Symposium Report: Missing Women Study Day

Symposium Report: Missing Women Study Day

24th May 2017, University of Southampton

by Sarah Smyth

In this blog, Sarah Smyth reflects back on a truly interdisciplinary conversation and examines how it captured forms of ‘missing women’ across institutions and cultures.

When two of my PhD colleagues, Mariana Thomas and Sophie Cavey, and I sent out our call for papers for a study day titled ‘Missing Women’, we had no idea of the overwhelming response we would receive. From a broad range of disciplines, from universities beyond the UK, and from academics either beginning their career or well-established, the idea of the “missing woman” resonated. We had over sixty abstracts for what was supposed to be a half-day conference, with people keen to tell us about the exciting, provocative, and diverse work they are doing to uncover, or recover, the missing women in their field. Our anger at women’s continued marginalisation was legitimised. With this number of academics raging with us, we knew our study day would prove a timely, important and necessary intervention into conventional discourses that continue to position women as “missing”.

Photo 1:

Our poster for the Missing Women study day

The idea for our study day was to provide an interdisciplinary conference at the University of Southampton, which facilitated the discussion of women whose creative or historical contributions have been unjustly forgotten or overlooked. Exclusion, neglect, or omission from analysis has been the undue fate for many women throughout history. Their contributions and representations have all too often been dismissed or forgotten, resulting in the absence of female voices.

Our half-day conference grew to a full day. We successfully secured more money from funding bodies including the Graduate School for Humanities and the Centre for Modern and Contemporary Writing both at the University of Southampton. We built a programme of nine speakers, ending with a special roundtable to celebrate the work of Professor Clare Hanson from the English department at the University of Southampton. Disciplinary diversity was immediately evident, with speakers from the departments of Philosophy, Film, History, Middle Eastern Studies, and English across a range of academic institutions. Thisensured a variety of methodologies – archival work, data collection, close-textual analysis, theory – and a wide time-period, from early writing on ʿĀ’isha, wife of the Prophet Muhammad, to contemporary cinema. We had intended our programme also be inclusive and diverse in a much wider sense. In our call for papers, we explicitly encouraged contributions on women of colour, transwomen, queer women, and disabled women, and targeted specific institutions and groups where this research is being done. However, the abstracts we received were overwhelming about white, cis-gender, straight, able-bodied women. During our introduction to the day, then, we acknowledged the missing women from ‘Missing Women’: the women whose work is still marginalised or neglected, or whose work is more difficult to find in the academy.

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Jennifer Scott delivering her paper, ‘The Princess and the Press: The Embodied and Disembodied Personalities of Marie Corelli’

The day proved to be a huge success. We had a large number of people attend the conference, and this generated an ongoing and dynamic conversation throughout the day. People particularly noted how warm and inclusive the atmosphere was, something we were heartened to hear since we wanted everyone to feel welcome and valued in the space. The first panel on the theme ‘performing women’ led to discussions over how womanhood is “performed” inside and outside texts. Sofia Rehman’s paper on ʿĀ’isha and Jennifer Scott’s paper on Victorian novelist Marie Corelli revealed contrasting ways in which women have control or autonomy over the performative aspects of their womanhood or femininity. While Sofia demonstrated how ʿĀ’isha’s voice becomes muted as she took positions in opposition to other, invariably male, companions of the Prophet, while Jennifer examined studio photographs of Corelli to argue that these formed spectral sequels to her own works, which countered the press’ tendency to control women’s bodies. Panel Two considered the different ways women can be subversive. Islam El-Naggar drew out how Radwa Ashour’s Granada contained a complicated and nuanced portrayal of the feminist traces in Andalusian Muslim culture. Jenni Råback considered the ways in which we “frame” Vanessa Bell who so often gets eclipsed by her more famous sister, Virginia Woolf. A clear pattern emerged, by which “subversive” elements were theorised through form and abstraction. Panel Three, titled ‘Excavating Women’, most explicitly engaged in the finding, recovery and repositioning of women in various institutional, cultural and historical contexts.

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A key discovery by Hollie Price in the archives of the Ministry of Information’s Film Division is this letter that reads: “To maintain the required differentiation between men’s and women’s salaries is one of the Treasuries most cherished principles.”

Hollie Price considered the position of women in the wartime propaganda work in the Ministry of Information Films Division. Shelley Cobb, meanwhile, discussed her project Calling the Shots: Women and Contemporary Film Culture in the UK. Both papers led to a productive discussion about women’s complicated relationship with the institutions and material when engaged in archival research. Panel Four focused on the more broader term, ‘Representing Women’. Jade French considered the way in which the older woman was marginalised in the early twentieth century due to the emergence of the figures such as ‘The Flapper’. George Mind suggested that Joanna Hogg’s Exhibition signals a new dialectic between discourses of feminism, realism and subjectivity. Finally, Sarah Osmond Smith looked at research into time in the eighteenth century, arguing   that a focus on technological, cultural, artistic, social and material advances fails to take account of gendered experiences of time. Throughout the day, the idea of how necessarily repetitive and slow, even tedious, this research can be, otherwise women will continue to be “missing” within many academic fields.

