Kate Buffery on sexism: “Women want to feel that they are above the fight, we’re not.”

Excellent speech by actress Kate Buffery (Trial & RetributionWish Me Luck…) on sexism and the reduction of human beings to stereotypes, on ageing, status and the ongoing need for us ALL to fight the superficial:

 Gender Agenda – speech by Kate Buffery.

 I’ve not suddenly become aware of sexual politics   now that I’m in my fifties and parts have started to dry up. This isn’t a  plea for a job . But I do use my predicament as a starting point in discussing a destructive imbalance when it comes to the portrayal of women in the media. I was aware of sexual politics to an extent as a girl, as  young woman  – as a young actress – and now in middle age.  I’ve spent  a career,  making, as I could, reasonable challenges where reductive  attitudes affected my work,  other actors  will know the score –  asking for line changes, debating design decisions,  trying to ensure three dimensional characterisation  where possible, out of an  awareness that the way  women are portrayed on TV in film, in theatre,   can prescribe behaviour that confuses and diminishes other women .   Its a fight for which the sixties and seventies prepared me though I would never have believed  that there would still be such a gross  imbalance all these years on   regarding the roles of the sexes in drama and portrayal in general  . It is this imbalance that results not just in  the relatively few parts available as I get older but in the pathetic caricatures  on offer when there are parts available. This is  not the problem it is symptomatic of a wider problem, but if drama did really hold a mirror up to nature and these caricatures had an absolute basis , I’d be   reacting to the misfortune of being marginalised  by  either  nagging,  gossiping or twitching curtains. 

 

 My actual  reaction has been  to re- invest . The battles I have fought may have helped to an extent but have not protected my position  I have to try a different tack  –   my priority is to put aside time to study for a law degree . It seemed to me that if my own life is impeded by a systematised inequality, to make any sort of effective challenge  ,I need to strengthen my hand.    I still pay bills largely through acting or acting related work but spend little energy scratching around for  jobs now. Predominantly my energies are  put into studying. 

 

 I am not suggesting that we can only get places by bringing in laws or challenging through the legal system  – it can and has helped enormously in various areas concerning inequality, but so too do ideas, does  debate does awareness , because part of the problem is the head in the sand culture of the moment and a refusal to see how destructive inequality is,  particularly for those on the receiving end but ultimately   for those promoting it as well.

 Why do we, both men and women continue to opt for destructive sexual  stereotyping despite its illogic?

The reasons are many. But perhaps the most simple explanation is that in the face of huge challenges, challenges about life, the meaning of life,  challenges facing our world, we lack ample courage.   When this shakes us, we prefer to reinforce our immediate status, often at the expense of another section of society, or create  superficial challenges that deflect  in the short term, at the expense of our long-term well-being. For example lets look at aging. Its an unavoidable part of life. We age.  Nearly all the burden for addressing age, is given to women , it s deemed to be their problem – but of course this doesn’t take the problem away from men it simply means that women face it first and get stuck with the  distorted idea that we are worthless because we age. And instead of challenging the concept we try not to age or to age more slowly in order to keep status .

Typically we put our energies into disguise even possibly to the point of cutting  swathes of skin off our bodies, in an attempt to hold back the clock. We neither hold it back nor do we stop it, we immerse ourselves in a shallow self defeating process that means for a short while we can be unaware of the aging process. Men for a short time can labour under the misapprehension that the aging process  does not really impact on them – because it seems to  impact on women worse. Much better for us all to look that clock straight in its face.   Put our  energy into engaging with reality,  yes we age, with age we unlike any other animal have the conscience and intelligence to allow us evolve into  something more. We wouldn’t suggest that a sapling should not to mature into a tree but that’s what we ask of ourselves.  We are attempting to disguise ourselves from  reality and reality  from ourselves, thinking we’re doing ourselves a favour – we are so not.

 And we’re encouraged in this  pursuit  By the – press, film television.  The challenge  is to all of us,   men and women ,  boys and girls who buy into these or related values that defend worthless positions, empty  status,  to challenge these values in ourselves as being brakes on our true potential . And its time the media supported us in that.  I’m not the only parent who  asks Where is the screen  role model for my 12 year old daughter and her friends  if they don’t want to grow into the values that means that they’re likely to be seen as  worthless at 45 ?  Programmes like Americas next top model, extreme makeover ,  10 years younger etc etc.etc.,  are the fodder aimed at and lapped up by contemporary women.  Women’s  momentum towards  improvement, which is an impressive human impetus,  starts to  show itself in terms the number of shoes or handbags in the wardrobe.  We’re  fed  with the notion that we have status if we are young and beautiful.  But is not true. Real status,  is something that increases rather than diminishes over time. I don’t want any one to ban shallow portrayal on TV any more than I would want to ban MacDonalds, but how can the TV companies constantly reinforce these distorted and distorting images without offering an alternative vision . And why don’t they offer an alternative vision as Prime Suspect proved, many moons ago now ,there is demand.

