There’s a new game sweeping the internet. Have you played it yet? It’s not Candy Crush or Scrabble. It’s called ‘Count The Women in the BBC Drama Trailer’. Want to play? Here you go…
Now, I’ve had estimates on Twitter ranging from 3 to 20. There are bonus points to be earned. How many lines of moody dialogue were delivered in a female voice? I’ll give you a clue; it’s a number between zero and fuck all. How many of the shows featured have a female lead? How many of the male actors featured could you name? How many of the women? For the record, the programmes showcased in the trailer are Sherlock, Ripper Street, The Great Train Robbery, What Remains, The Musketeers, The Escape Artist and By Any Means. How many of those shows do you think have female protagonists?
Sidebar: I think the trailer is also distinctly lacking in racial diversity and I didn’t see any disabled characters either. But as I’m white and relatively able-bodied, I’ll talk about the lack of vaginas, not melanin and wheelchairs. Feel free to comment on any of those other issues, though.
Now, someone on Twitter pointed out that this is just a trailer. It’s an advert and is designed to sell. He rationalised that men sell action and drama. That they are men that other men want to be. Well, I don’t want to be a man. So what I supposed to aspire to? To be shagged by them? Or, if you look at British drama’s recent record, to be shagged by them and then killed in well-shot, soft focus ritual killing?
How long are we going to carry on reinforcing the idea that women are passive and men active? Apart from anything else, it’s dated bullshit. Women are in the police, fire service, the armed forces, politics and the frontline NHS. They are also criminals and prisoners (not just their wives). They win gold medals for us in the Olympics and Paralympics. I really thought this might be the year that was reflected on my TV screen.
Let’s take a look at one specific BBC TV slot in particular. The Saturday teatime drama slot. Where you’ll find/would have found Doctor Who, Merlin, Robin Hood and very soon Atlantis. That’s the coveted slot when families are supposed to sit down together to watch something exciting and inclusive. Something that will have kids running around wielding imaginary sonic screwdrivers or good old-fashioned swords pretending to be their favourite characters. But who are the little girls supposed to pretend to be? A Timelord’s companion? A chambermaid who marries into the Camelot Royal family? Where are the female role models? It won’t come as a huge shock to hear that the protagonist of Atlantis is called Jason, not Jessica.
Look, I’m not saying that women are invisible on telly. Thank the Goddess for Vera, The White Queen and Scott & Bailey. But it’s not an improving picture and this trailer made my heart sink. But I’m all about solutions, not problems. What can we do about this?
Easy-peasy. Employ more female writers and directors, because it’s not just actresses that are conspicuous by their absence from that trailer. None of the lead writers of those eight shows are women. Not one. That's just not good enough.
I was heartened to hear that Doctor Who is actively looking for female directors to work on the next series. But what about the writers?
At this year’s BBC TV Writers’ Festival, Steven Moffat was asked why the show hadn’t featured a female writer since 2008. His answer was (in my opinion) defensive and unsatisfactory. He claimed that female writers had been offered episodes and had turned them down. I have no reason to disbelieve him, but I do wonder exactly how many female writers have been approached.
He also claimed that not enough women write genre and was backed up by his interviewer Toby Whithouse in reference to his show Being Human. I assume they meant that not enough women are writing sci-fi, horror and fantasy. My follow-up question would be; if not enough women are writing genre TV, what are you doing to change it? How about looking beyond sci-fi and fantasy? How about just looking for really good writers? Because a working knowledge of the Tardis is useful for a Doctor Who writer; but isn’t a working knowledge of structure, great dialogue and character actually more important? In my opinion, Mr Moffat is robbing himself of some great writers by being so utterly limited in his search.
As I said in a previous blog, I don’t believe in positive discrimination on writing teams. I do, however, believe in the positive impact that a diverse writing team can have on a TV series. I think a diversity of experience can only be a good thing when developing original, surprising stories and characters. In fact, I believe it’s increasingly essential. I also believe it won’t happen without some actual action on the part of producers, showrunners and commissioners.
I’m throwing down the gauntlet to those people. The next time you're putting together your publicity package for the new season's drama, can we have a better ratio of women on screen. And can they not be murder victims or the protagonist's wife? Can we actually hear a woman's voice on the trailer? I don't think it's much to ask. You may disagree, feel free to comment.