A few months ago, my husband showed me something. It was a description of a new TV show, Dead Pixels, that sounded like it was written specifically for me. It was about several friends – including a female main character – who were obsessed with an online role-playing game similar to World Of Warcraft. The writer had also written for Peep Show, Babylon and Fresh Meat, which I adored, and I couldn’t wait to watch it.
My excitement lasted maybe 20 minutes into the first episode. The aforementioned main character spoke freely about sex and masturbation, which is fine and par for the course, but the way she did it was painful. Her mentions of popping to the work toilet so she could start “rubbing her nubbin” were somehow both cruder and nowhere near as filthy as the way women actually talk about sex, and felt so jarring that they took me out of the show completely.
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IMDB lists one writer for the show – a man. I can’t help but imagine how good it would have been if a woman had been brought in to check over Meg’s characterisation and make her feel more realistic.
Which is why I’m glad it was announced this week that ITV’s head of comedy had placed a ban on all-male writing teams. After consulting with the people who get these shows made, Saskia Schuster has decided to refuse to commission any new show that has a writing team made up entirely of men, or a group of men and one token woman.
Good. As much as it rankles whenever we have to have any kind of rule enforcing gender equality – it’s 2019, we should be past this – we need to do something to get more women into film and TV production.
Much has already been said about the last few seasons of Game Of Thrones and how disappointing they were, and I truly believe that part of that is because when the show overtook the books, they were left with multiple female characters as the leads and whereas George RR Martin can write women well, the almost-entirely male team show runners and writers couldn’t.
Suddenly characters like Cersei, Sansa, Arya, Brienne and Daenerys were left with nothing to do or were acting in nonsensical ways.
This phenomenon – of some men simply not knowing how to write women who stray from the stereotype – is sadly not unusual. It’s something already recognised in fiction, but it’s time we start calling it out in TV and film too. Because nothing can take us out of a story quicker than a female character who doesn’t think, talk or act like any woman we’ve ever encountered. Take Dead Pixels’ American cousin, The Big Bang Theory, whose female characters seemed to change between tropes and stereotypes of what women are and want as and when the writers needed them to. Then there’s Doctor Who.
When Stephen Moffat took over for series five, we were introduced to Amy Pond – a companion as delightful, charming and interesting as we’ve ever seen. But after that lovely first season, things quickly deteriorated. Pond’s characterisation as a ‘strong’ woman was reduced to saying things like, “Don’t worry, I’m worth two men”. She dealt with being captured, rendered infertile and having her daughter taken away from her by having one slightly teary conversation and then getting over it all within the space of an episode. So realistic.
And then we get to Moffat’s other baby, Sherlock. I love Sherlock, but the only way a woman can be a decent adversary for Sherlock is if she bamboozles him with sex, like Irene Adler, or is literally so powerful that she’s farcical, like super-assassin Mary or his sister, who honestly may as well be an alien for all the sense she makes.
You can have larger than life, ridiculous, complicated, murderous women who are somehow still believable (Villanelle from Killing Eve) and you can have horny women who actually read like horny women (Sex Education). And you can have clever women, as seen in Gentleman Jack.
Having a woman or two writing the film and TV we want to watch doesn’t make them super feminised or into things only women can enjoy. Having a more diverse range of people in the writing room isn’t about fulfilling quotas or ‘pandering to the PC Brigade’ – it’s about making better entertainment.
Now, if only we could ban all-white writing rooms too.
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