The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Lady Writer

Today the Guardian printed – or uploaded – an article on Why Doctor Who Needs More Female Writers by Mathilda Gregory. An article seemingly inspired by a blog post by Stella Duffy. Of course, the question is rhetorical, because the article doesn’t actually say why more female writers instead of male writers would be a good thing. Because, I’m afraid, the premise of the article is codswallop.

You see, if the new series has failings in the quality of its writing – and I am so not going there, don’t even ask, but if you do ask, it’s all marvellous – then simply changing the gender of the writers isn’t going to fix that. The writers will still, after all, be writing to the same briefs, working with the same script editors, working within the same limitations, and trying to capture the same house style. And any female writers would, presumably, be selected on the same criteria as the current male writers i.e. people with a proven track record in television drama, preferably very recently and successfully, preferably with the BBC.

Which is where the CultBox article listing five potential female writers falls down. These champions of feminism can’t even think of five female writers currently working in television (!); in order to come up with suggestions they have to resort to women with no track record. But if male writers with no proven track record can’t get on the show, why on Earth should female writers? Either writers are being selected on merit (and on their track record) or they aren’t. If the best writers aren’t being chosen, then it’s not because of a bias in gender, it’s because the people who choose the writers have a different idea of what constitutes a good writer. Their criteria may be flawed, they may be loopy, they may be back-to-front, but they have nothing to do with gender.

Of course, there are dozens of great female writers out there who could and should write for Doctor Who not listed by CultBox, I could list them, and top of the list would be godlike genius Sally Wainwright, who is almost certainly too busy writing her own two hit series to write for anyone else’s. I can also think of dozens of great male writers too. Their gender, though, doesn’t come into it. Good writers are just good writers.

That’s one of the many great things about being a writer. It doesn’t matter who you are, what social class you are, whether you are black or white, old or young, abled or disabled, short or tall, male or female, straight or gay or undecided. It doesn’t matter what you look like at all. You just bung your scripts or manuscripts in the post or down the fibreoptic cable and they ping out the other end and the only thing upon which you are judged is the quality of your work (and its punctuality and adherence to the brief, of course). You write from behind a glorious veil of ignorance. All the producer has to know you by is your name, which may give them a few pointers if they’ve never heard of you before but to be honest they’re not going to pay it much attention, it’s so unimportant in the grand scheme of things. We writers are all Robin Blands, enigmatic, anonymous and androgynous.

Which is why, a few years ago, a comedy executive – I can’t remember who it was – greatly annoyed me by saying that the BBC didn’t get enough submissions from ethnic minorities. This executive – let’s say it was a ‘he’, I honestly can’t remember, their gender is immaterial – had even gone to the trouble of working out a percentage! But the thing is, they had no way of knowing how many of the submissions they received were from non-white writers. When you submit a script, you don’t fill in a form with your ethnic details, or your age or anything like that. No, they just assumed that any writer who didn’t have an obviously ethnic-sounding name was white (and, indeed, that any writer with an ethnic-sounding name was from an ethnic minority). Which means that a script from a writer called, say, Eddie Pryor would go in the ‘white writer’ pile. And script from a writer called Richard Murphy would go in the same pile. Now switch their surnames.

My point, if I may navigate a tortuous route back to it, is that writing  - unlike so much of life – is as near to a level playing field as you can get. When I first got commissioned to write a Doctor Who book, the people who commissioned me had no idea who I was, how old I was, my ethnicity, my sexuality, my lack of hair. They’d never met me. They may have guessed I was male, because of my forename, but I doubt that was what swung it for me. No, every bit of writing work I’ve ever been paid for, every single opportunity I’ve been given, has been because of the standard of my writing (and punctuality, and cheapness). That’s how it works if you’re a writer.

(I mean, have you seen a group of writers get together? With a few honourable exceptions, it’s a meeting of the short, tubby, speccy, ugly, antisocial society. With yours truly as president.)

