Culture

Let’s Get Cracking, Ladies: A Call To Arms On Screen Australia’s New Initiatives For Gender Equality

This is the beginning of some important change.

[Update: January 28]: Screen Australia has announced two new funding programs following on from the announcement of their broader Gender Matters initiative.  

The first, Brilliant Careers, is offering grants of up to $250,000 for arts organisations proposing ways to generate and develop careers for women. And the second, Brilliant Stories, is offering funds of $50,000-$100,000 for creative projects in which three of the four positions of writer, director, producer and lead actor are taken by women. 

“We want to be flooded with innovative, adventurous and interesting applications,” said Screen Australia COO Fiona Cameron in a press release this afternoonAll the more reason to heed Candy Bowers’ call:

Last month we held our first youth unconference, JUNKET. Over the coming weeks we’ll be sharing thoughts and features from some of our 200 delegates on the topics they raised. This, from performer Candy Bowers, leads on from a session she attended about diversity in Australian TV and film.

A couple of months ago, the US Centre for the Study of Women in Film and Television ran their 18th annual survey of the employment of women in TV and reported some important findings. As Variety summed it up at the time: “When women run the show, more women get hired”. Awesome. I mean, it seems pretty obvious to me. But, awesome!

At this point we know this is something that needs to be addressed. That same report showed that over the past two years, shows with at least one female executive producer featured 7 percent more female characters than those with all-male creative teams; they also had an enormous 24 percent more female writers and editors. If a production had only male producers, they found only 8 percent of the writing staff would be women. These numbers are almost exactly as bad here in Oz.

It’s hard to answer exactly what’s been keeping women out of key executive and creative roles all these years. Is it outright sexism? Is it unconscious bias? Is it our fault? Is the industry systemically sexist? It could be some terrible combination.

Thankfully today we have some progress on the latter. This morning, Screen Australia announced Gender Matters: a five-point, $5 million suite of initiatives that address the gender imbalance in the Australian screen industry. “We need to support women to build a range and breadth of skills in this industry,” said Screen Australia CEO Graeme Mason. “To make a real difference to women’s participation in the industry, there needs to be a holistic, integrated approach to people, projects and business infrastructure that is sustainable and self-generating.”

This is big for our future, for the way women are represented on our screens, and it’s huge for women who have felt shut out of the industry for too long, myself included.

“Ability is of little account without opportunity” – Lucille Ball

In the same way I could never discuss intersectionality and feminism without talking about Beyoncé, I can’t talk about the issue of women in television and film without talking about the late, great Lucille Ball.

As a child, I totally loved Lucy and as a rising comic actor and writer, her legacy and lifelong achievements are a constant inspiration. She earned her rights to my personal hall of fame not only as a comedy star, TV executive producer and studio boss, but also as a woman who had a child with a Cuban man at the age of 40 (pretty much live to air). What a woman! Can you even imagine that happening on mainstream Aussie television today? We don’t do accents, we don’t do mixed families and we certainly don’t do women in their forties giving birth to brown babies — let alone all at once!

Since then, I’ve spent a lot of my time since asking why not? Did Lucy set the bar too high? Was I going to have to run a studio before I could get mixed families into Aussie lounge rooms? It shouldn’t have to be this way.

When I was younger, I was really optimistic and my high school years were the bomb-diggity. I went to St Patrick’s College in Campbelltown: an all-girls school in the western suburbs in which my creativity thrived and my leadership skills were nurtured. All the drama, public speaking, filmmaking and performing arts competitions were dominated by young women. At one point, the principal of our brother school considered banning my debating team because he said our wins were demoralising his boys. I remember thinking they should work harder and get better by dueling with us!

I wish I had bottled that confidence.

But it wasn’t just me who felt this way. St Pats was a meritocracy with a pinch of social activism and cultural diversity to boot. Lots of girls thrived across many different areas from sport to science and theology. My sisters were musicians and a lot more rebellious than I would ever be. By the time they were 17 and 18 they’d formed an all-girl grunge band and scored a record deal. Music from their debut album featured on soundtracks to local films which were also written and directed by women: The Well by Laura Jones and Samantha Lang and Love and Other Catastrophes by Emma-Kate Croghan, Yael Bergman and Helen Bandis.

The ’90s seemed like a golden little decade where women were not only in key creative roles but central to storylines too. Frances O’Connor, Miranda Otto, Cate Blanchett, Rachel Griffiths and Toni Collette were these solid multilayered intelligent actors that I wanted to be like. Gillian Armstrong and Jane Campion were like gods. Then I saw Rachael Maza and Deb Mailman in Radiance and I felt like I could achieve anything.

