Natasha Tripney: We have a female Doctor Who at last! But what about the women storytellers?
So Jodie Whittaker is to be the new Doctor Who. The news was extremely cheering and it was a joy to see social media (largely) saturated with joy and handclap emojis.
But something remains awry, and not just the fact that someone with a vagina bagging the lead role in a major television show is headline news in 2017. Amid all the fevered speculation over when and if we would get a female Doctor Who, there has been nothing in the way of conversation over when and if we will get a female Doctor Who showrunner.
Look at the majority of showrunners working on critically acclaimed TV shows of the last few years and you will be hard-pressed to find one with a vagina among them. This affects the shape and nature of the stories in our culture: sometimes the person telling the story is just as important as the type of story being told.
Recently The Stage published research that showed male writers outnumber women nine to one in British musicals. That’s almost as disheartening as the current Hampstead Theatre programme of eight plays, which doesn’t feature a single female playwright. Or that if Theatre Royal Bath wasn’t about to present an adaption of a Alfred Hitchcock film by a female writer, it too would be an all-dude zone.
Whenever you highlight figures such as these, there are always commentators quick to launch the counterargument that the numbers don’t matter so much as the quality of the work. Every time, under every article, the same rebuttal: maybe the work was just better, maybe women aren’t writing as many good plays. As if there were no other commercial or societal factors that might play a part in whether a work gets staged, or ends up on screen.
Yes, some theatres have addressed this successfully and we’re in a place now where London’s Royal Court’s literary manager Chris Campbell can say at London Writers’ Week that the “lack of female playwrights [is] no longer an issue” at the Royal Court and “diversity [in terms of] men and women has improved so drastically during my time working in theatre it is almost laughable”. That’s excellent for the Royal Court and its audience – backslaps and cookies for them. But it’s far from being the case throughout the industry. There’s still work to be done.
So while it’s exciting that a two-hearted, time-travelling alien is going to assume female form and similarly thrilling to see so many great actresses let loose on Shakespeare’s meatiest roles, as has been happening of late, it’s just as vital that new characters of complexity and depth are written for women, and new stories – rather than reworked and repurposed versions of old stories – are told by women.
It’s vital because the stories we tell infiltrate and influence the way we view the world in ways both overt and covert. None of us are immune to this; if you grow up never seeing a person who resembles you in a position of power, alien or otherwise, it matters. If we’re repeatedly exposed to stories about women who are defined by the nature of the relationships to the men in their lives, to their lovers, husbands, fathers, it matters. If the women in our stories are, essentially, prizes, or even more insidiously, traps, it matters. If women’s stories are shown to end with marriage or motherhood, it matters. If the same stories keep being told by the same groups of people, again and again, it matters.
Of late I have found myself drawn to the graphic novel as a form, because there you can find an abundance of female-led narratives and the kind of diversity of voice and body you rarely see on stage.
This is not just about representation of women of colour and queer women, though that’s a large part of the appeal. It goes deeper than that. It’s about the variety of human experience and the shifting of narrative goalposts, the exploration of the different shapes power can take. Note, I am not holding up comic-book world as any kind of storytelling utopia – because that would be stupid. As writer Chelsea Cain has pointed out: “There is still a vocal segment of the comic-book readership that is dominated by sexist jerks with Twitter accounts,” and she should know.
But there’s an appetite for such stories that doesn’t get sated nearly often enough on stage or on our screens. It exists because, like all humans, I am the protagonist of my own story. I am no one’s sub-plot or secondary character, no one’s harridan boss or manic pixie, no one’s ‘love interest’ or, for that matter, companion, and I want to see my story told.