is “absolutely no other way” to operate a women’s network with authenticity than to have women lead and voice these projects, says Brie Miranda Bryant, senior VP of unscripted development and programming. As an established platform for women to tell their stories in their own words, Lifetime nimbly strikes the balance between buzzy and informational. “Authentic stories are most times, by nature, informative,” says Bryant. “They’re also hysterical, inspiring, heartbreaking, liberating.”
Occasionally, a show comes along for which the impact on viewers is not purely anecdotal, but measurable in hard numbers, such as by tracking virality online and seeing how the subject matter strikes wider conversations on social media.
When you connect with people through art, that’s when people are more willing to make life changes.
~ KELLY HU
~ACTOR, “LIST OF A LIFETIME”
Photo: Jeff Katz Photography
Peabody Award-winning docuseries “Surviving R. Kelly,” in which victims of the R&B star came forward to share their harrowing stories of abuse, cemented Lifetime’s status as a resource for women in unthinkable circumstances. In conjunction with the series, the network relaunched its Stop Violence Against Women campaign, bringing together leading advocacy organizations, women affected by violence, and political leaders to place a spotlight on ending domestic violence, harassment and sexual assault.
“It was the responsible thing to do,” says Kannie Yu LaPack, senior VP of publicity, public affairs and social media. “We knew that if we put this on the air, we needed to give the audience resources to reach out to. Because these survivors were brave enough to share, it allowed for many others to do the same.”
Their efforts were not in vain. During the airing of the documentary, the sexual assault hotline operated by anti-sexual violence organization RAINN experienced a 27% increase in calls. After the airing of “Surviving R. Kelly Part II: The Reckoning,” RAINN saw a 41% rise in the number of calls.
Bryant realized firsthand the impact of the series when she overheard a group of people discussing the show inside her hair salon. “There was a small gathering of people who were animatedly discussing the doc — a mixed group of both men and women — and one of the guys began sharing a story of how he survived sexual violence as a child. This guy was speaking about his survival for the first time, without shame, and being heard without judgment,” she recalls. “Somehow, that documentary triggered a much broader conversation than the actual platform provided. It became a catalyst and a contributor for a larger, global conversation around stopping sexual violence. I’m so proud of that.”
On Sept. 27, 2021, R. Kelly was convicted of racketeering and eight violations of sex-trafficking laws, counts that would put him in prison for life. Press accounts credited “Surviving R. Kelly” with sealing his fate.
Raising Awareness to Make Change
One of Lifetime’s best-known corporate social responsibility campaigns, Stop Breast Cancer for Life, is now in its 27th year. This October, as part of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the network is airing the movie “List of a Lifetime,” starring Kelly Hu as Brenda Lee, a woman who reaches out to the daughter she gave up for adoption (Sylvia Kwan) when she realizes she may have inherited the BRCA gene mutation, which has been found to increase a person’s chances of developing the disease.
The subject matter hit very close to home — Hu’s mother, grandmother and aunt have all fought the disease — but the movie that touches upon themes of motherhood and mortality was a challenge Hu felt compelled to face. “That’s our responsibility asstorytellers,” says Hu, who had her own scare with the disease around the time she was cast. “When somebody sees a film that deals with a subject matter like breast cancer, the emotional connection is so much more powerful than just the information. When you connect with people through art, that’s when people are more willing to make life changes or understand the importance of awareness.”
Kwan hopes that the movie that made her assess her own priorities will inspire others to do the same. “This movie made me rearrange what was on my bucket list — not just adventures that I want to go on, but what kind of relationships I want to have with people. In this finite, short life that we all live, who do you want to be?” she says.
Shannen Doherty, who is currently battling stage 4 breast cancer, plays the adoptive mother of Brenda’s daughter. Doherty also directed special content that will accompany the film, in the process sharing some invaluable insight. “She was so open about talking about her experience — very matter of fact, just wanting that information out there to help other women,” says Hu. “When you know that you have a limited amount of time, I think you’re not focusing on death. Shannen talks about how it makes her want to live life more fully.”
The reach of Lifetime’s commitment to women goes beyond its content and campaigns. In 2019, Yu LaPack was in the process of writing the press release for the 25th anniversary of Lifetime’s Stop Breast Cancer for Life campaign when she was informed of her own breast cancer diagnosis.
Soon thereafter, she received a call from A+E Networks chairman emeritus Abbe Raven in which Raven revealed that she, too, had quietly battled breast cancer some years prior. “The head of the company reached out and said, ‘I’m here for you, whatever you need.’ At that point, she hadn’t told people that she had battled breast cancer,” recalls Yu LaPack. “To know that you have the support of the entire company is pretty incredible.”
Having worked on the campaign for years, the publicist was able to draw connections between Lifetime’s commitment to the cause and its real-life benefits. “Lifetime’s work with the Breast Cancer Research Foundation helped fund some of the researchers that developed Herceptin. Lifetime actually made a movie about it called ‘Living Proof,’ starring Harry Connick Jr., and that breakthrough drug has helped to keep me alive,” says Yu LaPack, adding: “I came to work at Lifetime when I was in my 20s because I always believed Lifetime is a place that not only has interesting content but helps women. It’s the truth — I am the living proof.”