Missing Something? Women in TV

Reading Sophie Porter’s Female Arts review of our web series ‘Missing Something’ http://femalearts.com/node/921, I was particularly struck by a question which she posed – is it ‘feminist friendly’? The review made me reassess the series in a way I perhaps hadn’t before. As a female producer in the industry and of course a feminist myself, I naturally have a personal investment in the position and framing of women in film and television culture. I’d always been confident that Missing Something presented strong and interesting female characters – between the lead Rachel, her dramatic friend Annie and her sardonic housemate Claire, the series passes the Bechdel test with flying colours. Topics of discussion between the leads include Annie’s hypochondria, Rachel’s job crises, local superhero vigilantes and accommodation issues, amongst others. But as well as these, they do discuss Rachel’s love life. And her love life – the fact she misses Freddie and initially believes she wants him back – is indeed a strong thread in the series.

If viewers watch until the end they'll see what I hope is a rather satisfying conclusion to that particular question, which is in itself only one of Rachel’s story arcs throughout the series. In feminist terms, series like Sex and the City, where the characters often only discuss their love lives, are certainly problematic. But is it wrong that the romances of a female protagonist should be explored amongst her other narratives – with her love interest, if male, perhaps even serving her narrative in a way that sometimes women have been relegated to in male-centric films? Fabulous, female-centric series like Orange is the New Black and Girls increasingly offer a new kind of storytelling for and about women – but they’re not shy of exploring the topic of romance, amongst others. After all, it’s just as much a part of individual human experience as are topics like ambitions, careers, hopes and dreams.

But as someone who’s worked for over six years in in the film and television industry, both in agencies with talent, as well as at production companies choosing what to develop, there’s ultimately a broader issue at play. There’s a continuing lack of dynamic female narratives – whether about romance or other issues – being told across the board. There is a prevailing, damaging belief in the film industry in particular that female characters don’t sell – and financiers are wary of their commercial prospects, which affects development not only at the financing but also the writing stage. I saw a note recently from a production company which recommended that the two female leads in a sci-fi thriller script in active development be amended to a female/male dynamic, thus opening up the possibilities for – you’ve guessed it – a love triangle. This, apparently, was because female characters don’t generate foreign sales. The fact that this is in a genre with a strong tradition of female heroes, from Alien to Prometheus, is concerning enough. But recent statistics just don’t bear out the comment, given that The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Frozen and Gravity were all in the top 10 of the biggest grossing films worldwide in 2013, and all featured female protagonists.

Until women make inroads into the higher, decision-making levels of the industry, where film and television is financed and final funding decisions made, this trend will surely continue. A survey by The New York Film Academy in 2012 found that women made up only 17% of executive producer roles on the top 250 box office films of that year. And that's where crowdfunding is invaluable, as it gives female creators, writers and producers a new level of creative freedom. We financed and produced the entire series of ‘Missing Something’ through Kickstarter, and it allowed the team to function without being beholden to financiers concerns. It’s a genuinely exciting new model of funding for young creatives across all disciplines, and by allowing an engaged audience to interact with the product early in the development process it opens up new ways of thinking about how we define a term like 'commercial'. In the future new funding and distribution options such as this will hopefully allow a bigger diversity of work to flourish and find a home in the industry, and give currently underrepresented voices more space to be heard.

(c) Melissa Johnson-Peters 2014
Melissa Johnson-Peters @melsyjp is the producer of web-TV programme 'Missing Something'.

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