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Sex maniacs, criers, and victims: have male TV writers never met a real woman?

Alexa Davies in Dead Pixels
Alexa Davies in Dead Pixels Credit: E4

A few months ago, my husband showed me something. It was a description of a new TV show, Dead Pixels, that sounded like it was written specifically for me. It was about several friends – including a female main character! – who were obsessed with an online role-playing game similar to World of Warcraft. The writer had also written for Peep Show, Babylon and Fresh Meat, which I adored, and I couldn’t wait to watch it.

My excitement lasted maybe 20 minutes into the first episode. The aforementioned main character spoke freely about sex and masturbation, which is fine and par for the course, but the way she did it was painful. Her mentions of popping to the work toilet so she could start “rubbing her nubbin” were somehow both cruder and nowhere near as filthy as the way women actually talk about sex, and felt so jarring that they took me out of the show completely. 

I mentioned my frustration with this online without naming the show, and had multiple other women get in touch asking if I was talking about Dead Pixels because it was so striking and so frustrating that they also hadn’t been able to continue watching it. IMDB lists one writer for the show – a man. I can’t help but imagine how good it would have been if a woman had been brought in to check over Meg’s characterisation and make her feel more realistic.

Which is why I’m glad that yesterday it was announced that ITV’s head of comedy had placed a ban on all-male writing teams. Saskia Schuster, who has worked at ITV for almost five years, did an audit of her current shows and noticed there were a large number of all-male writing teams and “a significant lack” of women in scripted commissions.

After consulting with the people who get these shows made – the other writers, the producers, even the performers – Schuster has decided to refuse to commission any new show that has a writing team made up entirely of men, or a group of men and one token woman.

Good. As much as it rankles whenever we have to have any kind of rule enforcing gender equality – it’s 2019, we should be past this – we need to do something to get more women into film and TV production. Not just because women are underrepresented, although that’s still clearly the case, but because having more women in the room can only make the films and TV shows we spend so much time devoted to better

Much has already been said about the last few seasons of Game of Thrones and how disappointing they were, and I truly believe that part of that is because when the show overtook the books they were left with multiple female characters as the leads and whereas George RR Martin can write women well, the almost-entirely male team show runners and writers couldn’t.

Suddenly characters like Cersei, Sansa, Arya, Brienne and Daenerys were left with nothing to do or were acting in nonsensical ways. With the huge players suddenly all being disappointing, it’s no wonder that the last few seasons didn’t feel as good as the previous ones.

Maisie Williams in Game of Thrones Credit: HBO

This phenomenon – of some men simply not knowing how to write women who stray from the stereotype – is sadly not unusual. It’s something already recognised in fiction, but it’s time we start calling it out in TV and film too. Because nothing can take us out of a story quicker than a female character who doesn’t think, talk or act like any woman we’ve ever encountered. 

Take Dead Pixels’s American cousin, The Big Bang Theory, whose female characters seemed to change between tropes and stereotypes of what women are and want as and when the writers needed them to. Then there's Doctor Who.

When Stephen Moffat took over as show runner for series five, we were introduced to Amy Pond – a companion as delightful, charming and interesting as we’ve ever seen. But after that lovely first season things quickly deteriorated. Amy Pond’s characterisation as a “strong” woman was reduced to saying things like “Don’t worry, I’m worth two men.” She dealt with being captured, rendered infertile and having her daughter taken away from her by having one slightly teary conversation and then getting over it all within the space of an episode. So realistic. 

Matt Smith and Karen Gillan in Doctor Who Credit: BBC

The new companions we were introduced to were all slight variations on Amy, rather than distinct characters in their own right. It’s like there’s only one way to be a cool, interesting woman and all you need to change is the accent and the sexual preferences to get an entirely new one.

Companions and their relationship with the doctor are an enormous part of Doctor Who, so when they’re subpar the show feels a bit subpar, too. It’s no wonder it declined in popularity and critical acclaim after series six. And in case you’re wondering, Stephen Moffat was show runner from series five to series 10  and there were no female writers in series 5-8, two female writers in series nine, and two female writers in series 10.

And then we get to Moffat’s other baby, Sherlock. I love Sherlock, but the only way a woman can be a decent adversary for Sherlock is if she bamboozles him with sex, like Irene Adler, or is literally so powerful that she’s farcical, like super-assassin Mary or his sister, who honestly may as well be an alien for all the sense she makes. 

Sherlock's Irena Adler, played by Lara Pulver

And then we can’t forget, although most people I know have blacked it out of their minds, the special episode in which feminism is portrayed as a group of women wearing hoods, acting like they’re in a cult and murdering naughty men. After series one, Sherlock definitely got a bit stupid, but it’s very notable that it managed to have interesting, complicated male side characters and adversaries but couldn’t do the same for women. I wonder if a woman in the writing room would have changed that.

Because you can have larger than life, ridiculous, complicated, murderous women who are somehow still believable – just look at Villanelle from Killing Eve. And you can have horny women who actually read like horny women – like on Netflix’s Sex Education. And you can have damaged  but powerful women who avenge other women without making them into a weird cult, like in Happy Valley. And you can have clever women, as seen in Gentleman Jack

Having a woman or two writing the film and TV we want to watch doesn’t make them super feminised or into things only women can enjoy. Having a more diverse range of people in the writing room isn’t about fulfilling quotas or "pandering to the PC Brigade" – it’s about making better entertainment.

Now, if only we could ban all-white writing rooms too.