Celebrating International Women’s Day: The Women Unafraid to Tell Women’s Stories

With the recent celebration of International Women’s Day, I reflected upon the headlines I’ve seen over the last few weeks about women’s inequality within the media: the controversy as the awards season once again highlighted gender inequality within the film industry; how an actor such as Casey Affleck, who is under accusation of sexual harassment and intimidation, can be awarded an Oscar; the struggle of actresses such as Amy Adams, Reese Witherspoon and Emma Watson as they fight against inherent sexism – leading to Witherspoon creating her own company, Pacific Standard, to make more films with strong female leads, whilst Watson launched the HeForShe campaign and leads her own feminist book club.

For some reason, it is still difficult for women to break into the highest-ranking positions in the film industry. A study in 2015 revealed that women made up a mere 19% of the top ‘behind-the scenes’ jobs. Women are not a minority, and there are plenty of talented women working within the film industry with the knowledge and experience to get these jobs, so it is puzzling where there is still such an imbalance.

However, there are some areas where women’s voices have broken through. Particularly in TV, female writers, directors and producers are using this platform to speak out and represent the lives of women today. This International Women’s Day, I wanted to celebrate these women who are unafraid to tell women’s stories.

Lena Dunham

Creator, writer and star of hit TV show Girls, Dunham sparked controversy when the first series of the show aired in 2012 for its frank depiction of nudity and sex. A progamme that explores the lives of four very different women after university as they struggle to build careers, have successful relationships and maintain friendships, it has come to be heralded as the voice of the millennial generation. The show touches upon a range of themes that are relevant to young women today, some of which are considered taboo. It unashamedly shows female masturbation on a number of occasions; mental health issues are explored through Hannah’s struggles with anxiety and OCD (both of which are autobiographical from Dunham’s own life); Hannah explores her own sexuality in the show, giving oral to another girl in one explicit scene, whilst her father comes out as gay; Jessa struggles with drug and alcohol addiction, attending rehab then AA meetings. The way these women sometimes support each other, sometimes fight, depicts the harsh reality of learning to be independent whilst struggling to pay the rent.

One of the most striking aspects of the series is its casual nudity. Hannah (Dunham) is often seen without clothes. She proudly presents her body, tattooed and a different body shape to the thin ‘beauty’ we are told women are supposed to look like. Unlike other shows, she doesn’t display her body in a way that is meant to be sexualised or titillating – it just is. She has been heralded for bringing a “normal” body to TV, showing a confidence in her body image that is empowering. The same can be said for Dunham off-screen – the February 2017 cover of Glamour featured Dunham’s bare legs without being photoshopped, allowing everyone to see her cellulite.

Lena Dunham and the team behind Girls have been nominated for over 40 awards and won 9, including ‘Best Television Series – Comedy or Musical’ at the Golden Globes and the ‘International Prize’ at the BAFTAS. Dunham become the first woman to ever win ‘Outstanding Directorial Achievement’ for a comedy series at the Director’s Guild of America Awards.

Although Girls is coming to an end – the last series is currently on TV – Dunham has confirmed an upcoming film. With her Lenny website and weekly newsletter (http://www.lennyletter.com) discussing ‘feminism, style, health, politics, friendship and everything else’, you can be sure there’s still a lot more that Dunham has to say.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge

Phoebe Waller-Bridge surged to fame last year due to the dual successes of Fleabag (BBC) and Crashing (C4), which she wrote and starred in herself. Fleabag in particular drew international acclaim for her depiction of a twenty-something in London, struggling to find meaningful connections after the death of her best friend. Although the subject matter is very serious, Fleabag is undeniably a comedy, thanks to Waller-Bridge’s darkly funny script and impeccable comic timing. For anyone who denies that women can be funny, point them in the direction of Fleabag.

Fleabag shares many similarities with Girls. Like Dunham, Waller-Bridge deliberately exposes her character’s flaws: the protagonist (we never do learn her name) is selfish, egotistical, cynical – to the point where she even steals from her own family. By being so upfront in portraying their protagonists’ flaws, Dunham and Waller-Bridge force the audience to face the fact that women are not supposed to be sublime; Waller-Bridge has stated that Fleabag arose from her anger at ‘media pressure to be perfect’. Gone are the days when we were limited to being the ‘angel of the house’: the modern woman is complex, outspoken, and, yes, feminist.

