Susan Liddy looks into why Irish female screenwriters are so thin on the ground and what can be done about it.
Here’s the problem: according to Irish Film Board CEO James Hickey ‘the central role of the IFB is to invest in Irish creative talent’ (Irish Film 2014: An Eye on Talent: 7). But a review of the Film Board’s funding decisions tells another story. Irish women writers or writer/directors are not getting much of a look-in. Even though the Irish Film Board is funded with taxpayer’s money, and Irish women make up half the population, support is primarily directed to male writers. All of which begs the question: where is the female writing talent? Because it is not showing up on the screen. In fact, in the twenty year period, 1993-2013, only 13% of produced screenplays were penned by Irish, or Irish based, women writers.
What I am trying to tease out here is why Irish female writers are so thin on the ground and what can be done about it. We are supposed to be telling stories about ourselves to ourselves and others. The IFB talks about investing in ‘Irish stories’ and yet the majority of our stories are told by men and are about men. How do we make sense of that? Are we to believe Irish women writers are uninterested in, or incapable of, writing for film? Or is their work being side-lined because screenplays written by women just fail to measure up?
Seems like these kinds of questions surface every few years but the debate tends to lose momentum. Maybe the status quo has become so naturalized that most people accept the gender imbalance as ‘just the way it is’. It may also point to a culture of silence motivated by fear of being labelled ‘sour grapes’ in a small film community. Lately, however, there are persistent voices of dissent on the horizon, not only in Ireland but across Europe and beyond. Here, to highlight just a few, Women in Film and Television, has reorganized; the summer months saw impassioned discussions at the Galway Film Fleadh and the IFI; the Writers Guild have presented preliminary findings from the 3rd Zebbies Report and reiterated concerns about the ongoing and persistent gender gap. As I write the IFB is undertaking a Strategic Review and the gender issue is, at least, on the table. It seems timely, then, to reflect on aspects of ‘the woman question’.
Unfortunately, the IFB does not collate gender statistics, a serious omission in terms of transparency and the provision of public information. As a result there are gaps in our understanding of precisely where, why and how the industry loses women writers. Even the very basic figures I am citing here had to be extrapolated from the IFB production catalogues and published funding decisions and are necessarily partial and provisional. Over the three years, 2012 -2014, only 26% of development funding allocations (fiction) went to projects that had a female writer attached. But because the gender of applicants is not noted, we do not know categorically how many women applied in the first place. Let’s operate on the assumption that the Film Board is not getting as many submissions from women as from men. The first cause for concern, then, is why so many Irish women writers are effectively selecting out? On the road to production things go from bad to worse. Over the same three years just 17% of production funding allocations were directed to projects that had a female writer.
Sceptics will undoubtedly cite free choice or ‘wilting lily’ arguments. It is all down to the individual. Nobody is stopping women from applying, maybe they just do not have what it takes. Stand up or shut up: write or don’t write. After all, that is what male writers have to do. Except that in a society like ours where gender roles were so sharply segregated for such a long time and where women traditionally did not have a public voice, it is a bit more complex than that. Sometimes change needs a helping hand. We have seen it in education and we are going to be seeing it in the political arena. Feels like a good time for the film industry to take stock. The danger is that the gender gap is a disincentive to women writers and directors to stay in the industry. The lack of female visibility can then act as a deterrent for younger women who cannot see the possibilities because so few women are writing /directing feature films. In that scenario it is that much more difficult for women to believe their stories and their vision is valid and important.
All this is lamentable from an employment equality perspective but there are other concerns. Female characters are too often relegated to the margins of the story world. For instance in the top one hundred US films of 2013 only 15% of protagonists were women and only 29% were major characters. But research suggests that there is a link between having women in creative roles behind the camera and the inclusion of more women on screen. This is why the female ‘holy trinity’ is so important – writers, directors and, to a lesser extent, producers. In an Irish context, just 18% of all Irish films produced between 1998 and 2013 and written by a male writer had a female protagonist. A further 7% had both a female and a male character at the heart of the narrative. In comparison, over the same twenty year period, 64% of films written by an Irish female writer lead with a female protagonist.
