Next weekend, will Carey Mulligan, Emerald Fennell or Vanessa Kirby end up delivering a similar message to the Hollywood elite? Something, perhaps, along the lines of: “The British women are coming!”
Even if you haven’t seen the films they are nominated for at this year’s Oscars, you might be aware that this Holy Trinity is part of an exhilarating new wave in British entertainment.
Along with the likes of Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Michaela Coel, Billie Piper, Lucy Prebble, Keeley Hawes, Jodie Comer, Gillian Anderson and Anna Friel, they are storming the barricades of a still largely misogynistic industry.
This fightback against sexism has been a long time coming. Low pay, low status and, as the #MeToo movement revealed, widespread abuse all continue to prevail in the acting profession.
According to a report released earlier this week, on-screen representation for women in film took a sharp dive last year. The annual It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World report from Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, found that the percentage of the 100 top-grossing films featuring female protagonists dropped from
40 percent in 2019 to 29 percent in 2020.
Black and ‘older’ women face even more of an uphill struggle. 71 percent of female characters were white, up three percent from 2019, and the majority of them were in their 20s
I spent three consecutive nights this week gripped by Too Close, ITV’s compelling psychological drama. It starred Emily Watson and Denise Gough, two middle-aged women embroiled
in the kind of gripping cat-and-mouse games last seen in The Silence of the Lambs.
It was written by The Bill actress and author Clara Salaman and directed by Sue Tully, previously known as Michelle Fowler from EastEnders.
It had its flaws. I mean, how was Watson’s psychiatrist allowed to walk into a hospital with her mobile phone, cigarettes and lighter?
More interestingly, its leading ladies were both flawed. In this new wave there appears to be no obligation to present
the female protagonists as likeable.
They are not simply two-dimensional characters whom viewers can easily identify with – or even just relate to.
As with the Piper vehicle I Hate Suzie, the Anderson vehicle The Fall and the Friel vehicle Marcella, many of the new, female-driven, primetime TV dramas all feature dark,
and often troubling, storylines. The female leads are usually strong and independent, but also vulnerable and tightly wound.
They have strengths and weaknesses, displaying the kind of nuanced complexities previously confined to male leads.
As Gough puts it: “Some of our favourite male characters are horrible people. Yet they’re lauded and they go through the annals of history as being these amazing parts. But when a woman plays a similar part, people find it a little less palatable.”
Women are beginning to make a long-overdue impact in the 2021 awards season. Whether it is the Golden Globes, the Grammies, the Baftas or the Oscars, more female actors, directors, writers and musicians are being nominated.
But progress towards gender equality is not simply about increasing percentages.
In 1985, graphic novelist Alison Bechdel created a now well-known gauge of gender equality in her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. For Bechdel, a work must feature at least two female characters, the women must speak to each other, and they must talk about something besides a man. This was instantly dubbed the Bechdel Test.
Too Close passed that test. As did the films Mulligan, Fennell and Kirby are involved in. One – or indeed all – of them could break the mould at the Oscars.
Fennell, who made the rape-revenge tale Promising Young Woman, is up against Chloé Zhao for best director. In the previous 92 Oscar ceremonies, only five women have ever been nominated in the same year; only one, Kathryn Bigelow, has won.
There is still a lot to be done. But in nine days time, a historic step forward could be taken in Hollywood. If there is hope, it lies in the Brits.