It is common knowledge that gender representations in the media influence stereotypes in the real world. It is unacceptable that television dramas continue to reinforce sexist labels.
Peaky Blinders was one of the most popular dramas of 2017. It is often praised for popularising working-class history and featuring strong female characters. Yet in reality, the show offers little more than a chauvinistic, James Bondesque storyline. Tommy Shelby is a violent gangster and womaniser who gains wealth and prestige throughout the four series. When Shelby meets Grace Burgess in series one, the protagonist seems to have met his match. Grace is an undercover spy who deceives Shelby despite her love for him. However, by series three, writer Stephen Knight gets bored of female power and reduces Grace to a domestic wife. To ensure Shelby can continue his womanising life-style, Grace is soon shot and exits the series. In true James Bond style, a Russian woman immediately takes her place.
Defenders of Peaky Blinders can argue that Stephen Knight was bound by historical facts. In 1920s Britain, women were indeed subjugated. Yet the Peaky Blinders are a fictional gang and artistic license is rarely restricted by history. Pleas to historical accuracy are invalid; the honest explanation is that the media industry, like society at large, is patriarchal.
The BBC’s Sherlock, written by Stephen Moffat, featured a male protagonist with the only consistent female character being the housemaid Mrs Hudson. Another BBC drama, Poldark, also had a male lead. Doctor Who is another notorious BBC drama that employs the ‘James Bond’ story-line. An elite male finds a (usually female) assistant, falls in love and moves onto the next bright-eyed assistant.
The Broadcaster’s Audience Research Board (BARB) recently highlighted that the number of female leads in television rose by only one in a decade: from 17 in 2006 and 18 in 2016. This compares to 24 male leads in 2016.
Of course, the BBC are bringing in Jodie Whittaker as the first female Doctor. Yet the Christmas Special presented her losing control and falling out of the Tardis, reproducing the stereotype that women cannot drive.
Having female leads is not enough. Actresses must be in roles that challenge traditional gender ideals.
Call the midwife has a predominantly female cast, but cannot be called progressive as it is about child care. Thirteen, broadcasted on BBC Three in 2017, has a female lead who is a victim of abduction. The Missing also featured missing girls who were rescued by a male detective. Meanwhile ITV's Victoria, focusses on the monarch's domestic life and relationship with Albert.
Some dramas have challenged female gender roles. Forensic crime drama Silent Witness starred Emilia Fox and attracted audiences of eight million. Orange is the New Black and BBC military drama Our Girl also challenge stereotypes. But these programmes are in the minority.
The solution? Hire more female writers and producers.
Statistics on the gender ratio of screen writers are hard to find, but Stage recently revealed that nearly 9/10 musicals had male writers, and 3/4 of musicals had no women on their writing team. This follows the BBC’s revelation that only a third of its highest paid stars are female. The Harvey Weinstein scandal need hardly be mentioned to highlight the dangers such inequality can lead to.
Inequality in the media reinforces patriarchy at large. In politics, only 32% of MPs are women: and this is a ‘record high’. In economics, the gender pay gap is falling, but on average men are still being paid £100 a week more than women. In society, women continue to be subjugated. The Home Office has revealed that, on average, two women are killed each week due to domestic violence.
Media organisations have a responsibility to aid gender equality. Television hugely influences stereotypes about masculinity and femininity. We need more dramas with female leads in unconventional roles. Directors need to stop popularising chauvinistic dramas where protagonists disrespect to women. Let’s hope 2018 will be the year for change.