We sat down with Anna Rafferty, the Global Director: Digital Marketing, Digital Studios at BBC Studios and one of our FutureFest 2018 speakers, to discuss women in fiction.
Anna participated in the "Women invent the future" panel at this year's FutureFest, a discussion around how women can shape our future. If you're interested in this topic, take a look at the "Women invent the future" anthology, which explores space travel, fertility, productivity, dating and family life from a female perspective, and imagines what emancipation and electronic freedom could look like in the future.
We know how influential female role models in fiction can be. But what are some of the problems with the way that women are portrayed?
Having female heroes is still quite revolutionary. We are aware of female characters in fiction but sometimes they’re just a plot device or a prop for a male protagonist. I’ve had a great conversation about this with Kate Mosse, founder of the Women’s Prize for Fiction. She chooses to use the term “female hero” rather than heroine to counter female stereotypes. The distinction refers to female characters who have their own agency, who are somewhat in control of their own decisions and are active participants in the story.
It’s not just about telling women’s stories, it’s female characters having their own volition and driving the plot in the same way that the male characters do.
That’s what the “Women Invent the Future” anthology aims to do - it features stories about the future that cover a diverse range of topics but ultimately they all explore futures in which female protagonists have key agency and an opportunity to take action.
In the “Women invent the future” panel at FutureFest, the term “agents of change” was used. So often women are passengers rather than drivers, not just in fiction but in real life.
Yes, and the data proves that. We can see the tiny proportion of women in the boardroom or of women driving innovation in the workplace or working in technology. We don’t have anything close to gender equality in the areas that are literally shaping our futures for decades to come. On a macro level, women are not structuring our current or our future societies.
Equally, we see that racially. It’s a small, specific group of white men that shape our futures across industries.
Absolutely. An adjacent point is the way that BAME characters are portrayed in children’s fiction - a recent study found that only 1% of characters in the children’s books they reviewed were BAME. So many children are not seeing themselves represented at all. The call is to have a more balanced diet of representation of all kinds.
In the panel at FutureFest, you discussed the unconscious biases that are influenced by a lack of diversity in fiction and the media. How can we work to counter these?
We all have unconscious biases and one shouldn’t be ashamed of it, but the trick is to become aware and take deliberate practice to make sure they impact your behaviour towards others as little as possible. These biases start forming at an incredibly young age in children. This is why BAME characters in children's books is such an important issue. So is the number of photos of women playing sports in the newspapers. Children see pictures of men playing football and think that only men can play football. For example, during the World Cup people kept saying “we haven’t got this far for 28 years.” Of course, 3 years ago the women’s team were in the same position but it just doesn’t get the same response. It’s like there’s the World Cup and then there’s the women’s World Cup. The woman is automatically the other. Publishers and people working in the media have the opportunity to try and counter these biases for future generations by changing representation. The rest of us need to try and be more aware of our biases - if ever you interview someone for a job, challenge yourself about assumptions that you may be making. And count how many female faces there are in the sports pages of the newspaper. If there’s continuous, pronounced disparity, make sure you’re noticing it and saying it.
It’s interesting although perhaps not surprising that all the sessions about women at FutureFest had almost entirely female audiences. How can we encourage more of a male interest in gender equality?
What an excellent question, I wish we all knew the answer. Being inclusive is important. Our call to our predominantly female audience was for them to take a copy of the anthology for themselves and an extra one to give to a man.
We need to make this an inclusive conversation and realise it’s about benefiting society and not just women. So men need to be a part of that conversation.
An audience member in the session mentioned how angered she is by gender inequality, which I think is relateable for a lot of women. Where does anger sit in all of this? Do you think there’s a place for anger or do we need to compel ourselves to approach the issue in a positive way?
Anger is an inadequate word for the spectrum of feelings that we are referring to. Aggression is not productive. Aggression is a highly unproductive anger and an instinctive flight or fight based reaction to things. But there’s a different kind of anger, which I believe the lady in the session was referring to, which is “I have had enough and I’m going to stand up for this. I’m not going to let this go or bury it, I’ll continue to have it at the forefront of my mind and call it out.” And that’s essential. We need to retain a focus on what is acceptable and what is not acceptable and shaping the future that we want to see.