Women and losing

Give me a situation where one man and one woman are competing to write a particular piece of drama and I will ask why you bothered telling me their gender. It’s the piece I’m interested in, it’s their writing. I can’t conceive of a single possible reason that my knowing the sex of the writer would make any more difference than knowing their height.

Only, give me a situation where 86 percent of primetime television is written by men and now gender matters, now sex is telling me something is seriously wrong here.

Writing is not fair but then it shouldn’t be. Writers don’t get work just because it’s their turn. Not everybody should get to have a go. Because as much as I am a writer, as much as I care about writers, I’m a viewer first. I don’t tune in to satisfy a need in me for statistical balance. I tune in to watch and to be transported by writing that takes me places I don’t know with characters I’ve never met.

I want new.

And I ain’t getting it when 86 percent of television drama is written by men.

It’s not as if you suspect these men are the most diverse group, either, and that’s something the Writers’ Guild is looking at with Equality Writes. That’s a campaign launched this week that wants to fix film and television by making the industry recognise what’s actually happening. Get programme makers talking about it, get audiences talking about it, and maybe we can finally do something about it too.

Equality Writes starts with men and women because there are figures you can get for that imbalance. That’s why I know the 86 percent figure: it was uncovered during the research for an exhaustive and exhausting report that the Writers’ Guild commissioned. I nearly didn’t read that because I thought I already knew it was ridiculous how few women get to write for the screen. But then I’d see the report’s figures and then I’d see the report’s graphics about all this.

I did hang on for a while to the hope that things are getting better. Plus it’s a report about the industry today, maybe we’re just in a peculiar slump.

No and nope.

That’s the real jolt of this report and this campaign to me: the percentage of women writing television and film has stayed consistent for the last decade.

For ‘consistent’ read ‘low’ and for ‘low’ read ‘crap’. It is just crap how women aren’t getting to write and it makes me blood-angry that something is stopping me getting to see the writing of half our species.

I would like that to change now, please. And I work for the Writers’ Guild, it makes me proud that they’re doing something about it. Do join them, do join me in putting your name to the campaign too.

Change the rules

If you want something and the other person, for whatever reason, doesn’t want to give it to you, change the rules. Don’t try to fix the system from the inside: pull the argument on to your turf. Stand where you are strongest and argue from there.

It’s taken me so long to see that this is necessary and that any system’s rules are designed to protect the system and fight change. And this week 76 writers demonstrated it.

Actually, it’s 76 women writers and not only would it be irrelevant that they’re women, I’m not entirely sure I’d have noticed they were as I read their names. There are some I’ve not heard of, there are some whose writing I don’t like and there are some who I aspire to be as good as. But it’s their writing I’m interested in and gender wouldn’t cross my mind.

Except that the 76 names are signatures on a letter that made news around the world this week. These writers are protesting against the fact that UK television drama series use startlingly, ridiculously few women. Or to put it another way, it’s always the same bleedin’ men who write these shows. Or put it a third way: it’s the same type of people who write most of them.

I want to see drama from everyone and about everything. Right now the system is boringly out of whack and if I’ll be happiest when drama better reflects our country’s brilliant and vibrant culture, we can start by hiring more women. And I can point you at 76 women writers.

There are more than 76: that’s how many publicly signed the letter but there are untold more who support it yet fear putting their current work at risk by signing. I readily get that: I think I might well have been one of them if I were one of the writers doing this.

So I understand the ones who can’t sign and of course I applaud those who did.

But read their letter.

It’s strong and forceful but it’s layered, it’s funny, it’s involving. This letter is not a placard demanding what we want and how we want it now, it is engaging in every sense. If there is no mistaking its point or the strength of its argument, it is equally clear that this is a conversation. Like the very best writing, this is not a transmission of arguments from the writers to television commissioners, the text speaks in such a way that the reader is as involved as the writers.

If you forget everything else about what it’s trying to achieve, this letter is an example of smart, classy, vivid writing.

You can’t forget what it’s trying to achieve though, specifically because it won’t let you.

