Sunday, February 14, 2010

Are writers to blame for the lack of parts for older women?

Last week the Stage reported that Shelia Hancock had complained that:
“I’m afraid a lot of men have a concept of women as they become older as being rather dreary and rather grey and not having any kind of life or personality, and therefore there is a danger that writers don’t write lively parts for older women. That’s a problem.”
Here's a response from Gail Renard, Chair of the Guild's Television Committee:

Sheila Hancock, you’re one of our finest actresses and I’d love to write something... anything... for you. But the problem lies with the executives and decision makers, not with the writers. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve written something in comedy for an older woman and execs turn her into a Cheryl Cole clone which, let me tell you, doesn’t make for great storytelling or dialogue.

And every time there is a strong woman lead in a series (i.e: Emilia Fox in Silent Witness); she has to be surrounded by more men than you would find in a public urinal. Older women characters are often merely barking. And I can’t wait to see how they cast the “Susan Boyle Story.”

Trust me, writers are with you all the way. There are questions currently being asked about gender inequality in the business and the Guild is highly active on this. The problem you describe extends to women writers and directors as well.

But just one thought. You’re a splendid writer yourself. Why not join the Writers’ Guild and help us win the fight?


  1. There are, of course, high-profile examples of shows which do showcase the talents of female actors of all ages - Cranford and Lark Rise obviously spring to mind.

    However, it is still the case that the majority of scripts (across all media: theatre, film, TV, and radio) are commissioned from male writers.

    Statistics gathered by the Sphinx Theatre Company for their conference, 'Vamps, Vixens, and Feminists', at the National Theatre last summer (see our blogpost, 17/06/09) found that out of 140 theatre productions, 98 were written by men, 13 by women and the rest mixed collaborations. Of these 140 productions, 97 were directed by men. Out of 1100 roles for actors over the same period, 677 were for men and 423 were for women.

    And out of the films produced in one year – 250 - 12% were by women writers with only 9% directing them.

    Our own informal survey of one month's terrestrial TV output (@ Radio Times)discovered that out of 179 programmes listed, 129 were written by men and 50 by women - 28% female and 72% male. In radio it was even worse with 37 male writers and 12 female writers – 24% women, 72% men.

    The factors behind this are complex and cannot simply be attributed to discrimination by employers, either conscious or unconscious. If, for instance, fewer women put themselves forward in the first place, there will naturally be a smaller percentage of successful applicants; we may note a similar disparity in politics, business, and the professions.

    The question of why fewer women may put themselves into the arena is a matter of some debate; but in film and TV, fashions in subject matter - e.g. the fantasy and action shows popular at present - may have some bearing on the current dominance of male writers.

    (Interestingly, although there has always been a high proportion of strong female characters in soap, male writers remain in the majority here as well!).

    Ms Hancock has a point when she raises the issue of TV's preoccupation with youth. It may be less about lack of good roles for women, and more about the lack of focus on older characters of either gender.

    We are an ageing society; and while there is a need to attract and build younger audiences and exploit new technology to develop our storytelling skills, we should also acknowledge that the older audience will be increasingly in the majority and this is a market that deserves be entertained, respected, and reflected in the media.

    And, correspondingly, that older writers still have much to contribute. See our blogpost @25/01/10 on Hollywood's age discrimination case with regard to older screenwriters...

    Ming Ho: WGGB TV Committee member.

  2. Karen Brown7:15 pm

    I myself wrote a lead part for an older woman and considered myself very lucky that Sheila Hancock played that part last year in a BBC1 45min drama.

    The audience feedback I received from the BBC was very positive for a lead story about an older woman. Not only did she not die but actually fell in love and moved on. We had excellent viewing figures because as everybody knows, outside of TV demographics it's a bit of a myth that young people only watch certain shows and over 40 year olds only watch others. I know lots of over 45yrs who watch Skins and Being Human and heaps of 20 and 30 yr olds who watch New Tricks.

    The lack of cracking female parts for women is, as Ming Ho says complex. It's too easy to say that there are too few women writers, or that it's about commissioners being men. Quality writers of either gender can write fantastic male and female roles.

    The lack of older parts for both sexes may have more to do with the trend towards youthful writers, many who are drawn or feel more confident to submit storylines about people of an age that they can relate to.

    Something along similar lines relates to why we see many well written middle class characters and fewer well written working class characters - The Street excluded.

    If it's a great story for an older character male or female and it comes from the heart write it, it might just find a home.

    Karen Brown - writer


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