The Friendship That Helped Create 'Vagina Dispatches'

The filmmaker Mae Ryan and the data journalist Mona Chalabi say that their willingness to push and support each other was the key to creating their Emmy-nominated documentary.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In 2016, Mona Chalabi, the data editor at The Guardian, collaborated with photographer and filmmaker Mae Ryan—now a show developer and producer at The New York Times—to create “Vagina Dispatches.” The four-part series explored the physical, social, and sometimes political dynamics that surround women’s bodies, and has received more than a million views and an Emmy nomination.

In one episode, Mona swims laps with 90-year-old Danish Olympian Greta Anderson, who talks about fainting in the pool at the 1948 Olympics during the 400-meter freestyle finals after getting an injection that promised to delay her period. It’s these moments that capture what Chalabi and Ryan set out to create: a documentary that talks candidly about about one of the most important and least discussed parts of women’s anatomy.

Chalabi and Ryan point out that only 13 states across the country require medically accurate sex education, and in a British study, only half of 26-to-35-year-old women could accurately label the different parts of their own vulvas.

For The Atlantic’s series “On The Shoulders of Giants,” I spoke to Chalabi and Ryan about how collaboration can become mentorship, being vulnerable enough to make your best work, and the importance of being candid. The conversation that follows has been edited for length and clarity.

B.R.J. O’Donnell: Obviously, anything focused on vaginas is attention-grabbing, but what motivated you to make this series?

Mae Ryan: Slowly realizing that I just didn’t know enough about my body and thinking through my own ignorance about this topic. That made both me and Mona realize that there was just a lot more information people needed that they weren’t getting. It felt really important.

Mona Chalabi: We knew that by including the word vagina in the title, people might think this is something silly or fluffy, but we thought, “We need to change that.” Vaginas aren’t just about sex, and the word shouldn’t make people giggle or feel uncomfortable. And so that’s part of the reason, honestly, why the Emmy nomination feels really amazing, because people got that this is serious journalism.

O’Donnell: Mona, you have quantitative skills, and Mae, you are an expert filmmaker. Those are quite different skillsets. What did you learn from each other?

Chalabi: I learned just how much work it takes to make something like this. Mae works her ass off. Whether it’s an illustration, or a written piece or a video, it’s really important to understand the amount of work that goes into each of those. I also learned how important it is to have a vision of the entire series, even from day one. When we were working on the pilot, we were thinking about what a four-episode series would look like, or what a six-episode series would look like. Having that longer-term perspective helped us to ensure we were filming and scripting in a way that wasn’t only relevant to that one topic.

Ryan: As we would make broader statements in the series, Mona would be actually be able to find some numbers to substantiate them. I found that was just so helpful. We could make the viewers feel that they weren’t alone though numbers. I still think a lot about that when I’m working on other video scripts, that it is really beautiful to use numbers to communicate. That approach really helped us to ground the series.

O’Donnell: What made this collaboration work as peer-to-peer mentorship?

Ryan: We both have a similar sense of humor, which really goes a long way. Laughing while you’re brainstorming and working together just makes things easier. Our relationship sometimes reminds me of a quote by Chögyam Trungpa, a Buddhist teacher: “If you maintain a sense of humor and a distrust of the rules laid down around you, there will be success.”

Chalabi: I totally agree about the need for humor—it was so important in terms of getting us through when it was late and we were tired and we just wanted to close the laptop.

Mona Chalabi, left, and Mae Ryan (Courtesy of Mona Chalabi)

O’Donnell: And how do you define your own mentorship dynamic?

Chalabi: Mae and I weren’t friends when we started out making this, we were coworkers. But when you work so closely for so long with someone on a project like this, you get to see so much more than their professional skills. I saw Mae’s thoughtfulness, her kindness and her dedication to her principles. Those are traits I value in a friend just as much as a collaborator.

And I think that one of the reasons that we worked really well together is that we push back on each other. We didn’t have wildly different visions for the series; otherwise, it wouldn’t have worked. But I would sometimes say something, and it wasn’t a good idea and Mae would say, “Yeah, that’s not a good idea.”

O’Donnell: Could you tell me about one of those moments?

Chalabi: I definitely had some incredibly stupid ideas.

Ryan: We both did. We came up with a lot of really bad names for the series … a lot of really bad names.

Chalabi: And one night, I was kind of pushing for a couple of them, and Mae was like, “No, no, and no.” And in retrospect she was totally right. One of the ones that I liked was “The Whole Truth,” but whole spelled without the w. [Laughter] Again, it comes down to the way that we communicated. Mae would never just be like, “Oh, you’re being stupid,” she would say, “Mona, it doesn’t include the word vagina, and it’s really important that we include that word,” and I’d just be like, “You’re right again, Mae.” So we were good at communicating.

Chalabi: I felt like I could be really honest with Mae too. I didn’t feel like I had to be really sensitive about her feelings.

O’Donnell: How do you feel looking at the series given some of the current debates over women’s health and reproductive rights?

Ryan: We were making this pre-Trump, but  women’s bodies have been politicized for a long time. It just felt like we wanted to get the information out without necessarily making it overly political. For so long, a lack of knowledge about our own bodies has been used as a political weapon against us.

Chalabi: I feel like people with different political persuasions watched the series, which is really important. I wonder if we were to make it now, whether we would have a message that was a bit more explicit about the way that men regulate women’s bodies, and how it’s even more important for us to take charge.

O’Donnell: Were there particular moments where you had to lean on each other in order to push through some of the more difficult or vulnerable moments?

Ryan: I think there was an ongoing conversation between the two of us to just make sure we were comfortable with how much we were sharing about ourselves. We couldn’t just be bystanders for a topic like this.

Chalabi: I think one of the things that I found very difficult was the one scene where we were speaking to a therapist. We were both being pretty vulnerable together. I didn’t feel like I was this broken human with all these issues because Mae was sharing difficult things too, and I didn’t view her that way.