Photo 4

Sarah Osmond Smith delivering her paper, ‘Beyond the Huygens Clock-Face: Missing “Spare” Female Hours in the Eighteenth Century’

Our day finished with a roundtable dedicated to Clare Hanson and a wine reception. Here, Clare reflected on the day, noting the exciting and important work being done, and linked it to her own work, particularly her work to recover Katherine Mansfield as a key literary figure. Turning to the future of feminist academic work, perhaps most profoundly, Clare told us the key way to continue to produce feminist research and to ride the waves of feminism as it goes in and out of fashion in wider culture was through intergenerational connections. By explicitly connecting to our feminist foremothers and our feminist daughters, we can safeguard against women going “missing”, ensuring their/our contributions are fully recognised, guaranteeing their/our voices are always heard, and making certain that their/our work will have a lasting impact for many generations to come.

Sarah Smyth is a PhD candidate at the University of Southampton. Her PhD is part of the project, Calling the Shots: Women and Contemporary Film Culture in the UK (funded by the AHRC), and examines the ways in which a number of women filmmakers in contemporary Britain conceptualise and represent space. You can follow her on Twitter @sarahsmyth91.

Feminist Musings: How to Like Ripper Street

In another of our republications from CST Online, Elke Weissmann considers Ripper Street.  Whilst that series is no longer on our screens, despite a brief revival on Amazon Prime, Elke offers us a layered reading which identifies a particular kind of ‘contradiction’ experienced by modern spectatorship in the face of politically-dissonant material: ‘…by engaging with the exact opposite, all that happens is that our deep-seated beliefs find further ammunition, which is highly pleasurable precisely because it stirs our emotion.’

Elke Weissmann’s contribution was first published with CST Online 20th December 2013. Many thanks to Kim Akass, editor, and the individual contributors, for giving permission for their articles to appear here. These and other articles can be accessed in CST’s archive on their current website: here.

Feminist Musings: How to Like Ripper Street

By Elke Weissmann

There is something bizarrely compelling about watching something that you’ve been told you will disagree with. This is how I encountered Ripper Street which ended this week, apparently axed as a result of disappointing viewing figures when scheduled against the dependable I’m a Celebrity… Get Me out of Here. From the very beginning, everything about Ripper Street signalled that feminists should dislike it: there is the name, of course. Drawing on the long mythology of the ‘Ripper’, the series reminds us of popular culture’s tendency to sexualise the murder of women. And then there is the opening scene: a group of Victorian Ripper tourists are led through the grimy streets of East London, only to encounter their own female body, displayed, as so often, in death for the inquisitive gaze of the viewer and detective. And obviously there is the whole pre-publicity which drew attention to the fact that this was a series about blokes fighting crime in a lawless London full of prostitutes… again.

Ripper-Street

Again. That’s perhaps the word that best describes my initial reaction to the series. Another series full of sexualised violence against women. Another series that casts women primarily in the roles of prostitutes and housewives. And another series that returns men into their ‘rightful’ place as patriarchal law makers.

So considering all of this, how come I mourn its end (on the BBC for now, there might be another series commissioned by Love Film)? This question has become quite an obsession and returns me to the beginning: there is something compelling about encountering that which superficially at least goes against all your deep-seated beliefs. Hence why there are regular Tory posters on The Guardian webpages, and left-leaning audiences reading The Daily Mail. At first sight this seems to go against ideas of the ‘echo chambers’  that supposedly structure our online consumption. However, by engaging with the exact opposite, all that happens is that our deep-seated beliefs find further ammunition, which is highly pleasurable precisely because it stirs our emotion. It is this moment of emotional charge that the TV industries are increasingly exploiting in order to attract attention in this media-cluttered world.

This is of course in no way a new trend. HBO has developed its brand identity around offering material that differentiates it from network material, as Cathy Johnson argues. Much of this material deliberately draws on the controversial that would get the American Right up into arms. As a result, I nearly missed Deadwood (HBO, 2004-2006), thinking it was just another TV drama that played on controversy in order to attract a particular clientele. Deadwood might use swearwords rather liberally, but underneath it is a deeply caring drama that returns me to difficult questions of ethics and morals. Much of these questions are proposed with rather conservative answers, but some are left more open and ambiguous. Such a strange mixture of offensive veneer, morally problematic and politically ambiguous deep structure also underlies Ripper Street.

As John Ellis points outRipper Street re-imagines our Victorian past through the lens of steampunk. It celebrates and is fascinated by Victorian ideas of progress as offered by science and at the same time unsure about the cultural and social implications of it. In the first ever episode, the series celebrates the invention of film whilst at the same time condemning the snuff genre that comes with its invention. As so often in audiovisual media, whilst condemning ‘snuff’ it shows the making of it in all its gruesome detail, and by doing so contributes to the continued sexualisation of women’s suffering.

rippper street
But, as already indicated, Ripper Street is more complex than that. The sexualisation of violence against women is part of its offensive veneer. That doesn’t make it better, but it does complicate my relationship to it. Underneath this veneer, it actually critiques this – to quote Ellis again – not entirely Victorian culture in which women’s lives remain regulated by men, where women increasingly understand that they remain ‘men’s property’. A particularly insightful episode is ‘Become Man’ (season 2, episode 3) in which Susan, Jackson’s brothel-owning wife, is abducted by a group of radical Match Girls who try to get compensation for the horrible exploitation and suffering they had encountered. Susan soon starts to sympathise with them, and in particular their leader, and ends up realising that, rather than engaging in any form of power by being her own business woman, she colludes with and extends the power of men.

In a scene, shot beautifully as a love scene between the two women, Susan sows up one of the woman’s scars, while they talk about what it means to be a woman. The relationship is tender, and the camera frames the two women in constant relationship, close-up, registering every expression of emotion. It is an incredibly intimate scene in which both women confess to their vulnerabilities and their ultimate powerlessness. It invites the viewer in, not as the traditional voyeur who watches from the distance, unobserved, while fetishising the women’s bodies, but as someone close to these women, sharing in their experience. The closeness between the women is here clearly matched with a viewing position that similarly places the spectator in a position of sharing and confession. Rather than this being a maternal position, it is a one closer to that of a friend or indeed closer to that of the sympathetic witnesses of a second-wave consciousness raising group. Such a position clearly undermines the more traditional representations of women in the role of prostitute and feeds into the moral and political ambiguity of the series.

It is scenes like this that manage to transcend the blokey veneer and remind us of the other side; the experience of women. Such a scene also manages to critique the post-feminist discourses that claim women can gain empowerment through sex, and hence speak to feminist concerns. And yet, Ripper Street also displays the women’s bodies as sexually pleasurable. But it does so at the same time as reminding us of the conditions that make these images possible. And so, the pleasure of watching something that we are told is supposed to go against our deep-seated beliefs becomes the pleasure of hearing our echo yet again.

Elke Weissmann is Reader in Film and Television at Edge Hill University. Her books includeTransnational Television Drama (Palgrave) and the edited collection Renewing Feminisms (I.B.Tauris) with Helen Thornham. She is vice-chair of the ECREA TV Studies Section and sits on the board of editors for Critical Studies in Television. She migrated to the UK in 2002 after realising that German television was as bad as she remembered

Television: Where Patriarchy and Grown-Up Cinema Go To Die

In the following article, Julia Havas offers us a nuanced analysis of the apparent underlying assumptions informing critical debates over modern long-form television versus cinema.  She examines how gender and feminism are mobilised in these discussions in a way which conflates all kinds of women-centric texts into one homogenous form; their multiplicity has been streamlined by one critic into an idea of a ‘new cultural feminism.’  In Havas’ view, critics’ anxieties reveal less about “the changing nature of popular entertainment” and more about “the fixedness of the ideologies behind their value judgements.”  With Big Little Lies currently on our screens, Julia Havas’ article demonstrates that the discursive frameworks for our study of television and film need constant recall and revision.

Julia Havas’ contribution was first published with CST Online 6th March 2015. Many thanks to Kim Akass, editor, and the individual contributors, for giving permission for their articles to appear here. These and other articles can be accessed in CST’s archive on their current website: here.

Television: Where Patriarchy and Grown-Up Cinema Go To Die

Julia Havas

Last September, an interesting debate played out in the landscape of American media criticism. It was catalysed by film critic A.O. Scott’s article in the New York Times entitled ‘The Death of Adulthood in American Culture’. The piece is a meandering contemplation about the changing nature of American popular media, and its core argument revolves around what Scott sees as the demise of grown-up culture at the expense of, and simultaneous replacement with, juvenile entertainment; a phenomenon permeating both film and TV. Importantly, Scott attempts to support this observation by threading into it another, similar polarity in popular culture between the apparent slow ‘death’ of patriarchy on the one hand – a process dramatized by a certain strand of television, specifically by cable TV’s Holy Trinity of Mad Men (2007-), Breaking Bad (2008-2013), and The Sopranos (1999-2007) –, and the rise of a newly invigorated ‘feminist’ sensibility on the other. While this think piece has been thoroughly analysedcelebrated, and refuted on prominent online media sites like Vulture.com, Salon.com or the Huffington Post, I want to consider its significance for the ongoing debates in television studies about the cultural hierarchies between film and TV, and particularly the underlying gendered connotations of this discourse.

big-little-lies1

Big Little Lies (Blossom Films, 2017)

This seems all the more timely to me since, although the article’s impact might have run its course online, it was picked up once more in the January 2015 issue of Sight and Sound, a turn which in itself shows the increasing importance of the ‘cinema versus TV’ debate for prestige film criticism. To wit, not only did the issue’s end-of-year poll of best UK releases now enable critics to vote for their favourite TV series beside films; but the articles accompanying the poll emphasise that it is acceptable (for critics and for viewers) to consider some television as worth discussing in terms of aesthetic significance, or for the way it signifies the changes taking place in both industries. The short think piece in which Scott’s article is cited as an influence laments the ‘eclipse of what we think of as adult themes’ and a growing ‘attachment to childhood’ in Hollywood cinema (comic book franchises, YA and fantasy fiction adaptations, animations etc.) and in some independent films (Romney 2015). Moreover, Nick James’ introduction to the poll claims that ‘TV is where the adult viewing experience and much of the best writing and directorial talent now lie’, and thus ‘you get the sense that the reciprocal prejudices and snobberies between cinema and television drama are beginning to fall away’ (James 2015).

The themes that are being picked up here by the elite of Anglo-American film criticism are surely nothing new for media scholars: with the emergence of the phenomenon of American ‘quality’ television (but to an extent even before that), the scrutiny of the symbiotic relationship between the two media and their problematic hierarchical evaluation has become a small but important strand in media research. There is a range of scholarship unpacking the ways in which the notion of cultural value for fictional TV is discursively defined as emulating the cinematic, while also tacitly continuing to utilise the TV format’s own traditional methods of storytelling and aesthetics. (Brett Mills’ recent blog post here on CST tackles the same issue from the perspective of film broadcasting on British TV.)

What I have found most curious about Scott’s piece and the Sight and Sound poll was how the writers use this apparent dualism of TV and cinema to extend it with further meanings in an effort to help them get a grasp of the popularity of the adolescent entertainment that gives them such palpable anxiety. The now explicitly gendered framing of that discussion is clear:

Transparent-transparent-tv-series-37656300-618-340

Transparent – part of television’s transformation?

Scott claims that the archetypal patriarch’s ‘gradual slide toward obsolescence’ is being carved into cultural consciousness exclusively on television – in a tiny, but all the more important, corner of it –, which is also the primary platform where a ‘new cultural feminism’ (in his term) is becoming dominant through female-centred programmes that evade straightforward generic classifications (with Sex and the City [1998-2004] being the flag bearer of that trend). Thus, he explains this presumed phenomenon as a kind of cultural revolution whereby the old-fashioned, angsty, highbrow dramas about ageing antiheroes are being pushed off the scene by an ideal of perpetually young or at least immature subjectivity, manifested in the hybridised forms of female-dominated half-hour comedy and dramedy. The increasing dominance of adolescent culture that Scott and Sight and Sound’s film critics lament is then meshed together with a supposed feminisation of this culture, an observation that also articulates specific boundaries of the forms and genres in which this takes place. Consider James’ assertion (quoted above) that in the slow melting away of ‘reciprocal snobberies’ between film and TV (a phrasing that some TV scholars might have a bone to pick with, at least with the ‘reciprocal’ part), the last resort of mature, i.e. analysis-worthy cultural entertainment, is television drama, a form where, as Scott asserts, the fall of old-fashioned masculinity is being gloomily captured. While not engaging with Scott’s central argument about gender politics, Romney’s piece puts the relevance of youth culture for a grown-up viewing experience firmly in its place: ‘recent US cinema (…) tends to treat childish matters as if they were of quasi-adult importance, and to make adult matters seem trivial, even while ostensibly taking them seriously’ (ibid.). What these accounts implicitly betray in their critical diagnosis is the unquestioning acceptance of equating certain forms of entertainment with a lack of seriousness, immaturity, feminisation, and, following from all this, an inconsequential triviality.

 

The discourses and associations expressed here are far from new, but rarely have they been articulated so explicitly in one breath. For instance, into the whole ‘No Country for Old Men’ versus ‘Young Feminists’ dualism, we find inscribed the discourse of generational conflict as a staple of feminist debate; or it would be more precise to say that it is a staple of the media discourse about feminism which associates women’s empowerment with the cultivation of youth and beauty (as argued by analysts of postfeminism). The difference is that the opponents here are not out-of-touch second wavers versus young third wavers/postfeminists/etc.; for Scott, all these parties are rhetorically united in their eternal youthfulness or rather, immaturity – pushing the old patriarch off his throne. The generational conflict of feminism is thus turned into one between the genders (and looming behind this image is the trope of the man-hating feminist).

Because this dualism is also entangled with a binary between mature versus immature culture, it can also be considered from the perspective of the values ascribed to these notions. Considerations of genre theory about the hierarchies between ‘serious’ (i.e. grown-up) and ‘non-serious’ (i.e. immature) modes of fiction are useful here. As Mills argues, because Western culture cultivates seriousness as the primary mode of communication, it also normalizes it as inherently more valuable than all others (Mills 2005). Hence, these film critics are dismayed about the pervasiveness of adolescent culture which for them entails the destruction of ‘serious’ communication. When Scott notes that the ‘new cultural feminism’ takes place in TV’s hybridised forms of half-hour dramedy and comedy, he draws on such associations to make his claim that these genres valorise insincerity; and this thinking helps him make the leap of logic in which the female-centred dramedies do the same cultural work as, say, the comic book film or the fantasy franchise. All of these forms provide ‘infantile’ pleasures for their viewers, out to destroy the grown-up seriousness of pure tragedy and drama.

While such elitist hierarchies are fairly fixed staples of cultural criticism, what is new in these laments is the role that TV plays for the critics on this imaginary cultural battlefield. In the post-network era, popular TV criticism has operated in a tacit or overt agreement that the medium is making efforts to ‘grow up’ to the more sincere and aesthetically superior cinema, while TV scholarship preserved its foundational interest in studying the medium for its political significance (which at its beginnings entailed a gesture of active resistance to the cultural disdain levelled at TV). But Scott’s and Sight and Sound’s critical texts now signal a changing of these tides in that leading voices in the field of film criticism declare a small pocket of fictional TV as one of the last bastions where ‘grown-up’ cinematic aestheticism still dominates – outperforming not just its own medium, i.e. ‘regular’ TV, but cinema itself. As such, the shift in the apparent cultural status of the two media is connected to the ways in which the modes of communication ascribed to them are being slowly ‘swapped’. This reveals that these modes – and their associated values – retain their existing positions in cultural consciousness. A closer look at the Sight and Sound poll’s TV votes provides an example for this. The series most frequently mentioned as critics’ favourite is Bruno Dumont’s P’tit Quinquin (2014), a French four-part miniseries that was also distributed in cinemas as one 200-minute feature film last year and in critical reception discussed for its merits as auteur cinema (Cahiers Du Cinema chose it for its best film of 2014 – a definite first for a TV programme). As for its position in the landscape of quality television, a voter sums it up thus: ‘There’s no question that this work for television will endure as one of [Dumont’s] greatest films’ (Sight and Sound: 45). For these critics, it is no longer the case that television emulates cinema. Rather, television replaces cinema in producing ‘cinematic’ content.  Runners-up in the poll are True Detective (2014-) and The Knick (2014-), both similarly praised by critics in terms of cinematic aesthetics and authorship discourse. It is perhaps also worth noting that Transparent (2014-) and Orange Is the New Black (2013-) are both mentioned once in the poll (by Sophie Mayer and Catherine Wheatley respectively), and here the voters justify their choice not for the programmes’ artistic achievements but for what they see as their political progression. Further, Wheatley’s evaluation is formulated as a defiant stand against the assumed popularity of True Detective among critics, to which she prefers the ‘diverse portfolio of women’s experiences’ (Sight and Sound: 48). Here it becomes quite clear that the boundaries that these film critics’ evaluations of television draw – between formats, genres, and programmes – are implicitly or explicitly gendered. Considered together with Scott’s article, feeding into this gendering is the critical concern over the threat of popular culture’s infantilisation. Those ‘reciprocal prejudices’ that James sees as ‘beginning to fall away’ between TV and film continue to exist on different platforms in newly expressed hierarchies.

The cultural anxieties that these critics express about the changing nature of popular entertainment, then, reveal the fixedness of the ideologies behind their value judgements. In these assessments, such ideologies remain unexamined; hence, for instance, the unquestioning equation of the dramatic form and authorship discourse with high(er) artistic quality, superior ‘meaning’, and a maturity which can only be articulated in contrast with lesser forms of entertainment. The signification by which adolescent culture becomes associated with infantile pleasures also infantilizes the viewer whose consumption and fan practices bring all culture down to its own childish level (Scott speaks of how the ‘unassailable ascendancy of the fan has made children of us all’). The ways these new binaries are constructed bring to mind Lynn Joyrich’s study of the critical struggles over network era television’s cultural role (Joyrich 1996). She argues that leading cultural critics’ anxiety about postmodern society was expressed in terms that tacitly understood the consumer culture of late capitalism as emasculating, a process in which ‘new anxieties are created which are then often projected onto television’ (ibid. 74). Investigating the logic of these accounts, she finds that the binary categories which postmodernity has for its analysts eradicated have only shifted places, and still regulate cultural hierarchies. In the mid-1990s when this was written, television obviously occupied the ‘inferior’ position, and it did so on profoundly gendered terms: ‘(…) constructing a duality in which television is placed in opposition to some other, more “respected” medium, these critics and theorists articulate cultural and textual differences in terms that are reminiscent of what is still posed as the dominant binary of our culture – sexual difference’ (ibid. 72). Crucially, Joyrich also links this gendered motif to discourses about the immaturity of feminised consumerist culture: ‘(…) the forms that have been cited by both defenders and detractors as particularly illustrative of U.S. television also exhibit a consumerism tied to an address to an audience deemed infantile or feminine, a spectator not fully a man’ (ibid. 78). Joyrich’s analysis remains eerily relevant for understanding the contemporary anxieties of leading film critics like Scott and Sight and Sound’s contributors; lurking behind the struggles to denote ‘quality’ TV drama as the Land of Lost Art is the tiny hope that by watching it we can just a little longer remain fully a man.

Julia Havas is currently in the final year of her funded PhD research in the School of Arts, Media and American Studies at the University of East Anglia. Her project investigates the ways in which feminism is represented on contemporary American ‘quality’ television by analysing four female-centred programmes. A specific concern of her work is the relationship between discourses of cultural value, aesthetics, and the politics of representation.

Science and Performance: Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s 1960s Science Fiction

Science and Performance: Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s 1960s Science Fiction

by Jonathan Bignell

Awards season brings those who work creatively behind the camera in a variety of technical roles into the spotlight, albeit briefly. It galvanises our commitment to the work of writing a history which properly incorporates women’s contribution to the language of film and television.

Condensing fascinating and precise detail of their working methods, Jonathan Bignell’s homage to the collaboration between Sylvia and Gerry Anderson highlights just such a key contribution to technical invention and storytelling possibilities. Co-creating iconic series such as Thunderbirds and Stingray in the 1960s, Sylvia went on to work in television beyond this creative partnership – personal and professional – with Gerry. And in 2014, the voice of Lady Penelope herself tantalised with an unrealised prospect: ‘Lady Penelope has been a constant in my life, and recently my daughter Dee and I have been working on a script for an animated series that will hopefully introduce her to a new generation. She’ll be a Lady Penelope for the 21st century.’[i]


Jonathan Bignell’s contribution was first published with CST Online on 28th November 2014. Many thanks to Kim Akass, editor, and the individual contributors, for giving permission for their articles to appear here. These and other articles can be accessed in CST’s archive on their current website: here.


We welcome further contributions both on and from women working in the industry, spanning historical research to current reflections on inheritance and experience.