Irish women writers seem more likely to put the spotlight on complex female characters. This is not to say that their work is overtly feminist in content or tone and it is not necessarily about ‘women’s issues’ either. Stressing the importance of women writers and directors does not imply that women are a homogeneous group who are automatically drawn to the same material. Women writers and directors can tell all kinds of stories about men or women or anything at all that fires their imagination. They are individuals with different passions, influences and preoccupations. But they are also Irish women with a shared history and maybe, given that our history is one of exclusion and marginalization, it is unsurprising that they might view the world from a different perspective.
Over the last few months, during the course of academic research about Irish women screenwriters and the potential for affirmative action, I have been trying to unpick some of these issues in interviews with James Hickey, project manager Mary Callery and a number of Board members who agreed to discuss the situation and put their views on record: Bill O Herlihy, Annie Doona, Katie Holly, John Rice and Maurice Sweeney. So, is anyone in the Irish Film Board bothered one way or another? The short answer is most of them freely acknowledge that there is a problem and most support some kind of action, albeit with varying degrees of urgency and conviction. This new Board has some fresh voices that, theoretically anyway, want to be proactive on this issue. However, asserting support for the principal of equality is one thing. The challenge for all of us is what we are going to do about it.
Here are a few thoughts. Funding could be ring-fenced for a few years to actively target women screenwriters. For instance an awareness campaign would acknowledge the problem publically and encourage submissions; Screen Training Ireland could facilitate mentoring programmes, specialist training or workshops for promising scripts that did not quite make the grade; women-only development funding rounds and a low budget feature initiative for female teams could be introduced. Within the IFB it is also important to deal with the possibility of unconscious bias in the selection process. For instance, do women and men write different genre and does this have an impact on who gets funded? There is also a sound argument that scripts be sent to external readers anonymously and receive more extensive and constructive feedback.
Finally, when talk turns to increasing the numbers of women in the film industry it is not long before the word ‘quota’ rears its head. Many are ambivalent about it and many more are downright antagonistic. Nonetheless at the IFI panel discussion in July there were calls for a quota system along the lines of the Swedish model which is aiming for a 50/ 50 funding by the end of 2015. Women in Film and Television have suggested a more modest quota of 30%. Whatever label we hang on it, maybe there is an argument for skewing development funding in the direction of female written projects for a few years to increase the pool of active women writers? Let’s look at what other funding bodies are doing, we do not have to reinvent the wheel.
At the end of the day, the IFB does not hold all the cards and production companies ultimately decide what projects and writers they will support. However the BFI’s ‘three ticks’ – introduced to increase diversity in British film – has demonstrated that they can be encouraged to reflect on their slate, if they want to be funded. There is scope for the IFB to take a similar stand. It is true that this is a complex problem that probably does not have a quick fix. There are cultural factors at work that require longer term strategies. But there is a lot that can be done now if the political will is there. For the IFB to simply restate its ‘gender neutral’ mantra is merely to evade the challenge. All we will get is more of the same. As a funding gatekeeper the IFB must take a leadership role by interrogating its own practices and helping to drive change. The Irish Film Board does not have a magic wand to make it better straightaway but, for the sake of the industry, it must make a start.
Dr. Susan Liddy lectures in the Department of Media and Communications, Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick. She is currently researching Irish women screenwriters and the possibilities and challenges posed by affirmative action strategies. Recent work includes:
2014, ‘First Impressions: Debut Features by Irish Screenwriters’ in Craig Batty (ed.), Screenwriting and Screenwriters: Putting Practice into Context, London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
(2015 forthcoming) ‘Look Who’s Talking! Irish Female Screenwriters’ in Jule Selbo and Jill Nelmes (eds.), Women Screenwriters: An International Guide, London and New York: Palgrave.