The entertainment industry is supposed to be a mirror of our society. What’s blaring back at us bears little resemblance to reality, writes Adele Perovic.
Like all the other women and gender non-conforming people present at the Logies this year, I had to sit and listen while Molly Meldrum disgustingly rambled on about his assistant’s breasts when he ‘interrupted’ Samuel Johnson’s Gold Logies speech.
No-one stopped him.
No-one on stage took away the microphone, or cut the sound. No-one did anything, other than openly laugh, chuckle or look mildly embarrassed.
When I complained about it at my table, my male co-star excused Meldrum’s behaviour, citing his stroke and continuing health concerns as the reason for his diatribe.
As upset as I am about sexual assault and harassment in the entertainment industry, I’m much more interested and invested in talking about the perfect storm of an environment that has been created which encourages and normalises this violence.
This is a system and we are forced to fit within its confines, sometimes even without our knowledge. All the intersections we see in life (race, class, gender, sexuality, ability) are magnified here. Rather than focus on individual instances of violence, I’d prefer to talk about the ways in which inequality, misogyny and privilege run unchecked in our industry, and the implications this has, not only for all of us as individuals and as an industry, but just as importantly for the power that the art we all create has to challenge and alter society.
My perspective is in no way universal – there is no one ‘female’ experience in the Australian film and television industry. That being said, we should see inequality and abuse here as we see it in society – nothing is happening here that does not go on in any other workplace or business.
But to look at what we see so explicitly in the Australian television and film industry, overwhelmingly the narratives we see represented are consistently focused on women’s lives, feelings, sexuality and bodies viewed through the eyes of men.
Women and gender non-conforming people’s participation in key creative roles hasn’t really changed since the 1970’s. People of colour and/or disabled people and/or LGBTIAQ+ people continue to be grossly under-represented on television.
Our national obsession with stories about violent white men (Chopper, Animal Kingdom, The Boys, Romper Stomper, Wake in Fright – many of which we can see being rebooted for television this year) means that just as we expect larrikinism, a lack of emotional range and abject violence from men, we require passivity and consumptive sexuality from women.
In a show I worked on, I complained about a scene in which my character would be portrayed naked in the bath, even though it made absolutely no narrative sense whatsoever, either to the episode or the series arc. After discussions between the executive producers, key creatives and the network that I was not privy to, it was decided that the scene would stay – it was important that the ‘hot girl’ was seen in this sexual light in the first episode.
Nudity has been a requirement of almost every role I have ever booked. My nudes have been screen-shotted and will exist on Google Images forever. Whether anyone who worked on the show considered this outcome is irrelevant. Nudity is often just what is expected.
You can also be sure as a ‘woman’ in this narrative environment, that your existence will be defined in relation to a man, or your role will be to support the agency of a man – you will play the love interest, the wife or the girlfriend.
During the rehearsal process for a show I was working on, I raised concerns that my character, the most prominent female character in the show, was being reduced to a reactive and supportive girlfriend trope. These conversations made me uncomfortable, but I felt it was important that those with influence over the show’s direction were aware of the implications of reducing and sanitising female characters.
My male co-star reacted to these conversations with alternating frustration and incredulity, privately undermining and belittling me, even questioning my ‘feminism’. This same man had previously referred to me as ‘the girl of the show’, as though that were a compliment.
Further to the violent white men trope, as a woman you must expect narrative violence to be perpetrated against you. Yes, violence towards men is also featured, however as a man you are allowed to fight and win, or lose with agency and dignity.
As a woman, you’re more likely to have your agency taken away. To be kidnapped and tied to a chair. Raped. Brutally murdered or beaten. Used as bait.
The amount of auditions I have done in which I have had to act out, completely unbeknownst to the casting agent, my own history of family violence is maddening. Traumatising, even. We see this magnified in narrative violence against people of colour, especially women and LGBTIQA+ people of colour.
