Excellent speech by actress Kate Buffery (Trial & Retribution, Wish 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.