Taking on a point made earlier we may not demand  to be in charge of the remote control when there is so much that is mindless on TV, but if something really good is offered to us, my God we women can be tenacious with the remote.

 

In my -forties I collaborated in creating  a character playing a joint lead in a Lynda L Plante  series,. It was going well by the third series the part I was playing had grown to be equal to that of the leading man. I worked on presenting a character who was less concerned with how she appeared than the  choices she made. A woman who although written as vulnerable  was capable of developing strength, who was unashamedly work in progress  – an impossibility if  all your energies are put into designing  the ‘perfect’ outer shell.  I’m not a puritan about wanting to look good, I wore a bit of make up , and decent clothes, and went to the gym at that time,  but  I very consciously wished to portray a woman to whom that wasn’t  a priority, an obsession, and where appearance certainly wasn’t at the expense of real substance.  After a successful 6th series with the consulted audiences  responding very well to the character, to my huge relief,  production  were so pleased they wanted to reward me or the character,   with ‘a makeover’ and  have her bathed in warm coloured light and  warm coloured make up , wearing expensive Armani suits and  expensive hair so that she resembled a French movie star.  I was appalled. Meetings were called.  I was, at the time, simply not big enough to win that battle. To cut a long story short I was eventually replaced by a woman  half my age – which probably indicates how tough that particular battle was. Its a disappointment but I have no regrets –   every challenge gets us somewhere. But  its not just a chauvinist male attitude that says that women must look good first and foremost, there is a distorted post feminist voice that says the same thing, under the auspices that this somehow celebrates femaleness.  

 A businesswoman, dressed to the nines, was interviewed last week on Channel 4 and when asked why women were not getting through the concrete ceiling  in business  said that she thought  that women should rely more on their’ feminine wiles’. Her business was selling lingerie. There was not a hint of awareness that her attitude doesn’t just diminish the men towards whom these manipulative wiles are aimed, and presumably to some effect,  but it diminishes other women who have every right to get on in life by being straightforward,  and ultimately diminishes herself. She was, I’m sure entirely confident in what is, at the moment, a commonly held distortion, that she was simply  celebrating the  differences between the sexes.

The truth is that there will always be differences, but  the most important qualities in human beings,  those we either have or aspire to having are shared by both sexes – intelligence,  courage,  generosity,  passion a sense of justice – humour,  and more  – qualities that protect the individual ,  but also mean that we can contribute and collaborate fully with others.   And  where are the  women the female characters in Dramas  who aspire to such qualities, to inspire us on TV  – and here I’m talking as viewer not an actor, the women to balance those numbers of  aspirational male leads that promote characters with these qualities. There is a demand.

Contributive  art and drama has also always had an imaginative and  aspirational content.  From    great works  from  Shakespeare to films like Casablanca, we have been presented with  lives or aspects of lives to aspire to inspire us, So few of these lives belong to women.

 

   Its pertinent that the only drama that has really seemed to served older women in recent years in the UK … Cranford, beautifully produced and acted as it was,  was  all about women who had been reduced by life in one way or another.   I would have felt much more comfortable watching them as they gossiped and twitched curtains and indulged in naive girlishness,  if I’d felt that there were  fully formed women, fully engaged in life but capable of intelligent overview,  who were equally being represented   by drama on the BBC and elsewhere.

 

So as I said, the challenge is  to us all. As a previous speaker said, National debate is important but so too is individual responsibility.  Executives, writers, producers, directors, casting directors    and of course performers of both sexes , have a responsibility to do whatever we  personally can to redress this imbalance. Most of us are aware of the shallowness of sexist stereotypes, and each of us are able to promote in some way, to some extent, more substantial values within the boundaries of our own particular jobs and lives.  Its time for concerted conscience resulting in a concerted effort. If we address sexism in the whole of the media – the stereotypes being offered up to young girls,  the limited portrayal of genuinely inspirational women – , related  problems,  for instance the problem specifically facing me at the moment, as to why older actresses are marginalised to the point of invisibility, will take care of themselves.  For a while its  not been trendy to address sexism –  women want to feel that they are above the fight, we’re not.  Men feel that as a debate it becomes an excuse to level  criticism at them –  its not. The debate about sexism should be brought back into fashion. Its one of the most vital to our society. Because only through fighting for and indeed achieving equality do we have the possibility of arriving at a place where we each have the chance to fulfil our individual potentials. And we need to release that potential if we’re going to sort out any of the other problems our world faces at the moment.

 

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