You may know I try mostly to keep a relaxed tone here. I’m not interested in being contentious. However, there are times when even a romance-history-fiction novelist has to speak up on suggested public policy initiatives and plant a flag, and I apologize in advance.
Back on Sunday night, the TV Baftas here in Britain raised this. Specifically, quoted in the Huffington Post UK, actor James Nesbitt declared:
“…I am delighted to be presenting the award for Best Actress tonight, particularly as I am wearing the badge for ERA, which is the campaign for the Equal Representation of Actresses.”
He continued: “Currently, for every one female role, there are almost three male roles. This is an inequality that is not only about our industry, but it is an inequality that is absorbed by everyone on their screens every day.
“As the father of two children – two girls – this should change.”
I watched him say that live. I’ve needed several days since then to think about my reaction to it. Because as a novelist, I’m underwhelmed.
In citing this “ERA,” as Mr. Nesbitt doubtless hoped we would I clicked around for more information. Of course I found the “ERA” to which he had referred: the “Equal Representation for Actresses” (ERA) site:
Our campaign is to require the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and all other major broadcasters to implement an equal gender balance across their drama and comedy slates by 2020. We ask that casting and creative decisions made by commissioners and programme makers are held up to a basic requirement of a 50:50 gender balance across their content yearly.
Another click into the site, we find this, which details:
Compared to men, many women find it impossible to sustain meaningful and economically viable careers into their forties and beyond and find themselves faced with an early retirement and uncertain future….
Thus the core issue is not – as Mr. Nesbitt presumably did not wish misleadingly to try to convey from the microphone – with women overall. Rather it is specifically mostly about older women having a tougher time landing roles than their age “40 plus” male counterparts. Pointing out that latter is not unreasonable; nor is it new: it’s as old (no pun intended) as “Hollywood.”
Yes, some men do appear to last longer on-screen careerwise than do most women. I’m not going into a discussion here of the whys that is or what might be done about it. I’m not anywhere near an expert on the television and/or filmmaking business.
Importantly, though, where it starts to encroach on “my turf” as a novelist, the “ERA” also says about itself:
1. To engage in productive dialogue regarding more employment of more female performers and offer / discuss solutions with writers, directors, producers, commissioners, and casting directors.
Writers are the first group named above as constituting “the other side” and therefore presumably are a major part of “the problem.” Are they to be informed amidst “productive dialogue” that as part of a “solution” they need to alter some characters’ ages and genders, or even add new characters, within their writings in order to do so? That would seem one likely approach.
Incidentally, while we’re discussing writers needing to “discuss solutions” to create more jobs for actors. Insofar as I am aware the Huffington Post does NOT pay its writers, men or women, for the content they provide to the site. That while those same writers’ UNPAID work brings the site tens of thousands of eyeballs each day, and earns the site income – including in their reporting on, as here, Mr. Nesbitt holding forth on the issue of lower rates of employment for some women actors compared to men.
If that’s what’s bouncing around in “TV-land,” I’m glad I don’t write for television. However, worryingly, there’s also a fundamental free speech issue here that would seem destined eventually to hit potentially all writers. For logically any such “required content” moves directed at contract television writers will also stretch into affecting outside authors whose work may be considered for television adaptation: their productions too would seem must also fall within the boundaries of any broadcasters’-mandated “balance across their content yearly” litmus test.
And, by the way, how about race? Religion? Sexual orientation? There are lots of actors out there looking for paying roles.
As a novelist, I offer my personal perspective on any such “suggestion(s).”
There has never been a book written that captures ALL of humanity and society in a “representative” manner. Every story of course is merely a snapshot of a tiny segment of it. All novels are “300 pages” giving us a “peek” at a narrow time, place(s), and a few individuals.
Indeed some of my “background” knowledge also goes back a couple of decades – to my time as a college politics and history lecturer.
As a result, Robert Rutherford, Benjamin Rutherford, Jane Rutherford, John Abbott, Richard Montgomery, Alexandre-Théodore-Victor de La Meth, Marie-Thérèse Durand, Lucien Durand, Carolina Beckington, Henry Beckington, Sir Samuel Beckington, Lady Margaret Beckington, Emma Loughborough, Elizabeth de Carnot, Michel de Carnot, Sophie-Françoise Héloïse Constance Anne d’Estaing, Jacques Desailles, Amandine Guisier, Pierre Grasset, Adrienne Lafayette, Matthew Stewart, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Abigail Adams, the Duke de La Rochefoucauld, Gouverneur Morris, Martin Van Buren, William Short, Alexandrine Charlotte Louise de La Rochefoucauld, and others, are now “alive” forever in these pages and offered up to readers.
I did not sit here at my desk for uncounted hours writing, re-writing, and working to produce a captivating, realistic, exciting, romantic and moving (and maybe a bit accidentally “educational” at times) historical novel for my readers only for a pressure group to decide to scrutinize it in order to try to intimidate state-regulated broadcasters, answerable ultimately to public officials fearful of press releases emanating from such a group, possibly to rule that my tale’s fictional characterizations somehow fall outside their notions of the “socially acceptable.”
And, while they’re at it, perhaps it should be taken outside and publicly burned, too.
Because, you know,
Mr. Nesbitt’s children. Girls especially…
This is chilling. It is meant to cajole and bully creators into altering their content. That’s what “pressure groups” do. It borders on censorship.
Whether you are a male writer or a female writer, we should ALL be concerned whenever it comes to this sort of stuff. (I could use another four letter word starting with “s” to finish that sentence.)
Moreover never before in history has the written word been as “cheap” as it is in our 21st century.
Free reading is everywhere. Attracting readers willing to pay for original new fiction is now a gigantic ask. It is exceedingly difficult.
So this issue isn’t exactly at the forefront of my novelist’s mind on a daily basis. It is not my job, nor any novelist’s job, possibly to provide actors, be they men or women, with paid work until a comfortable retirement. My job is to offer novels to prospective readers who are willing to pay for my work.
I don’t care if I have a million readers or a few dozen. My books will be here after I’m dead. I write the characters I wish to create in order to assist me in making points about life, love, society and even history that I wish to see made, and which I feel may stand up to Eternity on someone’s bookshelf or in someone’s Kindle – and I do so, I hope, in an entertaining manner.
“engages in productive dialogue” tells me what to write. Nobody.
My conscience is 100 percent clear about my four novels to date and how they are “cast” on their pages. Regardless, no novelist owes ANYONE a scintilla of explanation as to why his/her writings are “cast” as they are. They are our art and our voice, and that’s that.
In the famous words of – the decidedly female – writer, Toni Morrison: “If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it.”
If little annoys a writer more than being told what to write, almost nothing does more than being told what to write by actors. Suddenly I recall Alfred Hitchcock’s famous observation: “Actors are cattle.” I had always considered that appraisal harsh, yet as a creator myself now I understand how at times Hitchcock might have felt that way.
Egotistical, up themselves, difficult, precious, pain in the a-s, authors. Who do they think they are? All high and mighty over their “little creations.”
Author: “Tomorrow The Grace,” “Conventions: The Garden At Paris,” “Passports,” “Frontiers,” and “Distances.” British Airways frequent flier. Lover of the Catskill Mountains…and the 1700s.