Tank Girl/Doctor Who director Rachel Talalay on industry sexism: "You have to be some version of perfect."


Rachel Talalay is one of the few women to work as a director on Doctor Who, a show that has been notoriously slow to diversify its creative players

(next season Catherine Tregenna will become the first woman to write an episode since 2008). Also known for directing the female-led superhero flop Tank Girl back in 1995, Talalay sat down with blogger Alyssa of Whovian Feminism to discuss the complicated realities of sexism in the film and television industries.

Even those unfamiliar with Doctor Who can learn a lot from Talalay's nuanced perspective in the two-part interview (part one is available here and part two here).

For instance, the first interview features this exchange:

Rachel: Which brings me back to questioning if I have a responsibility to question these [potentially sexist] moments [in the script]? For me I have to walk a very fine line, because it's really important to be seen as problem-free as possible as a director (even though I don't always succeed at that … ), because I do feel judged more critically as a woman than I perceive how my male counterparts are viewed. This always sounds self-serving, how do you prove you are judged or treated differently? See, 'women whine'.

Sometimes I'm on set and the crew will talk about a male director 'phoning it in'. And then next thing I know he's invited back. But I have never heard that about a woman director — if there are any flaws (and we all have flaws), they appear to be magnified. You feel you have to be some version of perfect, because they seem to be finding problems instead of excusing them.

And many executives and crew are happily unaware that they are doing that. Inherent prejudices are invisible to their owners.

Alyssa: So trying to get more women into TV sometimes means women don't get quite the freedom to express what their personal beliefs are about the material that is being shot, because they have that pressure to put on this perfect persona of someone who is not going to cause a problem on set.

Rachel: Yes, because of the perception of being judged so much more harshly. Recently a male director said to me, "Don't you love it when you just don't know what you're going to do with a scene and you come on set and you kind of just say to everybody 'How do you think we should do this?'" My jaw dropped. I do not believe I have the luxury to do that. It would risk comments like "She doesn't know what's she's doing. She had to ask the crew."

I was once taken aside and criticized by a Producer: "Why do you change things between takes? You always make it better, but can't you get it right to start with?" Isn't that directing? A process of watching and analyzing and attempting to make it better? Always looking for ways to improve things?

But more and more, crew members are admitting to me: "It's awful to see how differently they treat you, they would never have said that to a male director." That's my best indicator that it's really different. Sometimes it surprises me because I'm unaware that I'm being treated differently and the crew is seeing things that I am used to. Plus I hear it from other women directors I talk to. And the stories they tell are often much worse than anything I've ever experienced. I've been very lucky.

And most women won't speak up – for even more fear they won't work again. What if someone reads this and thinks "I don't want to work with her – she sounds too strident or opinionated or … whiny"?

Don't get me wrong, I still have the greatest job in the world and am thrilled to be doing it. Please let me do this for the rest of life – I've been so fortunate in what I've done. But it makes me even more appreciative every time I work with respectful collaborators. (Thank you, Doctor Who!)

And later:

Rachel: I think we have to be very visionary in terms of giving women opportunities, because they come in with so much less experience, because they struggle more to get the jobs. It's a lose-lose. How do you get experience if you can't get hired? Then you are accused of having less experience, not supported because of it. And I think we all have a responsibility to support women directors and to try to figure out how to get them the training so they don't get pigeonholed. I think that the more experience we can get for women, the more likely we can get them hired on the more interesting genre shows that they want to do and not feel so limited.

Alyssa: So in the "golden age of television," we might get far fewer women directors simply because they're not given the opportunities to try out their craft.

Rachel: Yeah. Television is a place where experience is really helpful. They don't want to be training you, it's too risky on the really short schedules. You need to be able to get the work done. I worry that all of these feature directors coming over and taking jobs will hurt women who need experience. And when is a studio going to give an opportunity to a young women like they give to guys who come out of visual effects? Like the guy who directed Godzilla, Gareth Edwards, who did this tiny film and proved himself beautifully. I'll be celebrating when an opportunity like that comes by way of a woman.

In the second interview:

Rachel: The best part of the Sony hack was absolute proof of salary bias.

But, apart from that, the really tough part is that it's hard to pinpoint whether any action is motivated by sexism. In episodic television, your mark of success is whether you're asked back to do another episode. A woman's work may be dismissed and she may not be invited back, but then again, plenty of men don't get invited back as well.

In features, the classic example is Catherine Hardwicke on Twilight. They say she was asked back to do New Moon, and chose not to return. But there were rumors going around behind the scenes that they made it very difficult for her to return. We're talking about a box office smash hit here, possibly the most commercially successful film ever directed by a woman. And she wasn't offered a boatload of money to do the sequel?

I feel that most male director with a box office smash like that would've been embraced. It feels like that's an example of bias. But I can't prove it. The problem is that if you consistently whine about this stuff, it looks like you're making excuses for yourself. So my approach has been to try to make great work (emphasis on the 'try'). I don't go in expecting problems and I don't go in trying to create problems. But when you read about these issues and speak to other women who struggle to get work or to be accepted, you feel that the Industry and the Directors Guild have a responsibility to address these issues more actively. A whole lot of talk, statistics, etc, but where and what are the actions?

And finally at the end of the interview:

Rachel: I haven't said anything very significant because at this point, I'm just trying to be balanced and slightly self-protective. Just like you say, you don't want to get to that point where you are in an Anita Sarkeesian situation.

Alyssa: Which I pretty much fear every single day. Sad fact of being a woman on the internet.

Rachel: Yeah. And I fear equally that somebody will read what I say and say that they're not going to hire me or work with me. It's too bad that we feel that way. But it doesn't mean we should stop.

Alyssa: No, definitely not.

Rachel: And what ends up happening is that you end up being embraced by the people you want to be embraced by. If somebody doesn't want to hire me because I have an opinion, then it's probably not somebody that I would be comfortable working with. At least, one hopes that that's the case! I don't want to miss great opportunities either!

Read the full interviews here and here.