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Why being a 'leading lady' in the film industry is impossible


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BBC Three has released a hilarious/depressing comedy short detailing (pretty accurately) the struggles actors go through when reading for “leading lady” parts. 

The eclectic, award-winning cast includes Gemma Arterton, Gemma Chan, Emilia Clarke, Lena Headey, Tom Hiddleston, Felicity Jones, Katie Leung, Stacy Martin, Wunmi Mosaku, Florence Pugh, Catherine Tate, and Anthony Welsh.

This comedy short, written and directed by Jessica Swale, takes a sneak peek backstage as the cream of British acting talent step forward to audition for that dream role of the Leading Lady.

This is one of those videos that makes you say, “it’s funny because it’s true”, and then cry because of how bleakly true it is.

Audition rooms are terrifying anyway; there’s usually one role and hundreds of people can be seen for the same one. But then when you throw in the ridiculous expectations that big budget films (and even small budget films, and television) have of women, the minefield becomes even harder to navigate.

The duplicity that women are expected to bring into audition rooms (and consequently to the big screen) isn’t a mark of good acting; it’s a mark of ridiculous expectations that no one can ever actually fully meet.

Women are expected to be emotional, but also remain pretty while expressing that emotion. There are so many films starring the Single Solitary Tear Rolling Gracefully Down a Delicate Cheek. Because we can’t have people thinking that women are actually humans who ugly-cry. That would be ludicrous.

While they’re at it, they should also be sensual, but naive; multiple casting calls advertise for the Girl Next Door who is pretty but doesn’t know it, as if women being confident in their appearance marks Armageddon. Because if the principal female character doesn’t need the validation of a man, how could they possibly be a down to earth person? After all, confidence = bad. That’s why male characters are never allowed to be confident…. Oh wait.

No, because it is actually possible to be comfortable in your own skin while being a fully fleshed out character. (Oh, but while not being too confident, women should also be confident enough to bare some skin; full frontal nudity is a really key part of developing characters for women.)

Also, they can’t be too old. Because everyone knows that women disintegrate into nothingness when they hit 40. So, really it would be unheard of to cast women who have any signs of aging whatsoever. Visible wrinkles? Forget about it, honey.

Something that the video touches on briefly is the difficulty women of colour face, especially women with darker skin. While this topic alone could have its own article, let’s focus on what BBC Three raises. The audition panel members assumes Wunmi Mosaku has confused her audition rooms and meant to audition for Black Panther Returns. When she assures them that she means to audition for their film, they don’t give her the chance to even read the part and after silencing her out of the audition room, then ask her for coffee.

And, yes, it is satire, but it’s also so painful. As a Black actress myself, that part hit home a lot harder than the rest of the equally satirical and painfully true commentary. The amount of good roles with actual depth to them for women is limited; the amount for women that are also darker-skinned is even less. Women of colour have a whole host of other expectations inflicted upon them, as well as having to deal with the fact that unless the character is a slave, an ex-girlfriend with attitude, or a sassy best friend, they have the mountain to tackle of not being white enough. Gemma Chan too gets called out for that in the short, for not fitting the narrow constraints of a 'leading lady'.

It bears remembering that much of the humour comes from the fact that the women auditioning in the short are already successful established actors. New, emerging actors are treated to the same impossible standards, without the knowledge that no matter how much you want a job, an audition panel is not a god and feeling uncomfortable in an audition room is reason enough to walk straight out. It’s mildly terrifying that it still happens with more seasoned actors, albeit perhaps not quite so obviously.

It was a good move to have the panel consist of two women and one men. The severity of criticism that women receive from other women in the industry is often unspoken, and it can hurt even more than the criticism from men. It is very easy to forget that these impossible standards are upheld by more than just men in the industry.

This is an achingly accurate, majorly condensed, portrayal of a drawn-out process that can be quite difficult for actors at any stage of their career. And it needs to change. Hopefully, hearing the ridiculousness of it all at once might be a wakeup call for some (though I’m not holding my breath).

Also, I will say that, for a video aiming to be self-aware, it’s troubling that the caption on Facebook mentions some of the actresses, but not all of them – mostly the more famous, white actresses. It’s arguable that it’s due to recognisability of some names over others, but, let’s be honest, that’s not really good enough, is it? And the power of recognisability is another monster altogether.

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