Sunday, 10 May 2009


What TV really needs is more female directors

Amy Jenkins (Comment, last week) is right to bemoan the fact that women are a minority on the cast lists of our television dramas but I think she's wagging her finger in the wrong direction.
I have worked in television drama for 20 years and seen many of my female peers rise to positions of power and influence to the point where they are the majority of decision-makers. However, if representation of women on screen is slower to improve, it is for complex, cultural reasons that have as much to do with the make-up of society as with deep story structure. But there has been progress. These days we don't have to "balance" a strong female lead with an entire cast of supporting men, as in Prime Suspect. Let's keep challenging all drama to cast women in depth and let's try to increase the number of female directors coming into the profession. That number really does seem to have been at a standstill for the last 20 years.

Kate Harwood, Controller of series and serials, BBC Drama Production

This letter appeared in the Observer newspaper back in March. I read it, and I was aghast. It's been bugging me ever since.

Let's analyse what Kate Harwood is saying here. First of all, she acknowledges that British television, and the BBC in particular, has become largely a female preserve. I can vouch for this, having noticed, roundabout the middle of the 1990s, that male producers were becoming ever more rare.

Secondly, she admits that, even though 'the majority of decision-makers' in BBC Drama are now female, there is still a dearth of strong female characters in the BBC's drama output.

How come? Oh, well, because of 'complex, cultural reasons'. Nothing to do with the ineptitude of BBC producers. No, it's for reasons which are outside the BBC's control.

The reality, of course, is that it's not difficult to create strong female characters. Any halfway decent writer can do it. So what's the problem?

Is it really the case, as Kate Harwood suggests, that the 'make-up' of society prevents the BBC from developing good roles for female actors?

Or is it that editorial incompetence and second-guessing, constant interference, ideological bias and sheer bloody uselessness are what stand between the (mostly female) TV producers and a reasonable representation of women on screen?

Lastly, Harwood puts in a call for more female directors. The balance at the BBC has tipped, over the past fifteen years or so, increasingly in favour of female producers and female scriptwriters. Somehow or other, this has failed to result in better parts for women in BBC drama. So let's get some more female directors in. That'll make all the difference.

Actually, a director is a director is a director. Gender is immaterial. There are two kinds of director: one came up through theatre, and therefore understands actors; the other came up through cinematography, and therefore understands cameras. Beyond that, there really are only two kinds of director - good ones and bad ones. What's gender got to do with it?

Nothing at all, but in sustaining the myth that women are a suppressed minority (even though they form 'the majority of decision-makers' in BBC Drama), Harwood is both excusing herself and her fellow executives for their own failures, and seeking to extend the gender imbalance. It is difficult to see how an increase in the number of female directors will improve the quality of roles for women, if a preponderance of female producers and writers haven't managed to do so. And why are there so few female directors out there? Is it because they're discriminated against? No - how could it be, when most of the producers who hire directors are in fact female?

And where would Kate Harwood's argument go next? Let's suppose that she fast-tracks a host of female directors into the industry, and they somehow still can't come up with decent female roles. What will she blame then? Too many men watching TV?

The problem of strong female characters in TV drama has nothing to do with social conditioning. 'Coronation Street', for example, had some of the strongest female characters going, and that was years ago. No, the problem is that TV executives can't keep their bloody mitts off other people's scripts. Female characters in BBC drama have to be flawless. They must be plucky, honest, hard-working, long-suffering individuals who are invariably right, while the male characters around them are almost always weak, craven, corrupt and wrong. To create a female character with realistic human flaws would be seen as a betrayal of all those women - like the majority of decision-makers at the BBC - who like to imagine that they're struggling in a male dominated world.

The female characters in TV drama today are not, then, created to be real, or realistic, depictions, but rather to carry the burden of the wish-fulfilment and political ideologies of the TV executives. In the arse-about-face world of BBC Drama, women characters cannot be strong because they must be role-models, idealised versions of the female executives themselves.

The BBC Drama Department has made it impossible for strong female characters to be created, because they have to keep interfering in the scripts to ensure that their ideological image of women is constantly being reflected.

But far be it from Kate Harwood and her colleagues to notice their own rank inability to create convincing female characters. No, the fault isn't theirs: it's a cultural one, apparently. By which, presumably, Harwood means that there simply aren't that many strong women out there in the real world for characters to be based on. So the best that TV drama can do is to keep cloning their idealised, hard-done-by, shining examples of female virtue in the hope that enough real women out there will get the message.

The truth, of course, is that executives at the BBC are trapped in a vicious circle of their own incompetence and their out-dated ideological convictions.

The argument has moved on from the seventies and eighties. But not, apparently, at the BBC, where writers would be perfectly able to create strong, interesting, convincing roles for both men and women, if only the bloody executives would let them get on with their jobs.


Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist! said...

i disagree with the letter... the gender of a director (or screenwriter) DOES matter. A woman can lend a feminine perspective on a story. I cannot imagine a woman who would direct a sexist, raunchy comedy about guys spying on naked chicks (although Amy Heckerling did with Fast Times, I guess), but female directors are more likely to be sensitive to the needs of actresses and not ask for any nude scenes. God, I'm so sick of actresses always getting naked, while actors don;t. WHAT A JOKE!

but anyway, it's not just about perspective. it's about being fair and equal. Why can't females get to direct big budget action movies, too? People are shocked when they learn that American Psycho was directed by a female! ugh.

there is a lack of powerful, behind the scenes females ANYWHERE in the film/TV biz. Most people can't name one single female director or female screenwriter, but slowly that's starting to change, I hope.

actresses are overrated. female directors and female screenwriters are underrated.

Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist! said...

you are probably right about the cultural part that has an impact on shaping female characters. I've noticed that the French are more kind toward older actresses in French cinema, while Americans have such a phobia of older women.