After a twelve-year hiatus working as a counsellor, I finally made my way back to acting last September. I can’t lie; I fully expected to return to a more ‘grown-up’ industry – one where difference and diversity were celebrated and certainly one where women were making great strides. I mean…come on, our new queen of the screen, poster girl, Phoebe Waller-Bridge is out there, smashing it across the board, writing, acting and soon to be directing – surely evidence of a more open and equal playing field, yeah? And with the #MeToo movement heading into its second year and still, both, standing up to sexual abusers in the workplace and changing attitudes around what constitutes good working practice in TV and Film, things were surely getting better for all?
Sadly, having had the time to get my coat off, settle in and look around – it seems not. Exploitation, sexism, discrimination, and general ‘abuse of power’ is – not only alive and well, it’s thriving! Whether it’s the new wave of ‘no holds bars’ political expression that makes it ok for people to say out loud what they would have previously kept in their head or a genuine desire for people to ‘debate’ all sides of the coin, I’m not sure. But the brass-necked lack of shame and humility from some quarters has taken my breath away. Take the woman in a Facebook actors group who started an interesting discussion about equality of casting with regards to a breakdown posted that appeared particularly stereotyping in nature and the reply from a male counterpart, “FFs, have a day off.” #Airbrushed
But it’s not necessarily the blatant, ‘loud and proud’ discriminatory voices that are the problem. In fact, it’s the opposite. The big-mouthed bullies are easy for‘liberals like us’ to dismiss and ignore. It’s the more pernicious small abuses of power that make it so hard for women to flourish in the arts. The unconscious bias that pervades all parts of our culture continues to allow much of our storytelling to be told through a male lens. For example, director Andrea Arnold was asked to bring her ‘own visual style’ to the second series of Big Little Lies, only later to be undermined and have her work given a do-over by the series one male director and producer. Why? Because HBO was nervous about the change in style. (That of the world being viewed through female eyes. Scary!) #Airbrushed
Closer to home, two female writers Sarah Henley and Tori Allen-Martin
being removed from the theatre production ‘Tree’ after working on it for four years. No credit. No money. #Airbrushed. In a recent interview in The Guardian, Amanda Nevill, CEO – BFI, said: ” I’m quite anxious about the word sexism because it suggests there is a deliberate desire to exclude women, and I don’t think that’s the case.” It may not be ‘deliberate’, but unconscious bias is pervasive, gender stereotypes abound in advertising, lazy tropes in writing. And the boys? Well, they’re doing ok, so what motivation do they have for change?
As I write the ASA have just banned two ads for contravening UK gender stereotyping rules. Whilst at first glance it may seem that the two ads in question are fairly innocuous, bungling dads and passive women. But what audience tests did these adverts go through? Had I been in the audience I know for sure that I’d have asked, “Hey, how come the guys get to be astronauts and I get to sit by a pram?”
We need to start calling out the ’small stuff’, not just accepting that ‘we are where we are’ or the bigger picture will never change. I personally had the extremely upsetting experience of doors slamming in my professional face nearly 30 years ago after the birth of my first child. I find it hard to reconcile that in 2019 we’re even still talking about, unequal pay, the lack of roles written for female actors, the lack of access to childcare on sets, the lack of diversity, the ‘working for free’ expectation, plus the unremitting message that if you don’t work all hours – including through the night – are you even committed to the profession? Airbrushing our cellulite is one thing (still destructive), but our voices, our contribution and our female stories – told through our female eyes is another.
So what can we do?
Hold equality and diversity at the top of our minds in everything we do.
Reflect. Make the unconscious – conscious.
Promote inclusivity! Make life easier for someone.
Treat everyone you meet with kindness and respect.
Value everyone’s contribution.
Employ women to tell women’s stories.
When it comes to fair treatment for all – DO sweat the small stuff!
What do you think about equality in TV and film? Are women still getting as raw a deal as the figures suggest? Or are things improving slowly but surely? Tell us your story.
By Gerry Johnson
Gerry Johnson is an actor, online counsellor and clinical supervisor. Her passion is working with people and telling their stories. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook