This year, International Women’s Day falls in the week that Fleabag and Derry Girls returned to our small screens for their second seasons. The simple fact these shows, both written and directed by women, have been given prime-time spots on the BBC and Channel 4 hints that the tide may be turning in television. Five years ago you would have struggled to find female-driven comedy anywhere, let alone at peak time on a main channel.
So, hurrah for our Funny Girls, but today is also a chance to reflect on what more we can do to help other women get heard. Because for every Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Lisa McGee or Sharon Horgan, there’s a host of talented women struggling to break through.
This fact is especially stark when it comes to writers and directors. In 2008, 17% of all UK film releases had a female writer, whilst just 12% had a female director. By 2017 this had hardly improved; only 21% had female writers and 15.7% female directors [BFI Statistic Yearbook 2018]. That’s nearly 10 years, and not even a 10% improvement. Looking to the Oscars, we see a ninety-year-old institution in which only five women have ever been nominated for best director. Obviously, there is more work to do.
Film and TV is vital to shaping British culture. Those who are behind the screen create the stories it tells, and these stories reflect and help to construct both national and individual identity. When marginalised groups are absent from the stories a nation tells itself, inequality, prejudices and unconscious biases are likely to remain.
It may be a cliché to repeat it, but the mantra “You can’t be what you can’t see” holds true. How girls and young women see themselves portrayed, or in many cases, not portrayed, shapes what they think they can achieve.
Growing up I never considered the possibility of a creative career. I didn’t set out to be a filmmaker – I started making films because I was frustrated that the media ignored the stories and experiences of so many people in my community.
I left producing because I needed both financial security and the flexibility to fit work around my family and worked since to try to re-balance opportunities for those who have great ideas, but maybe not the money and networks to help them fly. Being female was only part of why I found it so hard to get heard. Not being part of a network, having friends and family in the industry or living in London were just as much a barrier as my gender. I wish I could say the world has changed since then, and it has, a little. But not enough.
At Creative England, we’ve been vigilant in ensuring we support a diversity of voices and experiences. We’ve seen that where opportunities are created for women to tell the stories they want to, remarkable work is produced.
(Left to right: Alice Birch, writer (Lady Macbeth), Eva Yates, Commissioning Executive, BBC Films and Lucinda Coxon, writer (The Danish Girl).
iFeatures is our development lab for debut feature filmmakers. Our current development slate has 69% female representation. And these women are in the process of making some amazing cinema.
Writer and director Nasheed Qamar Faruqi, for example, leads an all-female team in People are Strange. The story follows a Pakistani school girl in England, as initially wary relations with her Glaswegian skinhead nanny turn into a deeply supportive cross-cultural friendship.
In Across the Water, Andrea Harkin and Suzanne Cowie tell the true story of a young Northern Irish woman unable to get to England for an abortion, and the terrible consequences for her relationship with her female flatmates. And Georgia Oakley and Helen Sifre’s Blue Jean is set against the backdrop of the Thatcher Government and the enactment of Section 28. It follows Jean, a PE teacher forced to hide her sexuality to maintain her job; pushed to the brink when a student threatens to expose her.
It’s obvious there are many, as yet untold, interesting stories that can entertain, educate, comfort, and inspire young women. Our iFeatures programme is just one platform for the women behind them to receive the type of support and help to realise their idea. Today, in partnership with the BFI, BBC Films and ScreenSkills, we are launching our call for the next generation of storytellers via iFeatures 2019. It provides a supported environment for new feature filmmakers; building your network and putting you in touch with the people and the resources that can help you realise your idea.
I’m thrilled the work of Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Lisa McGee is reaching our screens; maybe the hunger for greater diversity and representation is slowly starting to be realised. Let’s hope that next year on International Women’s Day we will be even closer to 50% representation, on and off screen.
Now that really would be something to celebrate.