For once, men are the bit players

“I gave up acting in my 30s. The parts were getting harder to find,” my cousin’s wife was telling me at a family party. She had enjoyed a successful acting career, taking her from regional theatres in the UK to TV roles, including a part in the TV comedy Only Fools and Horses. But she was echoing a sentiment that I had read on Facebook and in the Guardian newspaper in the same week.“I see no parts for women aged over 50 – again,” the Facebook posting on a playwrights and acting group read after a note for auditions had gone out for a show that was going to be put on at Camden Fringe.

“There aren’t bloody well enough parts for women,” an actor was quoted in the Guardian article: Women still bit players in theatre, says Equity. The problem will remain unsolved, she told the Guardian, until “a load of geniuses come in and say ‘I can write an autonomous woman who isn’t someone’s auntie, mother or lover; who is truly a free spirit’.”

I couldn’t agree more – not that I think I’m a genius. But I am bored as a member of the audience with the type of roles that women are generally landed with. I want to see dynamic ‘free spirits’ too. And I think the only way to address this is to write about them.

When I was coming up with the concept of Martini Bond I wanted to write strong, funny roles for women. Is there a Bond movie, for example where the top villain is a woman? Henchwomen, maybe, such as Rosa Klebb. But truly in control of badness? Weclome to Franken Von Banken, to be performed by Julia Collier. OK, Franken isn’t a classic female name. But it rhymes well. Besides, she can be called Frankie for short, if necessary.

Then I’ve got Martini Bond, long-lost daughter of James who was brought up in a single parent household, and Bond girl Suzi Bazooki. We’ve added a couple of “token blokes” because the director wanted to bring in some male energy. But for once, they are the bit players.

In the Guardian article, Vicky Featherstone, who has been appointed chief of the Royal Court, a London theatre for new writing, said the problem of roles for women could be solved only through a new type of theatre and new writing. “Tired old programming of old British plays is becoming more and more redundant. It is through new plays that we can represent the world we actually live in.”

Exactly! It’s only through women writing roles for dynamic, adventurous, risk-taking women of all ages, and (female?) directors casting them, that the tired old system will change.

What do you think? Would you go to see a play where women have strong, lead roles? Or are you an actor of a certain age who has struggled to find work?

July 9, 2012. Tags: , , , , , , , , , . Blogging, Comedy, Comedy writing, Fiction, Humour, Theatre.


  1. Pauline Guerin replied:

    Interesting and valid points, I wholeheartedly agree. As a woman of ‘a certain age’ myself, one finds oneself increasingly overlooked. My own ‘work in progress’, albeit a historical novel, has a very strong woman as its centrepiece, interestingly she is hounded and murdered by ignorant, paranoid men and yet she remains strong to the last. As a Scottish woman she is permitted, nay encouraged, to retain her own surname upon marriage, even in the 1590s. I’m not sure this would translate successfully to the screen, but one can dream can’t one.

  2. Pauline Guerin replied:

    oh yes, I meant to say, I recently undertook some analysis of the female characters in fairy tales. My findings, I think, were particularly interesting. You mention female villains in your piece; isn’t it interesting that in fairy tales the female ‘villains’ are all step-mothers with no husband, widdowed, or single and bitter, as though it takes a man to validate them; to make them happy. Think how the young protagonists; Snow White, Cinderella, even Fiona in Shrek, are lost to us once they have met their Prince Charmings, as though ‘well that’s it then they’re all right, they have a man now,’ None of the female characters it seems, are able to stand on their own and be happy or indeed funny.

    I can’t wait to see your play largely because it’s so very different; because it has numerous female parts (from what you’ve said) which contain personality.

    By the way, has anyone ever read or seen the play Top Girls? It comprises a female cast, and is very interesting particularly the first act. However, for me it is ruined because Churchill has to make the plot so very complicated and, to my mind, unreachable. If she is trying to reflect the workings of a female mind I’m afraid that she succeeds only in over complicatng it and alienating 50% of her audience.

    Just thought I’d mention it


    ‘Writer’s Blog’ on

    • WomanBitesDog replied:

      I saw Top Girls a long time ago but can remember it was hard going – even though I’m a fan of Caryl Churchill

  3. Mark replied:

    I don’t want to be dismissive of the point you’re making, but it reflects the wider dynamic in society.

    There are some environments that are fertile ground for drama – the police, the law courts, the military, media, big business – and in all of them there a lot more men in influential positions. It’s notable that you get a much better balance of strong women in hospital dramas – there are more influential women in the health service – and soap operas, which are usually based in domestic settings.

    You’re right that it needs people to write the good roles for women, especially those aged over 40, and I reckon women are more likely to do it. Men are naturally going to envisage what would happen with male characters. In all the stories I’ve written over the years, only about 10% have focused on a female character (although some have had strong women in supporting roles). It’s not a deliberate attempt to shut women out, it’s just the way my mind works.

    Good on ya for having a go, and I hope Martini Bond gets a good reaction.

  4. jmmcdowell replied:

    I’d definitely see a play with a strong female story and cast. My two in-progress novels feature female characters, most of whom are “of an age.” But they’re smart, professional, still active in bed, and certainly more than “appendages” to the men in their lives.

    Our society seems to be more “popular culture” driven than ever before. If writers of all kinds would introduce more realistic and interesting female characters, it could have a good impact on society as a whole.

  5. robincoyle replied:

    Strong female roles are usually layered with more depth than what we find in male-centered films.

  6. keerthikasingaravel replied:

    I like women at the center of books or movies but I find politically correct fiction/movies a strain.So I like books like Raquela -A woman of Israel,Domina,Desiree,Katherine,Memoirs of a Geisha,Gone With The Wind.etc,
    I dislike works like Shrek.In my opinion Fiona settles for less.Certainly every woman has the right to choose as she pleases irrespective of what anybody else thinks.But as a work meant for children, how is this any better than traditional works?There women wait for prince charming to rescue them and provide them a happily ever after.Here the woman makes do with what is available and doesn’t look for better.Where is the self confidence and sense of self worth?Why should women eschew material benefits in a relationship to be considered praiseworthy?

    • WomanBitesDog replied:

      I enjoyed Memoirs of a Geisha too. I also agree with what you say about Shrek etc – long live the story where the woman chooses her career above marriage, men, children – and is not a villain for it!

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