I imagine that there must’ve been hundreds of meetings where women writers somehow didn’t quite get the commissions their writing warrants. I imagine thousands of emails where projects somehow didn’t get to where they should.

And so rather than continue working in that system, these 76 writers yanked the argument over to where they visibly and vividly rule: these writers wrote.

I can only hope that it helps but I tell you, I wish I’d written that letter.

And They Are Us

I wanted to talk to you about a play of mine that’s being staged tomorrow night. I really, really wanted to talk to you about how I’ve ended up acting in it. And actually I also wanted to gabble at you about a whole series of workshops I’m running with writer Alex Townley.

But that’ll keep.

And this won’t.

This is too important. I was going to say that it’s too important to me, which it is and always has been, but it’s also just generally too important. I need to talk about the ‘me too’ and the ‘I believe you’ discussions. The journalist in me hesitates because, talking to you now, I feel I’m late to the topic and it’s been covered a lot. But then that’s about the only good thing here, that this has been discussed so much – and I want it to be discussed more.

I thought I knew, that I grasped how women are treated and I thought I was already appalled to the point of shaking at the way I don’t have a clue how to stop it. But the utter, ceaseless, overwhelming tsunami of ‘me too’ posts on Twitter and Facebook has turned my shake into paralysis.

The ‘I believe you’ ones gave me pause in a different way. Where the volume of ‘me too’ posts was deeply shocking, I’m ashamed to say that they weren’t surprising. The call for ‘I believe you’ was more startling to me because I can’t grasp how anyone wouldn’t believe.

Yet then if everyone both knew and believed all this, surely it would stop. So I posted ‘I believe you’ even though I still feel it is the most obvious thing I’ve ever written. Actually, I posted it on Facebook where they have those buttons for making things big and red. I’ve never before bothered to see how you do that but it felt right for this. I don’t think I’ll do it again because I don’t think I’ll write anything that important.

But then listen to me: I’m a saint. Except I’m not. If ‘I believe you’ is the most important thing I’ve written, this is the hardest: I can instantly think of incidents where I’ve made women uncomfortable.

I can tell you that I’ve never set out to do it and if it’s happened recently then I am scarily unaware of it. And I can also most definitely tell you that I have never, not once, ignored it when I’ve seen other men do it.

Except I must be wrong there. Must be. The sheer number, the wave after wave of ‘me too’ posts from people I believe I’m close to, it has got to mean that I have been blind to things happening.

Now, being blind to something is not the same as condoning it – except that of course it is.

I’ve failed my friends here. And there must be women who are wary of me because of it. Therefore there must be women who put me on the same side as men who do press and harass and attack. God, that’s not a side I want to be on.

There’s an interesting point being raised about how the language being used is creating its own issues and silos. It’s true that one hears about “violence against women” and don’t hear the phrase “violence committed by men”. I think it’s peculiar but true then that this is seen as a problem for women rather than a problem caused by men.

The fact that this is being pointed out now might even be the one shining outcome of the whole discussion if it makes men aware of it. But for God’s sake, it’s not like there’s been some secrecy about it: men can’t pretend that this is news to us.

I don’t know what to do and that makes me shake again. But I do know that thinking and talking about it is essential, even or especially when it’s difficult. And I also know that this is something men need to fix.

It’s men’s problem and it’s men’s fault and I am a man and I need to fix it.

When I think about us men ignoring the situation or particularly about somehow thinking it’s something women need to fix, I keep coming back to an ancient military phrase.

We have met the enemy and they are us.

It’s bigger than it seems on the outside

Look, I’d want to talk with you about this anyway, simply because it makes me so happy. You’ve seen the video on YouTube and television news of a young child who explodes with excitement that: “The new Doctor Who is a girl!”

The only difference between me and that child is that I said “Doctor”, not “Doctor Who”. And “woman”, not “girl”.