Gerry and Sylvia Anderson began making puppet series for British television in the 1950s, and by the end of the 1960s, their company had made Supercar, Fireball XL5, Stingray, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons and Joe 90. Anderson’s last puppet series of the decade was The Secret Service, blending live action with puppets in a contemporary setting. Across the decade, puppets and puppetry generated technological innovation in the production of the programmes, puppet performance was developed aesthetically, and puppet adventures expressed the techno-futurist ambitions of the time. Puppets were taken seriously as an effective way to produce profitable television for domestic and international sale. According to Anderson, the export to the USA of Supercar in 1962 saved both his own company and also the distributor, Lew Grade’s ITC, and the fact that all of the 1960s puppet series were screened in the USA by the networks or in syndication affected how they were commissioned, cast and shot. Their action-adventure formats were intended to appeal to both UK and US audiences, they were shot on film because that was how drama was made in the USA, and they used international settings and both British and North American performers.

Fig. 1. A futuristic London Airport in Thunderbirds

A futuristic London Airport in Thunderbirds

Technical Innovation

The Andersons studios were in Slough, where numerous contributors worked on puppet and set construction, and special effects. The company made filmed television using film cameras on soundstages, but the use of puppets meant production did not require backlot sets built on the studio premises or shooting in outside locations. Nevertheless the programmes were not cheap or simple to make; with the production of  Stingray  it became necessary for two crews to work simultaneously on the filming, on two parallel soundstages, and the studio had to manufacture duplicate sets of puppets at different scales. A similar system was adopted to make Thunderbirds, for which episodes were shot two at a time, using three soundstages, one for models and effects and two others for puppet performance. With around 100 effects sequences per episode, Thunderbirds demanded elaborate planning, with up to seven puppeteers at a time on a bridge structure eight feet above the set, controlling the puppets and vehicles. The company developed video assist in 1957 so that the production crew could see what was being filmed, back projection in puppetry was pioneered for Supercar’s title sequence, and proportionately sized puppets were introduced in Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons when the Andersons’ technicians invented tiny solenoids that would fit inside puppets’ heads. They invented electronic lip-synch to precisely match a pre-recorded voice track to the puppets’ mouths.

These innovations were designed to enhance realism, because the cinephiles Gerry and Sylvia Anderson wanted to match live action verisimilitude. They used inserted shots of real hands for close ups, for example, and continually strove to make puppets move like live actors. The focus on futuristic settings and vehicles in the programmes was initially motivated by the Andersons’ dissatisfaction with puppets’ ability to walk convincingly, leading to vehicular movement instead.

Fig. 2. Inside Cloudbase in Captain Scarlet: no walking necessary!

Inside Cloudbase in Captain Scarlet: no walking necessary!

Performance

Settings, vehicles and special effects make up for some of the puppets’ limitations and become performative in the programmes’ telefantastic fictional worlds. So, for example, the title sequence of  Thunderbirds  gives equal prominence to the Tracy’s vehicles and the family’s members. The places represented in Anderson’s series are diverse, reflecting the reach and effectiveness of the protagonists, who usually work for international organisations with law-enforcement or humanitarian aims. Some environments express 1960s modernity and technology, but there are also atavistic or exotic spaces, and moving between spaces is a key feature of the programmes. The science fictional worlds offer opportunities for the visual revelation of machines and physical action, and vehicles feature prominently. Storylines are constructed around spectacular moments, but also longer effects sequences that showcase technologies in operation. A rolling road and a rolling sky backdrop were invented to facilitate movement and action in vehicle sequences, and a custom-made mix of gunpowder created rocket blasts and explosions. Extended long shots situate vehicles and buildings in large sets, where narrative pace is often generated by editing and music rather than puppet action. Puppet performances are enriched by, and embedded in, a fantasy space that has emotional texture and verisimilar realisation.

The company used voice actors who were American or Canadian, as well as British, primarily to increase exportability, but also with important effects on how characters and performances were created and perceived. In Thunderbirds, for example, the Britishness of Lady Penelope and her butler Parker drew on the cultural meaning of ‘cool Britannia’ in the 1960s. Sylvia Anderson scripted Lady Penelope in Thunderbirds with ‘not only the daring and panache of a secret agent but also the poise of a cool and beautiful aristocrat’, and costume ideas for the puppet were based on Sylvia’s interest in the Carnaby Street styles of 1960s London.[ii]

Transatlantic voices included the Canadian actor Paul Maxwell who voiced Steve Zodiac of Fireball and various characters in Captain Scarlet. The Canadian-born Shane Rimmer voiced Thunderbirds’ Virgil Tracy and also appeared in Captain Scarlet and Joe 90. Key puppet characters also facially resemble American film actors, or international stars, because in defining the characters this was an effective way to indicate character to their designers and to viewers. Supercar’s antagonist Masterspy was based on the portly Sydney Greenstreet, and his henchman Zarin sounded like Peter Lorre, thus recalling these actors’ pairing in The Maltese Falcon (1941). The Lorre characterization was reprised for the enemy agent X20 in Stingray, and the series’ hero Troy Tempest was based on the film star James Garner. The character Marina seems modelled on Ursula Andress, seen in Dr No (1962), and Atlanta Shore facially resembled Lois Maxwell, the Canadian actress who voiced her and who appeared in the James Bond films as Miss Moneypenny. Captain Scarlet was intended to signal sophistication, by resemblance to Cary Grant in both the puppet’s facial features and in his voice. The appeal of Anderson’s puppet series depended on aesthetic features in performance that richly referenced popular culture, and compensated for a perceived the lack of nuance in puppet performance.