The only argument in favour of deliberately trying to favour female writers is to get a wider breadth of authorial voices, and I agree with that to an extent. I’d say the same applies with getting more writers from ethnic minorities, lower social classes, writers with disabilities, and so on. But with the huge stonking great caveat that the whole point of being a writer is that you can not only Write What You Know but you can empathise with people from other walks of life and write them well. So if the problem is, say, that the female characters aren’t well written, the solution isn’t to get more female writers, it’s to get better writers, writers that can write female characters, irrespective of whether the writers themselves are male or female. There are plenty of men out there who can write women; there are women out there who can't write women. As far as my own writing is concerned I don’t treat male or female characters any differently (I write them equally atrociously) because IMHO writing is about looking out through a characters’ eyes, not looking at a character from outside (and when you’re looking out, you’re not seeing skin colour, or sexuality, or anything else that would be normal as far as the character is concerned – a black, gay character doesn’t wake up in the morning and think ‘Ooh, I’m so black and gay today’, they think ‘bloomin hell why did I forget to put the milk back in the fridge’). People aren’t defined by their gender, their race, their shoe size, their waistline, their class. Writers know that because a writer’s job is to transcend their own personal experience and imagine themselves walking in other people’s shoes, and they know it because their own careers are not based on their looks, gender or anything else, but on, more or less, how good they are at what they do (insofar that merit is recognised and rewarded, which, as mentioned above, might not always be the case).

But oh, that article. What codswallop. Note how the writer picks on The Sarah Jane Adventures to make her point, but doesn’t mention Wolfblood, a CBBC show with a predominantly female writing list. Note how she doesn’t mention Torchwood, because it also doesn’t fit her argument. Or that the majority of producers working on Doctor Who since it came back have been female (for all the difference their gender makes). Her argument is just that Doctor Who should have more female writers because it’s one the BBC’s flagship programmes; not because it would make the show better, but just because it would speciously ‘improve the balance’. And, bear in mind, anything which doesn't make a television show better invariably makes it worse.

Oh, and as well as incorrectly assuming it is within Steven Moffat’s gift to hire writers with no television track record, she’s also labouring under the misapprehension that shows like Doctor Who  have ‘writers rooms’ and ‘writing teams’. If only they did!


  1. "But if male writers with no proven track record can’t get on the show, why on Earth should female writers?"

    Because they're female, dummy! The double X enables us to do all sorts of things far better than any man. Without training and/or experience, didn't you know. It's carte blanche for everything from parliament to top jobs. Why did you think TV writing was the exception? (/sarcasm)

  2. Hi Jonathan, I'd repeat the comments I made on the Guardian blog (as Simon92) here: while the problem isn't unique to DW, there is a structural underrepresentation of women in the entertainment biz. This is clearly a historical issue - the fewer women producing Why Don't You? in the eighties leads to a lack of female RTD's now - I think it's a perfectly criticism to make of DW, as the BBC's flagship show with a format that requires a diversity of writers, employs so few women in the role.

  3. The Guardian article wasn't presented very well, the i09 one on the same subject is much better:
    Basically, I do see the show suffering in quality from the lack of female voices in the mix. And certainly from the lack of people from other ethnicities and cultures. Doctor Who is a show about diversity, and diversity in the creative team would help make it better.

  4. Just to clarify, the interview for the Guardian took place months ago, I happened to post my blog on the same day the interview was published, I'd actually forgotten about the interview, and was prodded to write it by the new Radio Times piece which showed no women writers OR directors.
    It interests me that the writers element is the one people seem to be concentrating on, when the absence of women directors in the recent series, which I note, is also a shame. For anyone else who thinks the lack of women (you know, half the population of the world, half the viewers) working on a flagship series is something that matters, rather than an irrelevance, this will make even more sobering reading :

  5. I have to agree that gender is irrelevant. I can't even see the likes of Rona Munro being able to achieve the highs she did with Survival in what seems to be a stultifyingly limited creative atmosphere on the current series.