Screening out male fantasies: Antonia Bird argues for real women and fewer stereotypes on television

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The Independent Online
AS DIRECTOR of The Men's Room, one of the television programmes on which the Broadcasting Standards Council received most complaints last year, I was surprised last Wednesday to find myself, and the cause of women working in television, being promoted by its chairman, Lord Rees-Mogg.

I was even more surprised to find myself agreeing with him. 'Broadcasting is frankly male-dominated - the imagination of television is dominated by male attitudes and male fantasies.' he said. 'It is not that we need just more women, we need many, many more.' I think virtually every woman who works in the industry would agree.

Every working day of my life is a struggle. Are drama directors hauled over the coals for panning the camera up a pair of female, generally stockinged legs, or for starting a shot close up on her bottom as she walks away from camera? No. This is considered normal. It is my refusal to follow such formulae that creates the problem.

As a woman director, I struggle to sway a crew from framing up these kinds of shots. And when I do, they raise their eyebrows, snigger behind my back and mutter about 'feminists', 'wimmin', blah, blah. Apologies to the few guys I've worked with who didn't.

I fight to cast unstereotypically - I like to see women in unusual roles. Why does the detective inspector have to be a man? Why can't the heart surgeon be a woman? Why shouldn't the Tory antique dealer be a black woman? Why shouldn't the nurse be male? Why should the thugs be black? These are real examples, not a list of trendy causes. I know many black actors who are rightly aggrieved at the roles they are asked to represent on television.

I struggle to depict women realistically - some are beautiful, some are plain, some are neither by conventional standards. I fight for them to wear the kind of clothes you or I or my mum might wear. Yet I find some of my male bosses insisting on their own standards of attractiveness. They seem obsessed with dressing women straight out of fashion magazines. And when, to use Lord Rees-Mogg's words, these male fantasies are not stepping out of Vogue, that is because they are fulfilling some other stereotype.

Does the wayward daughter have to be in a miniskirt? Of course not. Does the social worker have to wear dungarees? I don't think so, and nor do many of my costume designer colleagues, most of whom are women. But some of our bosses seem confused if female characters are not in their pigeon holes.

An example: I offer a leading role to a well-known, highly acclaimed and beautiful young actress. The following day, she appears on television in a character part wearing no make-up and severe, 'unsexy' clothes. I am impressed by her performance, her ability to change her personality, her aura - her acting in fact. The following morning one of my male bosses telephones a male colleague and insists that the job offer to this actress should be withdrawn; she is not 'crumpet'.

Directing The Men's Room was a liberating experience for me, and probably all too rare for women in television. We were working on a book by a woman (Ann Oakley's novel of the same name) about female sexuality and relationships. Our work as women film- makers was being respected by the men in charge at the BBC. They discussed censoring our work, but never did. They did get a little hot under the collar about a shady half-second of male genitalia on-screen - a fair swap, I thought, for all the hours of naked female breasts and bottoms that I've seen over the years. By the way - why did Trevor Eve keep the sheets carefully wrapped around him in A Sense of Guilt, while Rudi Davies was exposed head to toe totally naked?

It may be true that the BBC has a better record than most televison companies for employing women, but there are still very few in top decision-making positions (in the drama department there are none with complete commissioning power).

My experience of working in an industry I love - and sometimes hate - has led me to the same practical conclusion as Lord Rees-Mogg. Broadcasting is about having authority over time and money, he says, and 'if you can't control either time or money, you can't control broadcasting'. But I doubt that we are totally in accord on what he calls a 'woman's perspective'.

Most of the 20 viewers who complained about The Men's Room were worried by explicit sex and language. In fact, the BSC broadly accepted that a degree of explicitness was justified, but upheld a complaint that a sex scene in an Amsterdam hotel went on too long]

Are the women who created The Men's Room - novelist (and Professor) Ann Oakley, script writer Laura Lamson and myself - the kind of women Lord Rees-Mogg would like to see in key positions? I'm sure that Melvyn Bragg's comment that 'The Men's Room . . . was much raunchier, much more explicit and much less tender than A Time To Dance' was well intended, but it also highlights issues which surprised us about the reception of our film. We felt that, despite the huge positive audience response, male critics were hostile to the film because of its open representation of a powerful female sexuality.

Are Lord Rees-Mogg's women expected to be less interested in sex than men? Are we expected to speak more politely? I suspect he will be surprised if he pursues the policies he appears to advocate. I certainly hope so.

(Photograph omitted)

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