Fig. 3. Captain Scarlet, modelled on Cary Grant

Captain Scarlet, modelled on Cary Grant

Making programmes for children using the devalued mode of the puppet series, and the devalued genre of television science fiction, the Andersons could experiment and innovate. The economic success of the programmes fuelled rapid development, and the efficiency of the industrial organization necessary to quickly complete the episodes. The producers tried to find puppet equivalents to realist styles of screen acting and characterizations, matching voice to body both technically via lip-synching and by practices of puppet design and styles of movement. They aimed to take the puppets and their stories seriously. But the puppets’ limitations as performers meant that the other aspects of mise-en-scène, especially vehicles and associated bases like Tracy Island, took on performative characteristics too. In the Andersons’ fictional world, echoing Marx’s theory of the commodity, things are given life.

Fig. 4. Stingray launches from its underwater base

Stingray launches from its underwater base

Jonathan Bignell is Professor of Television and Film at the University of Reading. He has written about Gerry and Sylvia Andersons’ series in the collection British Science Fiction Film & Television, and presented versions of this topic at the International Association for Media & History and Screen Studies conferences. He led the research project Spaces of Television: production, site and style from 2010-15, and is currently collaborating on the research project Harold-Pinter-Histories-and-Legacies, documenting and analysing Pinter’s work for stage and screen.

[i] ‘Voice of Lady Penelope Sylvia Anderson: ‘We helped children escape into their imagination’’ Danny Scott, 9 March 2014, Express Online. Accessed via: http://www.express.co.uk/life-style/life/463580/Thunderbirds-Sylvia-Anderson-on-being-the-voice-of-Lady-Penelope

[ii] Cited in ‘Sylvia Anderson obituary’ Anthony Hayward, 16 March 2016, theguardian.com. Accessed via: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2016/mar/16/sylvia-anderson-obituary-thunderbirds-co-creator

Whose Awards Are These Anyway?

Whose Awards Are These Anyway?

Natalie Wreyford

In a very timely article, Natalie Wreyford, BAFTA voter and member of Women’s Film and Television History Network, raises some key questions regarding fairness in award ceremonies’ voting processes. She asks whether we need to consider external contexts more seriously, such as the behaviour of nominees to their co-workers or the influence of marketing techniques on the voting process? And crucially, in a year when The Oscars seemed to take a tentative step from escapism to empathy’ in choosing Moonlight as Best Picture, she considers what creative diversity has been lost through history as a result of the system as it still stands.

This article originally appeared at the f-word contemporary uk feminism online and is reprinted here, updated for Oscars 2017, with their kind permission. This article originally appeared at the f-word contemporary uk feminism online and is reprinted here, updated for Oscars 2017, with their kind permission.

I became a member of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) in 1999, when the then co-chair of the film committee, Simon Relph, recognised that the awards’ results were being skewed by the membership’s demographic . As a result, he offered to second any membership proposals for people under 30 and dramatically reduce their fees to promote access into the awarding body. My brilliant boss, Pippa Cross of Granada Film, nominated me and I found myself in the club.

I say this because that’s what BAFTA is. A club, and a private one at that. You can’t just bowl up to their offices and vote for what you think was the best film this year. There are strict criteria about joining and remaining a member. Although BAFTA has very recently abolished the need to be nominated and seconded by an existing member, you still need five years professional experience in a creative, technical or executive role in film, TV or video games. More problematically, the membership committee will consider the “quality” and number of your credits and any award nominations, so value judgments are still being applied. Indeed, even if you pass the selection process, film voting is currently capped and you will be put on a waiting list until BAFTA is able to identify those whose career has stalled and taken their voting rights away from them, as they do every year now in a process which has the potential to favour men voters. In the last few years the world has started to notice that it’s not just the age range of clubs such as BAFTA and the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the awarding body for the Oscars) which influences how they vote, but the gender and the race of its members too.

Small steps are being taken to address this. The Academy has opened its membership to welcome more women and people of colour, something that appears to have paid off, particularly for black actors in the 2017 Oscar Nominations. BAFTA has also announced its intention to apply the BFI’s diversity standards to the awards for Outstanding British Film and Outstanding Debut from 2019 (not two of the heavy-weight awards). But the question at the heart of it all is – do these initiatives sufficiently challenge the power of the few (white, men)?

Viola Davis wins at Oscars 2017: But can these awards ever be fair?

Viola Davis wins at Oscars 2017: But can these awards ever be fair?

When the BAFTA nominations for 2017 were announced my social media timelines erupted with complaints – from women, people of colour and British film workers who were concerned about the dominance of the American independent film sector in British awards. Despite a selection of strong contenders this year, such as Madina Nalwanga, Lupita N’yongo, Trevante Rhodes and Naomie Harris for acting, and Barry Jenkins, Amma Asante, Maren Ade, Andrea Arnold and Mira Nair for directing, the nominations in these categories were still dominated by white, American men. The African-American Film Critics Association has declared 2016 the best year ever for black cinema. But how well is this reflected in this year’s BAFTAs? April White, who created the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, has responded to this year’s nominations by saying that they don’t go far enough and true diversity is still a long way off. Women and gender fluid individuals are still woefully underrepresented and people of Asian and Latino origin make a very scarce appearance. Disability does not seem to exist in this world at all, and is certainly not visible. Yet already media outlets are declaring diversity has been achieved.

