Equity UK’s Jean Rogers on Equal Representation
A few weeks ago the French La Charte pour l’Égalité entre les Femmes et les Hommes dans le Secteur du Cinéma was signed (Vive la Nouvelle Révolution du Cinéma!), the effects of which will hopefully become apparent in the near future. A few years ago British actors’ union Equity launched a Viewers’ Petition for Equal Representation of Women in Film and Television Drama with the aim to abolish the 2:1 dominance of male over female roles on British television, and an even worse ratio for films, and also to fight the almost non-existent portrayal of the older woman. How did this petition come about and has it begun showing effects already? I am very happy to have been able to interview Equity’s Jean Rogers on these and many more questions.
Jean Rogers is a British actress, born just outside London. Her work in front of the camera includes THE PEACEMAKER, THE LAZARUS CHILD, more than 10 years as Dolly Skilbeck in ITV’s EMMERDALE and presenting a BBC TV Schools’ programme for 7 year olds called WATCH. She has appeared regularly on British stages e.g. the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, theYork Theatre Royal, two seasons with the Chichester Festival Theatre and was a founder member of Sir Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre. In radio she clocked up over a thousand broadcasts for the BBC playing boys and girls, POETRY CORNER and LISTEN WITH MOTHER. Her recent work was in SNOW WHITE playing the wicked queen in a Christmas pantomime.
Jean has been an elected Councillor of the actors’ and performers’ union Equity for nearly twenty years and since 2004 Vice President.
Interview Jean Rogers Part 1
SchspIN: So Jean, tell me, how did the petition come about, who had the idea, and what obstacles had to be overcome? Did it all start in 2009?
Jean Rogers: No much earlier than that. When I became Vice President of Equity (the trade union for actors, stage managers and models in the United Kingdom) in 2004 I learned from the Women’s Committee they were concerned about portrayal, particularly of older women and the way actresses’ careers start to peter out after 40, unlike their male counterparts. They needed research on this. In 2008, Equity UK with a number of other partners in EURO FIA (International Federation of Actors), with European money, commissioned a report to explore the question of age, gender and performer employment in Europe. Deborah Dean, who led the research, reported that there was a particular feeling by women in the performing arts across Europe (including TV, film, radio, advertising and theatre), that both their gender and getting older was disadvantageous to them in all aspects of their careers. Men on the other hand did not believe that their gender was a disadvantage and were split on whether ageing was an advantage or disadvantage. The research showed that in fact 26 per cent of men in performing arts saw ageing as an advantage in relation to pay, compared to just three per cent of women. (Age, Gender and Performer Employment in Europe).
We had a Gender Agenda Conference in London and these results were discussed prior to publishing them in January 2009. We called upon members of our Unions for ideas and support. One of our members, Kate Buffery, suggested a petition to get public support and awareness on our side and to make broadcasters think. Our Equity steering committee looked at TV schedules and identified a 2 to1 bias in favour of actors and we based our petition on that. We have over 10,000 signatures and many many written views.
It started as an initiative by female members of Equity?
Yes, it was the women who campaigned.
And were and are there male colleagues supporting it as well? Or were they uninterested, or even afraid of losing jobs?
We had some outright opposition originally but mostly indifference, then annoyance. We persevered and as we refined and strengthened our arguments a number of enlightened men have spoken up for us which was refreshing. These are not great in number but they are there, and happy to say so, growing. What we do see is a determination from men that if we get nearer to a gender balance they will not let it swing against men! A growing number of men in theatre are starting to mentor young women but seem not interested in doing that for older women.
Who signed the petition, mainly women? or even mainly actresses hoping for more work? was there support from audience organizations as well?
The majority of signatories are undoubtedly women, many of whom are actresses, singers, dancers and musicians. However, there are significant number of actors, some of whom are household names who have signed as well as men and women from the general public. We got support from members of many other unions when attending TUC conferences and other gatherings. We stood outside the West End theatre playing CALENDAR GIRLS and many audience members and their husbands signed our forms.
And have things begun to develop since then?
We believe that because of our campaign of awareness there have been encouraging changes with some new series on Television, making women’s stories more central, and casting more women in the 40-50 age bracket. Still further to go though and we believe theatre has become worse, an area we thought was much better in 2009.
How about reactions from other filmmakers?
We have particularly worked with the Writers’ Guild whose female writers also feel discriminated against when it comes to commissioning their plays. They cited a problem with commissioning editors being loathe to commission their work if it centred round an older woman’s story.
Did you have to deal with the argument “Demands like these are censorship and restrict the freedom of art“?
This is a common argument but I say it is all to do with choice. If you continually marginalise the roles of women then that is a type of censorship. Yes, artistic freedom is important but you must exercise it with responsibility and be aware of the choices you are making that can effect 51% of the population. It is not artistic to perpetuate stereotyping particularly of older women which is what we see a lot of in our industry.