The thing is, I hadn’t realised just how very much I wanted the next Doctor to be a woman until BBC aired that utterly gorgeous one-minute video revealing Jodie Whittaker. And thinking about it a lot since then, I realise that the really key single reason for how much I wanted it was that it was now or never.

Of course it matters that we get a superb actor, as we have with Jodie Whittaker, and of course that should be all that matters. But it isn’t all that matters and I also realised that I would’ve been disappointed with any man. Apparently there are people who are disappointed that it was any woman, but there’s no accounting for folk.

Only, yes, I am a feminist and I do think it is ferociously wrong how few women are in drama – but I’ve always felt that more about the writing than the acting. Yes, no question: I write strong roles for women in my scripts both because it’s right and because so few people do that you are guaranteed to get truly brilliant actors.

Doctor Who, the series, has been just plain wrong in the ridiculously tiny number of women writers it’s had. I do think the show is amongst the very hardest to write so naturally I think the pot of people who can do it will be smaller than for other shows, but there’s no conceivable reason that the proportion of women in that could be as teeny as it has been.

I have not thought it wrong that the Doctor hasn’t been a woman before.

Follow. Alongside the praise the show has got for doing this, it has also got criticism for not doing it before – and that’s the bit I disagree with.

I think people tend to consciously or unconsciously see the Doctor as being a role in the same way that James Bond, Miss Marple, Hamlet and others are. It’s a role that many or even any actor can take on.

No.

This isn’t about the quality of the actor and it isn’t even really about their gender, it’s about the character. The Doctor is not 14 different actors – don’t ask why Whittaker is called the 13th – who happen to be playing the same role. The Doctor is one character.

Think about soaps and the way they will re-cast a role and pretend nothing’s happened. Michelle coming back to EastEnders decades after she left. I’m struggling for another example but there was one in Corrie where a young man has been played by three or four young men. It’s that kind of thing. You are supposed to accept the new face and believe that it’s the same character.

It is the same with the Doctor, except that no new actor tries to completely mimic their predecessor. And then, worryingly, they change into clothes that they’re going to wear for the next several years.

But Peter Capaldi’s Doctor is the same character who used to wear that long scarf. He is the same character who first tried to stop Ian and Barbara from entering what looked like a police box in the 1960s. Actually, Peter Capaldi referred to this in a sweet chat with young fans that I can’t find on YouTube again. He spoke of his predecessors and said with total sincerity that if you look in his own face, you can see the Doctor’s previous selves.

And then in Jodie Whittaker’s announcement press release she said that one thing about taking on the role is that: “It means remembering everyone I used to be”.

So the Doctor is the Doctor is the Doctor. That doesn’t explain why she wasn’t a woman before. But go back to that soaps analogy. Coronation Street’s Ken Barlow is getting on a bit, if they wanted his character to continue they could perhaps recast the part. They would recast it as a man again because it’s the same character, but imagine that they didn’t. Imagine they cast a woman.

A woman taking over Ken Barlow’s role could be done – I don’t think it’s an acting problem at all – but it would have to be done with the most enormous storyline. Barlow would be transgender, it would run for months or more, it would be a gigantic deal within the storyline of the series.

In comparison, all that’s going to happen in Doctor Who is that Peter Capaldi will glow and out of the flame will step Jodie Whittaker. That’s it. On with the show, on with the character.

I think that’s fantastic. The Doctor is a woman, so what? Star Wars: The Force Awakens made me squeeze my cinema seat’s arm rest constantly because it has a lead woman who isn’t allowed to lead for one minute without a male character telling us it’s fine. The film expects us to be amazed alongside the male characters that this Rey is a pilot, for instance. It’s insulting to women, it’s insulting to everyone. I take it personally: it was insulting to me.

Doctor Who won’t do that, you can be sure, and Doctor Who can go straight into new stories without fuss because actually it has spent around five years setting this up.

I think it’s about five years. I’m trying to remember what there was in the fiftieth anniversary special around four years ago but there was something. I definitely remember another Steven Moffat episode where some random Time Lord regenerated into a woman. And of course for a couple of years we’ve had Michelle Gomez as Missy, a truly glorious incarnation of the Master. Funny and likeable and frightening.

