It is likely that, if you have decided to read this article, you already know the answer to this question.
When Ross Putnam started his Twitter account @femscriptintros on the 10th February, I doubt he expected that he would have 50,000 followers after just a few days. Today, almost 62,000 are following his tragicomic verbatim postings, citing real descriptions of female characters, all focussing on the physical attributes rather than the actual character.
To those of us in the performing arts, Putnam is highlighting something we have all known for years. As an actress, casting breakdowns looking for “girl, beautiful, 20s” have long drawn groans, eye rolls and despair – even from women who fit the bill. Ever emailed a director and asked for more info on “girl”? I know many who have, and the response has generally been a tumbleweed, or an answer that defines her by her relationship to the male protagonist.
Casting: Looking for three actresses for great roles! We are casting – John’s mum, John’s wife, and John’s sister.
Casting: Female, 20s, prostitute.
I paraphrase, but I could produce hundreds of old breakdowns that match the above. The female characters are so often described by what they are, and not who they are. “Mum”, “Gran”, “Girlfriend” or just “Woman” are common role titles. Ask any actress you know and she will tell you she has had to make up a name for a role she has played so that it looks like more than a walk on when she updates her CV. Few male actors I know have had to do that, although that is certainly less true if they are non-white.
What has been interesting about Putnam’s contribution is that people are listening. The Mary Sue highlighted this in a recent article – which admirably Putnam immediately retweeted on his feed – women have been highlighting this for years, but once a man added his voice people sat up and took notice. Amongst numerous others, anonymous actress @proresting has been posting depressing casting breakdowns on her Tumbler since 2013, but is yet to achieve a quarter of the followers Putnam achieved in two days:
As an advocate for Gender Equality in the arts (and all areas of life) I think it is incredibly important to involve and include men in the conversation.When Ali Kemp and I started Whoop ‘n’ Wail Represents…, our mission was to encourage playwrights – male and female – to write scripts that pass the Bechdel Test. In our view, we were not going to change the face of UK theatre without changing the way that all playwrights write and characterise – and with only 17% of plays staged penned by female writers, that had to include playwrights of both genders. That said, it remains incredibly important that women are heard and their thoughts and contributions valued without male endorsement.
Last year, Clementine Ford wrote an interesting article about the differing reaction to male and female feminists. Sadly, it still holds true. As I highlighted in a previous post, women are still routinely trolled, villified and threatened for their contribution, whereas their male counterparts are lauded for their efforts. This is not to discourage men from joining the debate and supporting gender equality – far from it – but despite it’s positive impact, the coverage that The Jane Test has garnered in comparison to female activists in the same arena serves to highlight the ongoing battle.
It does feel like there is currently a rising awareness of the lack of gender equality, particularly in the arts, due to the contrbution of high profile women such as Meryl Streep, Rachel Weisz, Helen Mirren, Maggie Gyllenhall, Cate Blanchette, and Salma Hayek. Perhaps the positive response to Putnam’s contribution is a sign that the tide is turning? A recent YouGov poll highlighted that, in the UK, only 31% of people identified as a feminist, however 81% said that they thought men and women should be treated equally in every way. Maybe men are more comfortable associating themselves with the F Word, as the feedback from a declaration is generally wholly positive, whereas women risk a negative response that can range from complete dismissal to trolling and threats.
Women’s voices need to be both heard and given value – and not just when men agree with them. That’s not to say we are always right; but it would be nice if challenges to thoughts, statements and articles were debated on their merit rather than resorting to threats of (particularly sexual) violence.
In September last year, the University of Toronto’s female students and faculty members were inundated with threats, including threats to kill, particularly those working in Sociology and Women’s Studies. Feminists such as Anita Sarkeesian, Rebecca Watson and Caroline Criado-Perez have been inundated with death and rape threats for merely expressing their thoughts about feminism and/or their professions. Last month, Vocativ.com published a breakdown of the threats Sarkeesian recieves in an average week. Author Luke Malone notes that this does not include 96 “containing general profanity and abuse “:
The number of women subjected to this particularly aggressive version of trolling cannot be guessed, but is significant. Emma A Jane’s article, “Rape threats and cyberhate? Vote no to the new digital divide” highlights the decision many women online have to make:
Gender, class and race are all key markers of difference and inequality in terms of digital citizenship. For many women, this manifests in a stark choice: put up with the deluge of misogynist abuse, withdraw from the internet or find ways of e-engagement that don’t attract attention – like tweeting in drag.
In a way, writer Alex Blank Millard did just that. In her article “IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Posed As A Man On Twitter And Nobody Called Me Fat or Threatened To Rape Me For Once” she highlights the different responses to male and female feminists online. For example, a woman, she was told she is both “fat and ugly” and, simultaneously, “too ugly to rape”.
For her experiment, Alex changed nothing other than her profile picture – to that of a white male. Her tweets remained the same, speaking out against systematic oppression, race, police accountability and domestic violence. The difference? No trolling. No threats. No one attempting to silence her/him.
Although conducted two years prior to Millard’s, Anil Dash’s experiment “The Year I Didn’t Retween Men” also raises interesting complementary questions about (conscious and unconscious) gender bias after he discovered the vast majority of posts he was retweeting were from men.
Interest in Putnam’s @femscriptintros and discussion of The Jane Test continue unabated. This is a good thing, a positive step – perhaps it is a way into the gender inequality conversation for people who were not already involved. All attempts to highlight the gender equality gap – be that in the arts, gaming, inequal pay, etc. – are welcome and add power and momentum, but there is still an overwhelming issue about the validity of a woman’s lone voice. We mustn’t exclude or undervalue the contribution of 49% of the population, but the same must be true for the 51%.
Collaboration is key: activists need to link together to overcome, reach out to those with similar views, pool resources. When our voices join together they are overwhelming, and no amount of fear, misinformation or trolling will be able to silence us.