Image: A protest led by Women In Film and Television (Wift) at yesterday’s Aacta awards red carpet, who chanted ‘end the sausage party’, whilst dressed as sausages to highlight gender inequality in the film and television industries targets annual screen awards. Image Source.
Growing up I played AFL. Very well in fact. As full forward I was fast, fearless and keenly accurate. Playing on an all boys team didn’t bother me, nor did getting kicked squarely in the face – only the game mattered. If the match was played well and played fairly I left the ground happy and engaged. However, at eleven and on the cusp of adolescence, everything changed. Suddenly, the straps of a newly purchased training bra seemed conspicuous under my team jersey and the once hairless legs were downy beneath my long socks. Not knowing whether or not it was noticeable to anyone else, but acutely aware nonetheless, I grew self-conscious. I hesitated in putting my hands up for a mark, lest the wisps of hair under my arms were shocking to my opponents. My Dad, legend that he is, noticed that the girl who would rather shake off a suspected concussion than sit on the bench was quieter, slower and for the first time, shy.
“It doesn’t matter Soph, play anyway.”
But it did matter. I hung up my boots. Progressively, I lost contact first with my team, then the sport until finally now, I barely remember the rules. It’s a strange feeling knowing that something that could only be classified as an obsession, is nothing but a very distant and vague memory.
When I began production of my first feature, Drama, I experienced those feelings anew. I decided to make my first feature at a time when I again felt fearless. I was living in a foreign country, away from my context, and in a field where I had small investment but some skill. I had trained classically as an actor at an early age and found the overlap between the corporeal and the theoretical a natural draw card for my energetic curiosity. But after a time as a jobbing actor in the industry I felt the overwhelming sense that I was jostling elbows with women for the ‘one role to rule them all’. I recognised the label we pin to domestic female stars –‘national treasures’, held a very sinister cultural mentality – that for women there could be only one diamond in the rough but for men, being just rough was good enough. I wanted more control. I wanted to make and not receive the fruits of that cultural labour. So I penned a script. Dominique, my sister and emerging producer got to work. Meanwhile, I sent the script to my Dad.
“I like it a lot Soph, the tone is engaging.” From across the seas I felt the familiar clap on the back of his hand, back on to the field to go for the second half.
Off I ran after a decade long absence. And boy, what a rude shock awaited. After a short blast of initial energy, it became clear the project I was engaged in was different than the mainstream. On sets I would listen as first assistant directors and student sound technicians would dialogue about their next short or web series and as I chimed in about this feature I was working on, well, crickets. Once in pre-production I travelled to Paris to meet some potential crew and was introduced to a steadicam operator as an “actress”. I received the sentiments in all their brutal subtlety – this game was not my own. I had two choices – change the rules or sub out. So I made a decision. From then on, I would employ one woman for every man. I would make the balance I so desperately wanted to feel, even if it was forced and unnatural to do so. By the time we were shooting I felt my utopia was complete but again, the ugliness of marginalization reared its head. “Sexy crew” is what we were called, because a group of girls in shorts was nothing but a show for male entertainment. This is not to disparage the hard working men whom I did work with but it was uncomfortable and unfair to be charged with the task of juggling not only frayed nerves and short schedules but bruised egos, as if my job extended to propping up those who felt threatened in an environment where they couldn’t naturally outnumber their female counterparts.
After finishing the film I reached out to men who had directed films for any insight, comparison or some level of empathetic collusion they could provide. If I did receive a return email, it would be to be to denigrate my choices, question the validity of the content or diminish the wherewithal it took to make the film. I can take an on court sledging as good as the rest of them but this felt different. It felt as if I had wandered into the wrong locker room and was being barked at to get out. I was directed to ‘women’s groups’ as if I was speaking to some kind of experience unknown and unknowable to general society. I grew aware of the social currency I had, or rather lacked, and understood innately that this time I had stayed on the field long after I was welcome and was now paying the price. I joked to my friends that when a man did take my work seriously, I automatically confused the attention with ardor because surely anyone who saw me as a peer was only ever trying to get me into bed.
In the last year I have taken up the mantle and now work with the peak advocacy body for women in screen, Women in Film and Television, or WIFT, as the President of the NSW Chapter. We staged the protest yesterday, donning our sausage suits to shine a light on the cultural bias towards male content that allowed successful debut features by two of our members, Crushed by Megan Riakos and All About E by Louise Wadley to be excluded from pre-selection and ultimately, from recognition. Those films, independently financed and released, secured international distribution following their domestic release and one can be seen on international Netflix, a major emblem of success that some other films that were celebrated do not share.
The how and why these films were excluded still remain vague and we anecdotally liken it to playing a game wherein the umpire is making the rules up on the spot. We, as filmmakers and advocates, stand for fairness, the true cornerstone of our shared Australian cultural identity and when we see just two out of twenty-eight films directed by women (and only three our of twenty-right films with a female protagonist) being included in the year’s wrap up of the year in screen, we can clearly see that the message is to get off the pitch and stop playing.
Our protest was light-hearted, aimed at putting a smile on people’s faces whilst delivering a strong message. We are on the field now and we intend to stay here because competition needn’t be between us. We are all on the same team after all.
Find out more about Women in Film and Television here.
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