Without her, then, and without the small touches through the last few years and, okay, without some pretty heavy-handed hinting in the last series, the change of gender has been made an organic part of the series.

If all of this had not been done, if the show had just decided on a whim to cast a woman, well, I’d probably still be pleased but then it would’ve felt like a gimmick. The show has been accused of doing this because it’s politically the right moment, because the BBC is under pressure about diversity, and if it were just a single casting decision, maybe that would’ve been true or at least partly true.

Instead, this has been worked on for perhaps five years. It has been created in the writing for perhaps half a decade.

That effort, that continued writing effort and talent, seems to me to be being ignored and it seems to me to be worthy of huge praise.

It was now or never and I am ecstatic that it was now. I don’t fully understand why I’m exactly this excited because I don’t know how the Doctor being a woman is going to change the show since this is literally the same character it always was. Each new actor brings something else and the tone of the show changes each time yet somehow this one being a woman makes the show tingle with new energy.

One more thing, just since it’s you. I was trying to explain to a guy why I was so pleased and I ended up focusing on a little half-smile, half-grin that Whittaker gives just after she’s been revealed. It’s when the Doctor sees her TARDIS and somehow it just promises adventure to me.

That’s true, but what I’ll tell you that I didn’t tell the guy is that I also got a ridiculous amount of pleasure writing the words “her TARDIS”.

Bossy

You can put too much weight on a single word, you can read too much into it, you can over-stress the poor bugger. And I know you can do this because I’ve spent a week doing exactly that with the word ‘bossy’.

The reason that I’ve been thinking about it for a week because it’s seven days since it came up in a conversation. Now, I am going to go surgical on this word, I am going to kill it solely to then do a post-mortem but I want you to know that I’m thinking of the word rather than the people in the conversation. I especially want you to know that if you were one of the three of us nattering.

It was just a chat but it got me pondering.

This was after last week’s Self Distract about Kindles which included a clip from BBC Newsnight where author Lee Child talked with interviewer Kirsty Wark. I mentioned in the chat that I rather rate Wark. I didn’t exactly say that I had a crush on her, but I might as well have done as it was bleedin’ obviously implied. And that was on a friend’s mind as she told me that therefore I’d have enjoyed a conference Wark did recently where she was apparently all bossy getting people back to their seats after a break.

There’s just so much in that word bossy.

What I consciously thought at the time was that I wasn’t at this conference so I cannot know for sure, but I can bet that she needed to get these people back. I can bet that if it had been a man doing the same thing, it probably wouldn’t have been given any word. Might have been labelled organised, maybe tense, I don’t know. But probably not bossy.

That thought didn’t take me a week.

Instead, what I’ve chewed and chewed over is the implicit presumption that I would’ve liked her specifically for being bossy. I mean, liked her as in, you know, liked her. Tugs at collar. Is it hot in here? I know this bothered me immediately because I did stress and state and underline that I admire Kirsty Wark for having had this great BBC News career yet simultaneously form and grow a rather impressive production company. I overcompensated.

But not because I was, shall we say, responding to the notion of this woman being bossy.

Men do. I know. And it’s so embarrassing. It’s the – look, my hands are wringing as I describe this, it is agony – it’s the way that certain men are attracted to being bossed about. Attracted to schoolteacher figures. Attracted to women who order them around. I feel like they are schoolboys and while equally there are women who are drawn to father figures and authority figures in men, that’s their problem. I’m a man, I’m busy being mortified for my half of the species.

Yet I do think that we are all at our very most attractive when we are working. You perform at work, you stand tall, you dress properly and you just spark. Someone doing interesting work and being good at it, being clever, being in full flow, being at the top of their game and just simply being in action is very sexy.

Thank goodness I no longer work in an office. Can you imagine how I’d get ribbed for this today? “Oh, yes, very sexy, William, the way you made the tea, God, I’m excited now. Any chance you could boss the teabag about a bit?”