In the Bodyguard Keeley Hawes plays the Home Secretary, Pippa Haywood plays a Chief Superintendent and Gina McKee plays head of counter terrorism at the Met Police. Although this was too much for some people to stomach it showed some healthy progress in the way women are represented on screen.
However looking further down the casting list shows that there is still room for improvement – of the credited characters in the show there are 41 men and 22 women. For Polly Kemp, actress and founder of ERA 50/50 who campaign for gender balance in representation on screen, it still wasn’t good enough.
“Even though there are women doing great things in the show, in the credited characters there are 41 men and only 22 women,” says Kemp. “There are women in there with really strong parts doing stuff we’ve never seen women do before on TV but it’s about feeding that the whole way through the show.”
The equal representation campaign says that despite making up 51 per cent of the population women are still outnumbered by men in on screen acting roles at a rate of two to one. When they are cast for roles, actresses often “have less agency and are much more likely to play victims”.
Kemp says that the trend of casting women in lead roles in a few headline shows has disguised the fact that it is not replicated further down the casting credits. Only 28 per cent of lead roles for new shows in 2017-18 went to women according to researchers at the University of California.
The issue, Kemp claims, comes from further up the chain. “The evidence shows that when women write they write more parts for women and better part for women, and when I say better I mean women with agency who better reflect the general population of women.” A report from the Writer’s Guild found that women wrote 14 per cent of prime time television.
Kemp says: “If they’re only writing 14 percent of prime time television you will find that fewer women are going to get parts with agency throughout the show. It’s not just about commissioning but also about producing more writing by women and by a more diverse group of women.”
However this brings up a new set of challenges. Casting budgets, and the closed nature of top agencies has impacted the number of women in leading creative roles. Kemp says: “One of the leading representatives of top talent in their TV directing section represent 116 men but only 38 women. There are female directors out there but they’re not getting access to those networks and the impression from producers is that there aren’t enough women out there.
“The best way to create change is to have 50/50 representation in key creative roles including writing and directing.”
Ian Manborde, equality and diversity officer for Equity UK, the trade union for performers, agrees: “The real issue is, who commissions this stuff, whose idea was it and why did they decide that they wanted to portray roles in this particular way. Casting is part of the problem but the real issue is who decides what type of programmes there are and who is responsible for determining the roles within it.”
It is something that Kemp thinks American TV is better at, citing Orange is the New Black, Handmaids Tale and Halt and Catch Fire. Although Bodyguard is a step in the right direction there is more work to be done to reach equal representation on our screens.