Whilst Fleabag has significantly less nudity than Girls, it does share its attitude to sex. The opening scene of the first episode of Fleabag depicts Waller-Bridge’s character waiting by the door for her booty call to arrive; during the second scene she enjoys anal sex, then a few scenes later ‘Fleabag’ masturbates to a video of Barack Obama. Her casual attitude to sex represents many young women and their relationships today, whilst breaking down taboos. Waller-Bridge has stated that one of her missions in writing Fleabag was to communicate ‘the way that I was feeling, the way that people close to me were feeling and talking about sex’ (The Guardian, 2016). Also because she found that as an actress, ‘characters are described as ‘Adam, 30, ambitious. Luke, 26, fascinated by paleontology. Lucy, very attractive, 23.’ That made me so angry.’ (Financial Times, 2016). Frustrated by the lack of decent roles for women, Waller-Bridge created her own. With news that she is currently working on a film with Fleabag director and collaborator Vicky Jones, I can’t wait to see what other powerful female characters she brings to the screen.

Julie Andem

Although she is not a household name in the UK, Andem has broken records in her home country Norway and created history worldwide as the writer and director of TV show Skam (translated as ‘shame’). Centred around the lives of teenagers in Oslo, Skam is not afraid to touch upon the issues facing young people today: eating disorders, drug use, mental health, sexual health, childhood trauma, slut-shaming, homophobia, islamophobia, sexual harassment, first love – all are handled with a sensitivity that is refreshing to see onscreen.

Perhaps the most inspirational aspect of Skam is its core of strong, female characters, particularly self-proclaimed feminist Noora and headstrong Sana – the Muslim girl with a sharp tongue that won’t stand for any bullshit. Whilst there are moments of light-heartedness: the first time we meet Noora, she cheekily proclaims that ‘girls who call other girls sluts have 90% more chance of getting chlamydia’, and Sana’s response to a boy telling her to sit on his face: ‘why? Is your nose bigger than your dick?’, where Skam shines is in its more serious moments, tackling problems head-on. When Vilde complains that it’s unfair that girls who act slutty have a bad reputation, but boys don’t, Noora calls her out on it:

‘It’s interesting that you, who describe yourself as a feminist, is calling others slutty. [Boys don’t] have that reputation because guys don’t go around calling other guys sluts. So if you think it’s unfair, you have to stop calling girls sluts.’

For such a simple message, it is effective. Hopefully it will have an impact on its audience and encourage them think twice about the way they talk about each other. Meanwhile, as the most outspoken, feisty and funny member of the so-called ‘girl squad’, Sana breaks down stereotypes of Muslims. She also has some of the most powerful speeches throughout the show’s three series. When discussing war, she explains that it:

‘doesn’t start with violence. It starts with misunderstanding and prejudice. If you say you’re in favour of a world full of peace, you have to try to understand why others think and act the way they do. You have to accept that not everyone sees the world the way you do.’

This call for acceptance is all the more powerful coming from a strong Muslim woman at a time when prejudice is becoming truly dangerous. Instead of fighting, she argues that you merely have to understand that others have different viewpoints.

With Skam already picked up for an American remake due to start filming this year, it won’t be long before the English-language version will be on our screens. Let’s hope that they keep the powerful female characters that Skam is so applauded for.

Perhaps the most heart-warming aspect that links Girls, Fleabag and Skam is that, at their core, they are about female friendships. Although they bicker and argue, often placing themselves before their friends, the characters in Girls support each other through their problems. Fleabag is about the importance of a woman’s best friend, and her struggle to cope when she’s gone. The girls in Skam, with their different body shapes and opposing viewpoints, all facing their individual problems but so quick to support each other, even when they don’t understand each other, are one of the most realistic portrayals of female friendship I’ve ever seen. When women support each other, incredible things really do happen, and the more we see this on our screens, the better. We should celebrate the way these writers are presenting realistic depictions of modern women, in all our flaws.

Although it is clear that there has been some improvement on women’s place in the media, there is still a long way to go. The women I have mentioned above are all white, middle class, cisgender, for instance. However, the shows mentioned above do start to challenge gender inequality within the media, and we can only hope that we will continue to progress forward with greater diversity and inclusivity.

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