Deeds not words: in the spirit of the suffragettes


British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst once said: '[T]he condition of our sex is so deplorable that it is our duty to break the law in order to call attention to the reasons why we do.' by The New York Times photo archive, public domain.

The film industry is failing women, but there is hope, as Nikki van der Gaag explains.

When I was a young woman, the suffragettes were my heroes. I called my first car, a battered Renault, Emmeline (after Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the British suffragette movement in the early 20th century). I also loved the film Thelma and Louise and its 2 female stars, Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, who defied all the stereotypical ideas of the time about how women should behave.

So when the chance came to attend an event where both came together, I couldn’t resist. The place was packed. Geena Davis and Abi Morgan, writer of the recent film Suffragette, were among the many women on stage at the 3rd Geena Davis Symposium on Women in the Media at the British Film Institute (BFI) in London.

Geena Davis was everything I had imagined her to be, but cleverer (why wouldn’t she be clever?) and funnier (likewise) – particularly when it came to her own life. She joked about her ambition, telling us that when her teacher at film school told her class that only 1% would make it, she remembers thinking: ‘How sad for the rest of them’! But it was also clear that she is just as ambitious about getting more women into the media – as lead actors, but also as directors, writers, editors and behind the camera.

The research that her institute has unearthed showed just how necessary this is – and reinforced for me what I already know: that feminism is as important and relevant as ever, even in what seems to be the rarified heights of Hollywood – in fact, especially in Hollywood. The proportion of female characters in all roles in films made in the US (29.3%) was higher only than France (28.7%), Japan (26.6%) and India (24.9%) and lower than Australia, Brazil, China, Germany, Korea, Russia and Britain. When the UK collaborates with the US however, the resulting films come absolutely bottom of the heap, at 23.6%.

The percentage of female producers in the 11 countries (plus UK/US) was equally pitiful, with Japan at the bottom with 7.5% and Brazil, interestingly, way up top with 47.2 %. The UK came top for female directors, but it is sad to have to cheer for a paltry 27.3% when all the other countries except China are under double digits.

How is this possible in an age where many people think we have equality? ‘Unconscious bias’ was one of the reasons given by Geena and others. But in the end, said Bonnie Greer, American-British playwright, novelist and critic, who was chairing the second panel: ‘It is about power. That is what we are talking about.’

A woman sitting next to me who was a screenwriter told me that none of the facts surprised her, but what she wanted to know was what was actually being done about it? Where was the spirit of the suffragettes, which in Emmeline Pankhurst’s words was about ‘deeds not words’? There were, in fact, quite a few answers to her question.

Abi Morgan stood up from the floor in response to a question to say that she believed the women who had been protesting at the premier of her film against cuts in funding for domestic violence shelters were today’s suffragettes. She also pledged – to cheers from the audience – only to write about women for the next 5 years. (Suffragette is one of the few films not only to have female leads, but be written and directed by women as well.)

The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media also has ideas on what can be done: for example, writers, directors and producers should simply increase the number of women at all levels. So if there is a crowd scene, the writer could add to the sentence: ‘Slowly, grim but determined volunteers step forward, half of whom are women.’ They could change men’s names to women’s. In children’s films – the subject of another study – they could ensure that women are not just housewives or sex goddesses or (mostly dead, added Geena) mothers. ‘Give them more aspirations, more to do – and more clothes,’ she added, noting that girls and women are twice as likely as men to be seen in sexually revealing clothing.

Oona King, the former MP who has been advising the BBC on diversity, stood up and announced that from next year the organization will be measuring diversity. Amanda Nevill, Chief Executive of the British Film Institute, talked about the importance of the pipeline and how their Film Academy for aspiring talent was 50% women.

One of the slogans of the Symposium was ‘Talent is everywhere, opportunity isn’t’. The women on the podium succeeded in making me feel, if only for a moment, that if a theatre full of women – and a few men too – could change that equation in an instant, we would have done it then and there. As Baroness Scotland, the first woman since 1315 to hold the post of Attorney General for England and Wales, said: ‘Each of us has the opportunity to make a choice – what we buy, what we watch, and what we protest against. We can change things.’

Oh and why ‘heroes’ and not ‘heroines’? Because women want to be the norm, not the exception. Because Geena said so.