Violence is perpetrated against them in real life, so it should be the same in art, right? Simply mirroring life is lazy storytelling, and I would argue that there is an inherent violence in forcing someone into a situation, fictional or otherwise, that they have fought for their life to escape.
All of these tropes around ‘women’ can be seen in the roles I have played in Australian television and film, and even more so in the many, many roles I have auditioned for, but did not book. There are so many of us, young beautiful women, how are we supposed to stand out? It follows that you must be the most willing. The least difficult. The easiest to work with. The most available. If you don’t do it, someone else will.
There is a reason why my co-star was hostile when I raised the issue of the passivity of my character. As someone in a position of power, as more established male actors often are, he saw that my request for greater agency might come at the cost of some of his own.
All men profit and benefit from an industry that prioritises men and consumes women and non-gender conforming people, in the same way that all white people benefit from white privilege.
I am keenly aware that as a cis-gender, white, middle-class woman I am more likely to be believed when I talk about harassment, violence and inequality than others in my industry. I have seen first hand friends of mine, clever articulate Aboriginal women, speak out about violence perpetrated against them, only to be exploited and then condemned by a racist and sexist media, having their personal and professional credibility questioned.
The Australian entertainment industry is not broken – it simply was never created to support and protect marginalised people the way it does those who are privileged. Some steps that could be taken to stop this kind of harassment and abuse also speak to similar structural inequality in society.
The underrepresentation of people of colour (particularly women and LGBTIQA+ people of colour) is well documented and continues, despite the work of creatives of colour for generations. We see an almost complete lack of visibility of transgender and non-gender conforming people in the mainstream industry.
Our acting awards template forces us into the strict binary of “best actor” and “best actress” – what is a gender non-conforming actor to do?
Last year, Damon Herriman, a cis-gender male actor, won the AACTA Award for ‘Best Supporting Actor on a TV Drama’ for playing a trans female character, which came only months after Jeffrey Tambour’s speech where he expressed the hope that he would be the last cisgender man to play a trans woman (who has now left the show after allegations of assault against trans women in the cast and crew).
The same rhetoric also applies to disabled characters – they are rarely, if ever, played by disabled actors.
Visibility, opportunity and agency are key to making our industry one in which it is safe for marginalised people to participate. Asking for men to take an active role in making workplaces (and the world) safer, more lucrative and more satisfying for women and non-gender conforming people requires that men either take a step back (be willing to lose roles/positions/screen time/money to women) or to step forward (against the misogyny and violence of their peers, friends or of the system). It requires action.
The world we live in now is one where we can share our political views via social media, donate money to charity without a thought of how that money could be best distributed, vote Greens (or donate to the Democratic Party) and feel like we’ve done our bit to shirk off our privilege. These ‘politics’ can be used as social capital, as it’s now ‘cool’ to seem to care about structural inequality (read: seem), but it can also be used as a shield by so-called ‘feminist’ men to get close to young women and to protect their reputation if they are ever questioned or accused.
However, politics are personal – your politics aren’t just who you vote for or what you share on your Facebook page. It’s the behaviour you allow to go unchecked from your family members, from your friends, from your peers or in your workplace.
It’s the injustices you ignore because they don’t directly affect you. It’s the cast with no people of colour. It’s my co-star’s refusal to engage with my narrative suggestions. It’s the cis-gender male actor who wins the award for playing a transgender woman.
Standing up and speaking against this inequality and lack of opportunity is the first step, and that will always be at the cost of those who have power. Me included.
An industry created for and dominated by men will always leave women and gender non-conforming people vulnerable to violence and harassment, because a climate has been created where men are prioritised. A diverse industry with equal representation for all kinds of women and gender non-conforming people makes it much harder for the Harvey Weinstein’s and Don Burke’s of the world to abuse people and get away with it.
The age of excuses for misogynistic and xenophobic behaviour (stroke or no) is well and truly over. It’s time for active accountability and action.
And if you consider that to be excessive, then maybe you shouldn’t be working in the industry in the first place.
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