You mentioned some positive reactions as far as new TV productions are concerned. Congratulations! Could you name some of them? And are there also discussions going on about the sort of stories being told?
There is a fantastic Northern writer called Sally Wainwright who has written SCOTT AND BAILEY for ITV which centres round two police officers in their 40’s. ITV also has a series called DOWNTON ABBEY which has an equal gender balance of characters ranging from a little scullery maid to a Dowager Duchess.
Downton Abbey – Cast
Let’s look at the cast of DOWNTON ABBEY then, a series taking place at the country house of an aristocratic family in the early 20th century in Yorkshire, created and written by Julian Fellowes. The original run started on September 26, 2010. So far 4 seasons with a total of 34 episodes have been produced. Audience figures for the fourth series have hit an average 11.8 million viewers – making it the highest rated drama on television in 2013.
8 female and 3 male characters were cast in all 34 episodes so far. There is a larger number of males for the 1-episode parts, but overall there is a slight female majority (477 vs 463 as the sum of episodes for all characters).
Since age discrimination is also an important issue in the Petition let’s look at the age statistics for DOWNTON ABBEY’s main cast:
It shows a varied age range in the cast, with 6 actresses and 2 actors over 40 in practically every episode. The blue square in the top left corner represents Dame Maggie Smith (as the very witty Dowager Countess of Grantham), who was born on Dec. 28, 1934). Another thing is the age distribution within the family in the centre of this series, or rather that of the actresses and actors playing them: Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern, b. 1961) and Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville, b. 1963) have three daughters (Michelle Dockery, b. 1981, Laura Carmichael, b. 1986, Jessica Brown Findlay, b. 1989). The two grandmothers were born 1934 (Maggie Smith and Shirley MacLaine), Lord Grantham has a sister (Samantha Bond, b. 1961). Of course performing artists can act older and younger than they actually are, but ever so often on German TV at least we see mothers and daughters played by actresses only 12 years apart (The Perfect Age for German TV) – not only in Germany actually, remember the brilliant British series GRANDMA’S HOUSE that I wrote about some time ago (You need to unblock yourself). But now back to the interview:
Interview Jean Rogers Part 2
So Jean, apart from DOWNTON ABBEY, what else has happened?
The BBC made a series CALL THE MIDWIFE set in the fifties with young midwives on bicycles and older nuns. Also, at present there is a very successful comedy series called LAST TANGO IN HALIFAX. The central characters are a man and woman who went out with each other in their teens and have met up again in their seventies and fallen in love again. It too is written by Sally Wainwright and took three years to be commissioned. The BBC turned it down on the grounds no- one would want to see old people in love, as did ITV. Eventually the BBC decided to risk it and they have a runaway success on their hands. The public love it!
Great! What about the industry outside the UK? Do you know if your petition has been picked up in other countries, as a petition or at least as a reference point for discussimg their own situation?
Yes Canada I believe although we have signatures from women worldwide. I was able to make references to the petition when giving evidence to the BBC’s Serving All Ages Report on TV, Radio and the Internet, and recently in evidence to Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Harriet Harman‘s Commission in Older Women in the Media and Public Life.
It is one thing to talk about statistics, i.e. the number of female and male characters, and another to talk about the quality of the roles. Any thoughts on that, and the impact your petition might have?
The views expressed in it address story-lines, nudity of females, violence towards women, all story-lines that demean women rather than being positive roles which men tend to have. Many of these views I quoted when giving evidence on behalf of Equity,
You have heard of the French Charter on Equality, which is quite groundbreaking of course, since it quite clearly also addresses the question of role quality and stereotypes as well as equal representation and equal pay. Would that be something to be copied in the UK, or even on a Europe-wide basis? Any plans from Equity and partner organizations in this direction?
We have been talking along these lines at conferences and in articles for a number of years now and the quality of writing and roles is discussed in the second project of our FIA Steering group, a Handbook on Engendering Change.
Last Question: In Germany we have neither a petition, nor a charter, just the 2:1 ration, the diminishing roles for older women, the gender stereotypes. Is there anything you can say to make us cheer up?
I was talking to my son who works in the Human Rights section of the Council of Europe about the attitude to gender equality in Germany and he says you have a different attitude to it as though it is not a problem. Do you agree with that? I would say you have to do the monitoring and keep speaking about the results. Quote the UK, the USA, France, Scandinavia etc. I think one of the most difficult tasks is persuading women to see what is happening to them. Do that first, then you need to seek out sympathetic men!
Thank you very much, Jean Rogers.
Update: On Dec. 6 Sally Wainwright, the writer Jean mentioned in the interview, received the Technicolor Writing Award at the annual Women in Film and Television Awards in London.