Vamps, Vixens and Feminists 2010 – Fighting the Backlash – Sphinx Theatre Company at The Young Vic, 28 October 2010.

Some notes from the conference

Sue from Sphinx opened and introduced Beatrix Campbell.

Beatrix Campbell spoke of a “resurgence of feminist energy, of feminist ideas.”  She referred to current economic events as “the most challenging economic environment in our whole lives” and posed the question: “what is this moment that we are in?”

She perceived a difference between the feminism of “this moment” and that of the 1970’s.  The mood among feminists then was optimistic; now it is pessimistic.

She introduced two words that have recently returned to our vocabularies – capitalism and crisis – two words that were not to be uttered – certainly not together but which, she stated, belong together.  She used the example of the economic crisis to show that the culture of unfettered masculinity and “blokeiness” (as well as greed, of course) that precipitated the current crisis is being questioned, possibly for the first time, not only by the usual commentators but by others in society.

She said that something has changed in that we are having this “national conversation” where the nature of masculinity is being questioned.  The question “what is masculinity?” has become mainstream, widening to include child sexual abuse in the catholic church, the stoning of women in Iran, the murder of lesbians in South Africa and …Wayne Rooney. 

In closing, she referred to the legal action being brought by the Fawcett Society against the government because of its failure to carry out an ‘equality impact assessment’ before making decisions in the comprehensive spending review or cuts, as required under the Equality Act.

Links to her recent relevant pieces in the Guardian:    and

Journalist, writer and art critic, Bidisha and writer and theatre critic for the Observer, Susanna Clapp followed with a discussion on the under-representation of women in the arts.  First, Bidisha read a piece published in the Guardian in April this year ( ) in which she enumerated the areas in which women are so under-represented their presence amounts to no more than tokenism.  She said that when she writes of such issues, she feels she is making obvious points which have been “percolating in women’s minds” for ages.  She mentioned the sense of powerlessness felt by her and other women in the media industry and that she doesn’t know what to do about it. 

Susanna Clapp, as a theatre critic mused on why there were so few women theatre critics, a question she has asked male colleagues in the past and to which she has received the astonishing reply that it is a macho profession because of “all that walking alone at night.”

The Hampstead Theatre and especially the Royal Court Theatre were praised for championing the work of women playwrights but the National was seen as a “problem” in this area.

They agreed that it was difficult to know what to do – people don’t like to complain especially as “the language of dissent has been pejoratised” (shrill, anybody?) but the way to deal with the problem was, as always, collective action.  One woman may not make a difference but 30 women writing to, say, a features’ editor might.   

There followed a panel featuring Guy Hibbert, screenwriter (Blood and Oil, 2010); Joy Wilkinson, playwright (Women, Power and Politics at the Tricycle); Glen Walford, Theatre Director (Shirley Valentine);  Ann Mitchell, actor (Widows);  Geoff Colman, Head of Acting at the Central School of Speech and Drama which was chaired by Julia from Sphinx.

The main points made were that it starts with writers and the producers who commission work from them – Guy Hibbert showed how it is possible to “think female” or find a female story even when writing about a male environment as he did in Blood and Oil.  Glen Walford spoke of her frustration with women who collude with victimisation and Ann Mitchell introduced the issue of class to the discussion.  Geoff Colman presented some interesting statistics and insights.  He noticed a tendency for female students to become thinner, girlier and more sexualised in their final year at drama school and reported that although two thirds of drama students are female, because of a concentration on traditional “dead writer” plays (“old narratives – male driven”), they are unlikely to be cast in good parts because of their gender.  Introducing works by new writers improved the situation at CSSD.

The next panel featured Jean Rogers, vice-president of Equity; Kate Kinninmont, Director of Women in Film and TV; and Sarah Rushton-Read, Founder and Director of Women in Stage Management.  Points made included the necessity for a cultural shift as legislation alone is not enough to change things.  Skillset have produced statistics showing that a majority of new entrants to TV are women and they are usually more qualified than their male counterparts but, by the age of 35, half have disappeared so half of women in TV are under 35 or another way of looking at it is – a woman going into TV has a 50/50 chance of only having a 12-year career. 

We were reminded that the industrial tribunal brought by Miriam O’Reilly against the BBC for ageism will be held on 4th November (the BBC having got rid of Ms O’Reilly and two other female presenters in their 40s and 50s from Countryfile, while retaining John Craven – who’s about 70).  Other female presenters (but not males) were told that when HD television was introduced, they would have to see about botox.  To her credit, Miriam O’Reilly has refused a payout in the form of a gagging order, so that she can pursue the case.

Then Rachel Millward of Birds Eye View (celebrating women film makers); Sarah Maple (artist and activist); and Esme Peach (International Women’s Day project manager) all joined Bidisha on the final panel of the day. 

After more statistics (women make up only 7% of directors; no women directors were featured at Cannes this year), Rachel provided the background to setting up BEV and the film festival, now an international event in its sixth year, covering 80 events over eight days. 

She provided telling anecdotes such as screenwriter/ actor/director, Julie Delpy’s experiment of  sending the same proposal twice into studios – in her name and in a guy’s name – guess who got called in?  Rachel made the point that women directors only get one chance and if they don’t succeed first time, they can pretty much forget it.

BEV also seek to hothouse emerging talent by providing labs and workshops for women in film, including writers, as well as helping with distribution for finished films.   

The conference should soon be available on Sphinx’s own website and written transcriptions will be available at some point – or so they said at the conference…

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