Actors and Performers
In October 2017, the The New York Times published an article accusing Hollywood film mogul Harvey Weinstein of decades of sexual harassment and assault. The entertainment industry’s apparent astonishment caused actress Alyssa Milano to tweet, “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”
Within 24 hours, 4.7 million people had engaged with #metoo on Facebook alone1. Over 80 women came forward with accusations against Weinstein, and a raft of allegations began to surface against other high-profile figures. It became clear that the magnitude of the problem was great indeed.
Since October 2017, conversations have spread through rehearsal rooms and drama schools, agencies, film sets and board rooms, asking the twin questions how did we get here? and what can we do about it? In the UK, new safeguarding policies have been implemented industry-wide, starting with rigorous guidelines from Equity, the BFI and the Royal Court, geared toward creating safe workplaces, preventing harassment and holding perpetrators accountable. ‘Intimacy direction’ (in which sex scenes are choreographed by an outside professional, much like stage fights) and ideas around active consent have been gaining traction in creative spaces. Performers are seeking ways to set boundaries and say ‘no’ without being regarded as difficult or un-creative.
With thousands of people participating in the conversation, there has inevitably been disagreement about where the line between ‘harmless’ and ‘harassment’ is drawn, how much banter is too much banter, and how much safeguarding is too much safeguarding. There is anxiety in some corners of the industry that new regulations will compromise artistic freedom, that allegations will turn into witch hunts, and that the logical conclusion of #metoo (in the arts, at least) will be that we’re afraid to touch each other, frisson will disappear from our stages and screens, and our work will be condemned to sexless, frightened monotony.
But this puts us in danger of ignoring two important – if subtle – factors:
(1) The implementation of codes of conduct, safeguarding, consent negotiations, etc., is not a call for sex to be eliminated from our industry. Instead it is an insistence that, where sex does come into our work, it is negotiated professionally and openly, with input from all involved. Because, of course:
(2) The sexual harassment crisis isn’t really about sex. It’s about power. It’s about work.
POWER AND PARITY
After all, the women speaking out against Harvey Weinstein weren’t sexually assaulted on dates, or by strangers on the street (which would be bad enough). They were assaulted as a condition of their work, in order to get or sustain employment.
To understand why this is so critical, consider:
What does this mean?
Well, to start with it means that women at the beginning of their careers are less likely to work than their male colleagues. This means that a disproportionate number of female film- and theatre-makers are confined to self-producing work on the fringe, often at their own expense. It means that most female performers, writers, directors, stage managers, DoPs, etc., will at some point find themselves working for little – or no – pay. And this is before we consider the repercussions of having children (or being over 40) on a woman’s career — or the dire impact of intersectionality, which puts BAME women, d/Deaf and Disabled women, and queer women at an exponential disadvantage.
Less work overall means a less impressive CV, which leads, again, to less work. It also leads to less opportunity to refine one’s craft, so skills start to stagnate and confidence deteriorates. This leads to — less work. In this way, many women’s careers can become so precarious that they simply cannot afford to ‘speak up’, whether to advocate for better pay or to reject unwanted advances.
Even for those women who manage sustainable careers, the work itself can be problematic. Acting jobs overwhelmingly push women into sexually objectified and stereotyped roles, where they are often the victims of violence — and rarely have professional status. (For example, the BFI reports that, although women make up 52% of GPs in the UK, only 15% of on-screen doctors are women. On the other hand, women make up 94% of on-screen prostitutes.7)
This gives our young people a skewed perception of what to expect from the world, and reinforces the fact that a woman’s sexuality ultimately determines her (box office) value. It teaches our aspiring film- and theatre- makers that the stories worth telling are men’s stories, which results in more work for men — and the cycle repeats itself.
Encouragingly, there are more and more exceptions to this kind of programming, and every day companies are making commitments towards shifting the paradigm. Indeed, if we truly want to eliminate sexual harassment as a condition of work, then the content of our work — and the content-makers — will have to change.
NAVIGATING THE GREY AREA
In the meantime, we are suspended between the old industry and a hopeful but as-yet-unrealised one. So what can we do?
Get involved. Campaigns like ERA 50:50, Time’s Up UK, and Act for Change are all doing exciting, proactive work to change the landscape of the industry.
Be proud and professional. We can often feel so relieved to be employed that we put up with things which are deeply unprofessional. It can be frightening to say ‘no’, whether in the context of turning down underpaid work or unwelcome advances. But we must remember that we are professional and expect to be treated professionally, with respect and dignity. This means:
Don’t work for free. Unless there’s a really good reason (i.e. we’ve written a solo show for ourselves or are doing our best friend a favour), we should insist on being paid for our work — like professionals in any other industry. It is illegal to employ people for less than the minimum wage: we are likely to be much more vulnerable in projects which have already engaged us on dubious terms.
Know our rights. It is essential to understand our contracts so that we know what we are agreeing to — in everything from working hours to nudity. We should also know what can and cannot be required of us in an audition8. If we have questions about a contract, we can call Equity to talk us through it.
Talk about it. Having a conversation with our colleagues to set down expectations and parameters before starting intimate work can be enormously freeing and reassuring. It allows us to navigate sensitive work by making conscious choices, rather than resorting to unexamined, automatic ones.
Be clear about boundaries. In our industry, where the line between fiction and reality sometimes blurs, there will be inevitable moments of ambiguity, even discomfort. It is important to recognise within ourselves when we are uncomfortable versus when we are unsafe, when we are willing to push our boundaries and what consists of a violation of those boundaries.
Know where to go for help. If something untoward does happen, contact Equity immediately (main switchboard: 0207 379 6000, harassment/bullying helpline: 0207 670 0268) — or, if needed, the police. Anyone you work for has a duty of care, but if you don’t feel able to talk to someone in the company, remember that your venue is also responsible for your well-being and approach someone in the building. There are more avenues for support and intervention than we might think.
Don’t be a bystander. If you see something inappropriate happening — report it.
Remember, it’s up to all of us. Men are also subjected to sexual harassment and assault, and are as straight-jacketed as women by gender stereotypes. Our industry leaves almost no place for our trans and non-binary colleagues. The work towards gender equality is everyone’s work, and benefits everyone. But we must be sensitive to each other’s experiences along the way, and be compassionate with each other when we fail.
Join Equity. The performing arts union, Equity, is our professional safety net. Not only can they provide support in situations of harassment or bullying (including legal support), they can answer contract questions, protect us on vulnerable jobs, and make sure we’re paid correctly. Equity also negotiates the terms of our contracts with the industry’s biggest employers and campaigns for equal and diverse representation across the performing arts. The more of us are part of the union, the stronger it is and the better supported we are. It is our industry family.
Let’s make the work we want to see. We can start changing the industry by changing the industry. Write new stories, work with people who excite you, find ways to be nourished by the work you do.
There’s no going back from #metoo now. If we insist on parity and respect — and if we make a commitment to looking after one another — we have the chance to turn our industry into something infinitely richer than the one we’ve inherited.
See you out there.
Credit: Kelly Burke is an actor, singer and writer. She trained at RADA and is Chair of Equity’s Women’s Committee, an Equity councillor, and part of the team that drafted the union’s Agenda for Change. www.kellyburke.com
8For example, the Equality Act states that one should not be asked about age, gender, ethnicity, disability, pregnancy, health or other ‘protected characteristics’. Nor should you be asked to undress to any extent without warning and without a mutually agreed third party present. For more information, visit www.equity.org.uk/getting-involved/campaigns/manifesto-for-casting or call 0207 379 6000.
Link: This article was written for the Actors and Performers Handbook 2019.