I admit that I may have been living in a feminist cocoon with all the warm cocoa butter feelings a hopeful brown girl can have, but it seems like stuff was happening. When I look back I see that those black actresses and female creators were in no way dominating the Aussie scene and it was me who was seeking them out. I’d still like to give Rachael Maza a little punch on the arm for leading me to believe there were going to be more opportunities for women of colour in the industry and inspiring me to audition for an acting degree at NIDA.

I graduated from there in 2001: a year which marked the arrival of both Big Brother and The Secret Life of Us. Unfortunately, only one of those shows gained multiple spinoffs and created opportunities for ongoing formats, and it wasn’t the one that included significant screen time to relationships between Aboriginal and Maori characters.

I was the only person in my year at NIDA who didn’t get an agent. When I approached agents to ask why, I was basically told there wouldn’t be much work for a woman with “my look”. I was hot, a size 14, 5’9, and was brown and juicy with a killer booty — what’s not to like? One agent told me it was because my look didn’t represent enough of the Australian population. Apparently my (read: undesirable) looks not only defined my ability, they also denied my identity as an Aussie, which was the first hard (racist and sexist) lesson of many.

“It’s so weird being my own role model” – Mindy Kaling

These days, American women including Mindy Kaling, Lena Dunham, Jenji Kohan and Shonda Rhimes are my role models, as they cast, write and produce their original work for diverse, growing audiences. The Representation Project and The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media are also go-to organisations regarding facts and practical guides on how to work towards the best representation of women in front of and behind the camera. But it increasingly looks like Australia may be getting the message.

Last month Screen NSW, under the leadership of Courtney Gibson, announced a new target to see gender parity (50:50 gender balance) in the roles of writer, director and producer by 2020. Vital within this move for affirmative action is the need to maintain high-quality work, but also the acknowledgement that the ground is simply not even on the road to success in the field.

This felt like a major win on every level and a real step towards changing the stats of the last five years which fall far below parity: female producers are present on just 32 percent of all local films, writers are around 23 percent and directors are at a truly deplorable 15 percent. The action from Screen NSW set off huge waves of positivity across the industry and even those nursing wounds from past rejections perked up; recent Women In Film and Television gender-parity forums have been packed and the discussion has been continuing in online communities.

Now, ladies, it’s time to get cracking. Today’s announcement brings opportunities for established and emerging makers and creators alike with a big focus on teams and inter-community collaboration. Screen Australia are running an unprecedented call-out for women to pitch their projects and business concepts for an opportunity to secure development or seed funding in the following areas:

The Women’s Story Fund: an initiative to stimulate awareness and increase industry activity around storytelling by women, focusing on bold, original and compelling fully-formed story concepts.

Enterprise Women: business support to create industry infrastructure around women, encouraging mentorship schemes, placements, slate development, workshops, events and proposals for strategy and business development.

Attachments for Women: in circumstances where Screen Australia invests more than $500,000 in a project, attachments or reverse attachments are proposed to provide valuable production experience for women who want to break into the industry as creatives or crew.

Matched Distribution Guarantee Support: of up to $300,000, to enhance the distribution and marketing of quality Australian films with significant female content, encouraging close partnership with distributors on female-driven projects.

Assessment criteria changes: to be made across Screen Australia, aimed at encouraging projects that promote gender diversity and removing the barriers faced by women who take time out of the workforce, including added consideration of gender diversity in overall slate assessment.

This is also being overseen by a Gender Matters taskforce of writers, creators, producers, directors and actors; diverse creators like Imogen Banks, Corrie Chen, Sue Maslin, Natalie Tran and Miranda Tapsell who will work with the industry to deliver the plan. You are in good hands, and word on the street is quotas on cultural diversity could be next.

So, let us inundate Screen Australia with our expressions of interest. Let us let go of the rejections, past frustrations and very real sexism that has left us in the cold. Calling on the strength of our film and television heroines, let us step into the light and live up to our potential so the next generation of young Aussie women can step beyond.

Cue Annie Lennox and Aretha Franklin. It’s time to do it for ourselves.

Read more about Screen Australia’s Gender Matters program here.

Candy Bowers a passionate performer of fearless sticky performance, theatre, music and spoken word. She has appeared on Q&A, been published in Yours Truly, and hosted The Circle.