The Rise and Rise of Women-led Drama?

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Hulu’s new series “Harlots” is set among the brothels of 1763 London. (Liam Daniel / Hulu)

The cast of Big Little Lies triumphed at the Emmys. Endless think-pieces are penned on the cinematic success of Wonder Woman. Elizabeth Moss proudly declared “We are writing the story ourselves” while accepting the Golden Globe for The Handmaid’s Tale. The first female Doctor Who appeared in the sci-fi’s 55 year history.

As this year has unfolded, it has been hard to ignore the many media celebrations of female-led dramas. Variety, the American entertainment trade paper, has acclaimed the flexing of “femme muscle” in its headlines. The Radio Times has hailed new series Britannia as a “girl power drama” free from patriarchy. Can we assume there is a sea change underway in terms of female representation in movies and television drama? And if so, is it sustainable?

The story from the cinema multiplexes on the surface looks encouraging. The top three box-office successes of 2017 were Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Beauty and the Beast and Wonder Woman. All three movies were led by female protagonists. To appreciate the scale of that achievement, we need to go back 59 years to find the last time female-led films occupied the three top-grossing films of the year. That’s a long time since Mitzi Gaynor was washing that man right out of her hair in South Pacific, Rosalind Russell took to raising her nephew Patrick in Auntie Mame and Elizabeth Taylor showed her claws in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

For a film franchise starting back in 1977 with only two female characters in the entire film, who knew that forty years on and seven films later, a female protagonist in the shape of Daisy Ridley’s Rey would be driving the Star Wars blockbuster series? Or that Emma Watson as Belle would help Beauty and the Beast become the eleventh highest grossing film of all time, smashing the shibboleth that films with female headliners don’t make money? Or, as the testosterone-fuelled world of superhero movies faltered, the female-led, female-directed Wonder Woman lassoed critical acclaim as well as box office receipts of $821.8 million worldwide. Set against the background of the Weinstein accusations, the #MeToo and the Time’s Up campaigns, these results were cited as representing a tipping point in Hollywood values.

Sadly, several factors might indicate the future is not quite as bright as it seems. Out of the 100 top-grossing films of last year, only 8% had a woman director and only 10% had female writers. Worse still, the lack of female representation is deeply embedded into the scripts themselves. In The Pudding website’s script analysis from 2,000 screenplays, they discovered that only 22% of scripts had a female character lead. Without women writers and directors, it’s unlikely there would be the infrastructure to lead a sustained cultural change in the movie world.

In the world of television, the recent months also have been distinguished by the success of female-led dramas. The gripping HBO series Big Little Lies starring Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and Laura Dern explored a spectrum of female behaviour against the backdrop of a murder in Monterey, California. Dominating awards season, it scooped 4 Golden Globes, 8 Primetime Emmys, 2 Screen Actors Guild awards and 4 Critics’ Choice awards. The subscription service Hulu commissioned an adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale. Set after a Second American Civil War, women live as the property of the State, many forced into sexual servitude. The resultant 10-part TV drama was widely acclaimed, garnering 8 Primetime Emmy wins, 2 Golden Globe victories and being named The Guardian newspaper’s “Best TV show of 2017”.

Of course, while these two female-centric shows have justifiably enjoyed much success, what is the broader outlook in terms of representation on the small screen? In terms of new dramas being commissioned, terrestrial channels have cottoned on that the majority of viewers are women and would like to see their experiences represented onscreen. In 2017, the BBC commissioned 14 new dramas with women as the main characters, compared to 12 new male-led dramas. On ITV, last year, their new commissions were predominantly female-led with 6 having women as the main character compared to just one male-led and three ensemble or shared-gender dramas.

As well as being commissioned, even more encouraging is that these are the ones that are being watched. The Moorside, the recreation of the Shannon Matthews disappearance starring Sheridan Smith, was the most watched new drama last year getting over 10 million viewers. Erotic thriller Apple Tree Yard with Emily Watson, Clique, BBC Three’s series of female university students becoming entangled with a dark mystery, and even the melodramatic police drama, Bancroft, have all proved hits with the viewers and have been recommissioned for second series.

This is contrast to most of last year’s new dramas with male protagonists. Rellik, a crime story told backwards, dropped out of the Top 30 ratings after only two episodes out of six. SS-GB, the BBC’s big budget Len Deighton adaptation set in a 1941 where the Nazis had won the war, shed more than half its audience across its five episode run. It’s not to say that male dramas are failing because they are about men, but you could argue that female-led dramas such as Three Girls, Good Karma Hospital and In The Dark are offering newer, less familiar narratives to viewers.

Where television offers more cause for optimism is with the production side. The second series Doctor Foster, the BBC’s hit psychological thriller, returned with an even larger audience than its ground-breaking debut. Its lead actress Suranne Jones took on associate producer responsibilities on the follow-up series and spoke of her satisfaction of being able to contribute and influence the creative process of the show. This follows the same pattern as Big Little Lies where Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman took executive producer roles as well as appearing in the mini-series. Witherspoon told People magazine that for 25 years of her career, she had been the only woman on the set when filming. Using her production company Pacific Standard to create the award-winning, female ensemble drama, she realised her stated aim “to start seeing women how they actually are on film-we need to see real women’s experience-whether that involves domestic violence, sexual assault, romance, infidelity, or divorce.”

With television’s current insatiable desire for drama, greater opportunities have been available for female-led dramas to reach the screen. Co-productions between terrestrial TV channels and subscription channels has eroded the traditional male-dominated commissioning orbit. ITV and Hulu co-produced Harlots a glorious Georgian drama that boasts a “whore’s eye view” of two rival houses of ill-repute. What makes it particularly noteworthy is it was created by two women, Alison Newman and Moira Buffini, it has an all-female team of executive producers, it is written only by women writers and the directors are also all women. Lesley Manville who stars in Harlots told the Radio Times recently that she believes a change in representation is underway. “That’s because film and television-makers realise that there is a huge audience of women who want to go to the cinema or turn on the telly and see stuff that doesn’t alienate them, that embraces them, that isn’t just about gorgeous 20- or 30-somethings, that represents their lives.”
With television allowing greater access to the creative process, for the foreseeable future, it seems better positioned to sustain a healthy supply of female-led dramas than its cinematic counterpart.

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