In my work, I spend a lot of time thinking about fairness in the film industry and several years researching gender inequality in film. The barriers that women face are often the same ones faced by anyone who doesn’t fit the dominant wealthy, white, cis-gendered, able-bodied model: you don’t fit in, you’re not one of us. Fairness is a very scarce quantity. Nepotism, unconscious bias, sexual harassment – these are all far more common. But can these awards ever be fair?

As a BAFTA voter, I have struggled with my conscience this year over Manchester By the Sea, which was nominated in several categories including Best Film, Best Actor, Best Director and Best Supporting Actress. I am deeply troubled by the allegations brought by two women against the film’s star, Casey Affleck, and support those who are considering a boycott of the film. Cinematographer Magdalena Gorka and producer Amanda White have both sued Affleck for sexual misconduct (on a previous film where he was the director), including groping, sending pictures of his genitals through film equipment, getting into bed with Gorka uninvited and fostering a culture of sexist abuse, e.g. instructing a crew member to show his penis. Affleck settled out of court but you can still read details of both Gorka and White’s complaints.

Casey Affleck with BAFTA: What message regarding the rights of women film workers?

Casey Affleck with BAFTA: What message regarding the rights of women film workers?

However, as a BAFTA voter, I am required to watch all the films nominated in the final round of each category. My only other option is to abstain from voting in the categories. I do not want to watch Manchester By the Sea because I do not wish to spend two hours of my life being asked to empathise with Casey Affleck. BAFTA asked me to consider if it is fair to the other people who made the film. I feel very strongly that it is more important to support the right of women film workers not to suffer sexual harassment. I am concerned at the message sent when their assailants are subsequently celebrated by the great and the good of the industry, not least that this could discourage young women thinking of a career in film.

So am I being unfair to those who choose to make a film with Casey Affleck? Would you watch The Cosby Show to enjoy it’s editing work? Or Jim’ll Fix It for the set design? All I’m asking for is the option to chose to not watch this film without losing my ability to participate in the voting, as is possible in the first round. I understand this brings complications and questions of fairness, but the system is far from fair now. In the end, I didn’t watch it, and I lost my vote in many categories.

Casey Affleck won both the BAFTA award and the Oscar for Best Actor. The film also won best screenplay at both so the system was “fair” to Kenneth Lonergan (white, American, male, winner of many other awards). He has had his talents recognised (again). However, the bigger question at play is here: what is the purpose of these award ceremonies? Whose interests do they serve? Do they really tell audiences (or film financiers) who is the best and which films we should be watching? It’s become increasingly clear that the award doesn’t always go to the most deserving. It’s even true for white men. It’s not hard to find theories about Martin Scorsese, Al Pacino or Leonardo di Caprio being given an award for a lesser film or performance because they were overlooked previously or have ‘served their time’. Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin and Stanley Kubrick somehow never won an Oscar. How many women, how many people of colour have been unrecognised over the years – even when considering those who actually were nominated are pretty exceptional and have had to overcome many barriers to even reach that stage?

The 2017 BAFTA nominations were dominated by Americans at least partly because of the cost of sending out DVD screeners around the world. I’m always amazed when a courier pulls up at my door for me to sign for a jiffy bag containing a glossy flier – not even the film itself. But we can’t ignore that awareness of a film undeniably influences voters. Knowing about a film, hearing that friends and colleagues have chosen to watch something, seeing images of it everywhere you look – these are the things that are likely to increase your sense that this film is a priority. But what if watching La La Land, Nocturnal Animals, Silence, Manchester By the Sea and Sully means you run out of time to consider The Queen of Katwe, Moonlight, When Marnie Was There or 20th Century Women? In the first round of BAFTA voting, members must only vote for films that they have seen. So what if your film isn’t considered a priority? What if you don’t have the budget to promote it or the stars to get press interviews circulating and whet appetites? Your film could well not make it into the official nominations based on marketing budgets alone.

It’s time to accept that these film awards aren’t fair in the way that we want them to be, unfortunately just like the industries that make them. By continuing to listen to their judgments about who is the ‘best’ and which films are a ‘must-see’, we are playing into the hands of the establishment of a small and exclusive minority who are take our money and continue to make films by and about white, straight, cis-gendered, able-bodied men: what good leaders they make, what good fathers they make, and what good heroes they make. Affleck is not the first powerful man in film and television to be accused of improper behaviour towards women or indeed children. In fact the list seems to be rapidly growing as women feel increasingly able to speak out. In the early days of Donald Trump’s presidency, there’s never been a better time to question why we continue to celebrate these men. This year, everyone who voted for many of the key BAFTA awards is someone who is prepared to watch a film starring a man who has been accused by two women of sexual harassment in the workplace. And he won. We will never know for certain if he did the things he is accused of as he settled out of court. However, if those in the entertainment industries continue to stick their fingers in their ears and chant “La la land” when told things they don’t want to hear then, as a BAFTA voter, I think audiences should question the validity of the entertainment awards and be aware that the “best man” doesn’t always win.

Natalie Wreyford is currently Research Fellow attached to the AHRC-funded project ‘Calling the Shots: Women and Contemporary UK Film Culture’ established at Southampton University to investigate the lack of women in key roles in the UK film industry. She worked for many years in the British film industry including as a senior executive at the UK Film Council.