“Honestly as an actor, I’ve spent much of my life making something better, or more three-dimensional than it is on the page,” Kyra Sedgwick said during a panel discussion entitled Complex, Not Complicated: A Look at a Woman’s Character at the ATX Television Festival. “It’s hard to wait around for great writers.”
The panel talked about not only the problem of stereotypical writing of women characters, but also other endemic issues experienced by women in the industry, such as patronizing methods of male-female direction.
Mary McDonnell raised the fact that as an actor, she’s often received emotional direction that seemed way off base. “The thing you had to do immediately was to cross out every emotional stage direction,” she said, “because they would say things like this: ‘She’s very angry, she’s enraged, but she doesn’t show it,’ or, ‘This woman is an incredibly strong matriarch, she’s been through this, she’s been through that, but she’s so vulnerable.’ First of all, we don’t need to you describe emotional states of character, just write her and we’ll bring it. There was such a fear of women going beyond what felt comfortable, so if you had a scene where you were angry back in the old days, you could count on how long it would take for them to come up to you and say, ‘Just be smaller, and, you know, your anger is really powerful but it’s not very attractive.”
The status quo isn’t necessarily improving for the younger generation of women in the industry either. Working with male directors can still be very different for women than men, Taylor Dearden, the 24 year-old lead in MTV’s recently-cancelled Sweet/Vicious said. “I don’t know if they think it’s that we need everything fully explained to us,” she said, “like when a director comes up to us and explains moment-by-moment the scene, and I’m like, “No, I prepped. We’re good, I have my notes.’ I’m like, ‘Look, I’ll adjust after, but not before we’ve started.’ It’s an assumption that we can’t do it on our own.”
Another issue that’s been a repeat offender is of course a female actor’s appearance. Natural hair for women of color has been a particular issue, Girlfriends creator Mara Brock Akil said. “If you google ‘natural hair’ now, you’ll see black women’s hair,” she said, “and I know me and Tracee Ellis Ross and her (Girlfriends) character Joan helped that movement. I fought for Tracee to have that hair. I had to speak up for those sorts of things. I fought for Tracee to wear her glasses. If you see Joan’s character, that was Tracee wanting to be that real too. It was like, ‘Oh she wants to wear glasses? That’s not attractive.’ Well that’s the point! We like to take our bras off, our shoes off, our make-up off. We like to get out of that stuff, and we like to put our glasses on because we can’t see.”
One of the ways to deal with gender disparity and the chronic sexism in the industry is to simply hire more women said Casual EP Liz Tigelaar. “I know on Casual,” she said, “aside from two of our returning directors who were male, all of our directors were female and that was a huge priority. Our writers room is predominately female, two out of the three main characters are women.” Tigelaar said putting women in positions of power begets more and more women on set over time. “Women probably tend to hire a lot of women,” she said. “Men are wonderful, but we’ve been working for men for a long time.”
Tigelaar also recalled the almost absurdly sexist experience she had working on her first pilot. “I think of coming up and shooting my first pilot for the CW,” she said, “and having this action director direct it, who seemed like such a weird fit. Oh great, there’s another male producer who’s going to supervise you? Wonderful. And there’s another male producer who’s on it too? Oh Great. Oh why don’t I seem happy? Oh I don’t know, maybe it’s because I’m in charge of picking out what purses the girls wear and I created the show! I’m like, ‘How’s this thing going to happen?’ and they’re like, ‘Oh don’t worry about it, you don’t need to know.’ It’s like this little girl attitude.” While Tigelaar finds herself being heard more these days, she said, “I went into that pilot with this grateful attitude of like, ‘I’m 29, I’m so excited that my little pilot is shooting and someone’s taking a chance on me! Thanks men! Thanks white old men!…Is it easier to have that fight every day with old white men? No, it’s easier to hire more women.”
As Sweet/Vicious creator Jennifer Kaytin Robinson succinctly put it, “Representation is everything. No one seems to want to do it for us.”