Susanna White on the Set of Our Kind of Traitor

A Screen of One’s Own

In 1946 Senator J. William Fulbright set up the Fulbright Programme (name not coincidental) to foster and promote ‘mutual cultural understanding through educational exchange’. Promising American students received grants to conduct their research and studies abroad, and foreign citizens got help to enrol at universities in the United States. What started as a response to the Second World War became one of the most prestigious scholarships in existence, with over 160 countries participating in the Programme.

Naturally, the United Kingdom is one of those countries, having joined as early as 1948. Among the British students who have benefited from the Fulbright scholarship — a list that includes Nobel laureates — are director Susanna White (going from Oxford to UCLA) and author and researcher Anna Beer (from Oxford and Reading Universities to Arizona State University).

On Monday night, at the new Fitzhugh Auditorium of Exeter College, Fulbright alumni gathered for the annual society lecture, this year given by Susanna White and titled A Screen of One’s Own. Doctor Anna Beer, Chair of the Alumni Council, was the one introducing the speaker and, as Anna happens to be a former tutor of mine, I got to attend.

UK Fulbright Alumni Network Annual Lecture (Collage)

Exeter is the fourth oldest College of the University of Oxford or, as stated by the College Director, ‘the oldest College whose date of foundation is not in dispute’. This was the first formal event to take place in the new building, the Cohen Quadrangle which encompasses the Fitzhugh Auditorium.

The construction of the Cohen Quadrangle was not unproblematic. While the newest addition to the College is both ambitious and architecturally interesting, it came with such a delay that Exeter had to place its students into hotels, due to lack of accommodation. You might also spot portable electric heaters in the background of the picture above, suggesting the engineering work is ongoing.

Susanna White’s talk, while largely autobiographical, raised questions which were not exclusive to her life experiences. In the vein of the time-honoured ‘the personal is political’, White spoke of female directors, asking, ‘What names come to one’s mind? Why those? Why so few?’ Aptly titled A Screen of One’s Own in allusion to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, the lecture suggested that there are ‘very practical matters excluding women from film careers’ — similar to the matters that excluded women from academia in Woolf’s time.

The lecture opened with a clip from the broadcast of the Moon landing in 1969: the faces of the space programme officers, frozen in concentration, the hazy close-ups of the lunar surface, Neil Armstrong preparing to leave the module and saying his famous ‘one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind’. For young Susanna White that occasion revealed how much inspiration and joy of shared experience can be provided by television. That event, coupled with a visit to the set of the BBC children’s TV show Crackerjack with her pack of Brownies, determined White’s choice of career. She was going to be a director, for both small and big screen.

Ruth Wilson as Jane Eyre and Toby Stephens as Mr. Rochester

In 2017 White has an impressive filmography: from her documentary debut with BBC to new adaptations of literary classics (Dickens and Brontë), to Generation Kill, Boardwalk Empire, and Parade’s End. She has also directed several feature films: Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang (2010), Our Kind of Traitor (2016), and Woman Walks Ahead (currently in post-production).

Her TV shows were large-scale, award-winning productions made in collaboration with actors who are pride of London and Hollywood, yet it took Susanna White much longer than could be expected to direct her first feature film. In a tone that suggests surprise rather than indignation (Are you quite sure that is correct?), White tells that, although women make up to 50% of film school graduates, only 10% end up in the director’s seat. ‘In 2016, British films were six times more likely to be directed by a man than a woman. The situation in the United States was pretty much the same.’

The conditions are better in theatre (37% of directors are female) and comparatively better on television, although not without a degree of gender profiling. It is easier to end up working for a show focused on body image or family if you are a woman. It is much more difficult to direct a drama series.

In Susanna White’s earnest opinion, she has never encountered overt sexism in her career. The problem that female directors — and those aspiring — encounter is less visible and, therefore, more insidious.

There is a pre-existing opinion that certain topics and shows are meant for women. It is not a coincidence that White’s first feature was a children’s film as, the genre being more ‘domestic’, studios are happy to trust women with it. It is not a coincidence that White’s involvement with Generation Kill, a miniseries about American Marines in Iraq, caused a reaction. It was seen as unusual that a female director would be in charge of a television series about war. Yet, ‘no one chose to comment when 13 productions of Jane Eyre were directed by men’.


White herself suggests that bias is engendered by the conservative, risk-averse culture of film production. ‘People have a tendency to hire people who look like those who had succeeded before.’ Having few female directors in the past means having few female directors in the future. As a result, we — collectively, as a world — miss out on voices, stories, experiences that are left unnoticed. There is also a note of patriarchy, as, subsequently, women’s opinions on politics, social issues, technology are ignored, while men’s opinions on everything — including women — are the ones realised.

White quoted The New York Times article written by Gloria Steinem and published last week:

…As long as men are taken seriously when they write about the female half of the world — and women are not taken seriously when writing about ourselves, much less about men and public affairs — the list of Great Authors will be more about power than talent, more about opinion than experience.

Gloria Steinem, “Women Have ‘Chick Flicks’. What About Men?”

Despite the fact that films directed by women, on average, do better than those made by their male colleagues, women are very rarely in charge of high-budget projects. The gender hierarchy within film production seems to be stuck in the past, and that is also reflected in the way ‘important’ occupations are distributed on screen: men are much likelier to be represented as lawyers and judges (97%), doctors (95%), politicians (94%) and so on. The screens we watch mirror our society back at as, and that reflection is grossly distorted.

Ironically, the industry sees itself as forward-thinking and progressive. When recent studies, such as referenced in this Huffington Post article, revealed just how unjust the system is, it came as a revelation. While women working in film-making felt the disparity throughout their careers, there was almost always an alternative explanation to those instances where a male candidate got the job. Figures made the matter more visible and sexism, irrefutable.

As a response to those findings, the British film industry is now engaged in diversity monitoring. Currently at the stage of data-gathering, it should serve as basis for future policies which, undoubtedly, will be a challenge to implement on a technical level, given how many in the industry are freelancers. That is, if good will and the readiness to change are universal.

Despite the challenges that she has faced as a woman in a ‘man’s profession’ — or, perhaps, because she has successfully overcome them — Susanna White remains very optimistic about working in film industry. According to her, many problems are finally being addressed and television as a medium is living through its golden era. However, the ‘celluloid ceiling’ is a present, vile, real thing, and it is not sufficient to rely on Virginia Woolf’s advice. ‘I wish the solution was as simple as five hundred pounds and a room of one’s own. Making film requires a lot more people and resources than writing a novel, and to change the situation for directors systemic improvement is needed to move from a vicious circle to a virtuous one.’

Susanna White and Jessica Chastain

Lectures and Talks: A Screen of One’s Own by Susanna White. Fitzhugh Auditorium, Cohen Quadrangle, Exeter College. Heard on March 6th, 2017.

Current album: Porches, Pool
Current book: Jan Wagner, Self-Portrait with a Swarm of Bees
Current TV series: Bob’s Burgers, Series 1 (2011)

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