As Oscar Wilde once noted, “The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast.” Those were precisely the sentiments voiced, very loudly, by a roomful of actresses at Bafta earlier this week at the London launch of the Equal Representation for Actresses campaign.
The snow-defying crowd included Lily James, Gemma Arterton, Ophelia Lovibond and James Nesbitt. Olivia Colman strode up to the podium and declared it was time to challenge gender inequality on stage and screen, where there are two men for every woman. In the top 100 films last year, less than a quarter of the protagonists were women.
“Tonight, we come in peace but we mean business,” said Elizabeth Berrington, a co-founder of ERA 50:50, which campaigns for gender balance in casting by 2020. If change does not come, “the cost to society is enormous”, she said. “Our culture and values are shaped from infancy by what we watch on screens.”
Attendees at the Equal Representation For Actresses event
Little girls’ self-esteem peaks at eight years old, and the more they watch TV, the lower their self-esteem. Maybe that’s partly because children’s television has an even worse record than adult shows, with three male characters to one female. A week’s study of CBBC revealed a male-to-female ratio of six to one. Even in Disney’s Frozen, a story about women, watched by little girls all over the world, the male characters have more lines than the two starring sisters.
Actress after actress got up on stage to speak, often with black comic irony, about their own experiences on and off the casting couch. The rise of the #MeToo and Time’s Up campaigns have opened up the conversation, which began with a few ERA members in Soho, and had its official launch this week, although actresses including Emma Thompson and Emma Watson have been sporting the ERA 50:50 badges on the red carpet for a while.
One 32-year-old went to see a potential agent who said to her, ‘I’m only looking for skinny 17-year-old girls. It’s just hard to find older women work’
Polly Kemp (Four Weddings And A Funeral, Les Misérables) told stories of actresses being bullied into compliance – “Do what we say or we recast.” She recalled being informed that sex scenes would take place on a closed set, “and then, by the third or fourth take, the whole crew are there, staring”. Women are replaceable, suffering an ever-decreasing circle of employment, while men are “the jam in the sandwich”, getting all the supporting roles: the doctor, the politician, the detective. Women have a sell-by date, while men become characterful. As television production expands with Netflix, Sky, Amazon and others, Kemp thought the solution was to create more female protagonists driving stories, so producers would “continue to employ actresses beyond their last fuckable day”.
What is “your last fuckable day” as an actress in the business right now? Deirdre Mullins said she went to see a potential agent who said to her, “I’m only looking for skinny 17-year-old girls. It’s just hard to find older women work.” Mullins is 32.
“I went home and googled Botox and filler – but, frankly, you’ve got to weigh that against fewer facial expressions,” she said, to much laughter from the thespian crowd. Mullins was delighted to see Frances McDormand’s Oscar-nominated performance in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: “She was wearing her own face!”
Mullins has starred opposite Greg Davies, 49, in Channel 4’s Man Down and Sean Bean, 58, in The Frankenstein Chronicles, and David Schofield, 68, in Father Brown, proof of the yawning age gap between couples on screen. In real life, the average age gap between couples is two or three years. “I loved working with these actors,” said Mullins. “But we are the nation’s avatars.” What picture of normal relationships do those age gaps give?
The actresses all emphasised the desperate need for great drama, written by women, for women. After all, it makes economic sense. In America, The Handmaid’s Tale and Big Little Lies won prestigious awards and women’s stories are seen as big moneymakers, but here we lag behind.
Although the audience ratings are often massive for woman-led dramas (The Crown, Doctor Foster) or for a woman writer like Sally Wainwright (Happy Valley, Last Tango In Halifax), most television is still written by men. ERA says that UK TV commissioners are reluctant to use women writers and stick to the same old tried and tired gents. The BBC commissioned 32 male writers for series last year and eight women. Channel 4’s record is even worse.
Many men are big supporters of ERA 50:50, including Nesbitt, David Tennant and James McAvoy. The comedian Miles Jupp appeared self-deprecatingly as “one of those rare, middle-class, privately-educated white males” on stage to talk about television and radio panel shows, which are male-heavy, to say the least. Jupp presents Radio 4’s The News Quiz and he suggested they make the panel 50:50. Quite simply, it worked.
So, change can be easy as having a word with a producer. But, as someone said, “The Furies are being released,” and this marks the beginning of casting a different picture.