Doctor Who, #MeToo, and why Gallifrey is done waiting

Rachel Talalay on an extraordinary panel at the recent Gallifrey One Doctor Who convention, #MeToo and being kind...

We’re thrilled to welcome director Rachel Talalay – Tank Girl, Doctor Who, The Flash, Riverdale, Supergirl, lots of other things! – to Den Of Geek. You can find Rachel on Twitter here. And without further ado, we’re handing over to here..

I was unprepared.

I simply thought a panel with 13 women (actors, writers, and crew) would mean I could relax after a rather demanding set of panels and events at Gallifrey One. There were plenty of brilliant, articulate and fascinating women on the stage with me and I could take a deep breath and enjoy their stories.

I was not prepared for what this panel would become.

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For those of you who have not read Whovian Feminism’s description of this event, I suggest you start there. My notes are a follow-up to this, not a restating of what transpired. 

One of my daughters was in the audience. She knows my stories intimately. As she hugged me afterwards, I asked what she had thought. She was most surprised by how many different ways there were for women to be harassed or discriminated against. Sexual harassment, bullying, controlling their means and their weight, pregnancy discrimination, verbal harassment, etc. Each of us has our damage and our stories. They are varied, but they all resonated.

On stage, I found myself crying inside. I nearly lost it when Wendy Padbury recounted, for the first time, a most disturbing story of a terrible encounter when she was 16. As the memory re-emerged, and we fell into a shocked silence, she concluded that she felt guilt for not having spoken up then. She thought that maybe she could have stopped this happening to others — as unlikely as that would have been.

Instead of forgiving herself and finding solace in confessing this story, she found a way to turn it against herself. There was a collective gasp among us and the audience, that the result of this story would be self-flagellation, not anger or pain.

I think #MeToo has made us all evaluate ourselves for choices we have made within an industry built on money and vanity, with a smell of desperation, resulting in institutional sexism, racism, bullying, and harassment (both sexual and otherwise).

I know a lot of men who have used this moment to ask themselves about their own behaviour. They come to us for forgiveness for not understanding or acknowledging what consent means or the difference between seduction and harassment, something we know should not even be a question. We should not have to explain how to respect us.

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We are all looking for civility in a very uncivil time. It is unsettling to the core.

But for me, who has had to fight and bounce back, whatever the adversity, I can see many bright sides. Yes, I remain afraid and cautious and awaiting the backlash. But I know wonderful men who say “I don’t understand how and why men behave this way. It’s not even in my vocabulary to think about treating a woman that way.” For these men, the movement is about awareness. A panel like this is an eye-opener for them — they all say they had no idea what we endure — that every woman on that stage had stories that were gender-specific.

I felt renewed anger when I listened to Hayley Neubauer’s story of being ‘un-hired’ from a job when she told the producer of the show that she was pregnant. She had told me this story before, and I had offered to help her deal with the illegality of the situation. She declined, knowing that the result would be that she would gain a reputation for being ‘difficult’ and that would be career suicide. I was outraged, as I frequently am when people close to me are abused, but fully understood.

I have been witness to friends being sexually harassed and have spoken directly to the perpetrator and told him to stop it. I have stood up against unequal pay when it didn’t have to do with myself. I have even asked bosses to stop verbally harassing other people. But when these things happened to me, I am frightened: when I lost a job because I was pregnant, when I took lower pay than the men doing equal duties, when I was touched inappropriately, or told that the job wasn’t good for women or that they’d had a woman before and “it hadn’t worked out,” I was silent. There is always someone to take your place if you are seen as “problematic.”

The night before the panel, I had dinner with several of the women on the stage. As expected, our dialogue turned to #MeToo and general biases. I, in a lesser way than Wendy, voiced my guilt that I had stopped trying to stand up for myself. I had had a choice — when I was told “never play the woman card, never speak of your gender or you will never work, and above all, never complain or they will turn those complaints into weakness or your inability to get along or whatever negative they want to use,” I evaluated my choices and, when it came to myself, I always shut up. Head down. Work hard.

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I chose to work — I settled it in my head with the decision that working would do more for women than not working. I was still getting to direct and I was one of the few women who was hired on action and FX-driven shows, so just by working, by doing a good job, by proving we could do it, I was doing us a service. But deep down, I worried I had sold-out.

When I talked about my confusion about this choice, Rona Munro laid some healing words on me (as one would expect from the genius writer/playwright): “Sometimes you have to infiltrate to succeed. And there’s a ‘whatever it takes’ to succeed at infiltrating.”

I took great solace in that way of looking at it. It wasn’t a cowardly choice.

I hope Wendy Padbury will never feel guilty about her 16 year old self and will only see it as the appalling story it is to the outsiders — a terrible trauma for anyone to go through at any age.

I look at Uma Thurman. I saw Kill Bill and it had so many elements I’d wished Tank Girl had. After the glass ceiling continued to lower onto me, leaving me gasping for any oxygen, Uma inspired and excited me.

For 15 years she lived with the terrible secret of that appalling car accident and a shocking story of circling the wagons and protecting the powerful. It’s easy for thoughtless people to be judgmental and say “you should have told someone.” But it’s a lose-lose situation when you are the survivor.

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Enough brow-beating — on the upside, by and large, I have had tremendous support from the mostly male bosses and mentors in my life. I could call my autobiography “Everything I Know, I Learned from Nightmare on Elm Street.” New Line Cinema, with its historically checkered reputation, is the place I credit as my film school. Within the company, I learned, I was promoted, and I was encouraged. And while never perfect, the films were worlds of tremendous creativity within very small budgets. Learning to create within those limitations has been the most useful skillset for my future work. Solve, don’t demur. It was the next step from Roger Corman’s world where many got their start in the 70s.

Back on the panel, Deb Stanish, who did a wonderful job moderating something that took an unexpected turn and stunned us all, asked me to say the final words for all of us. It was daunting, as I’m not a speaker nor writer nor performer like many of my colleagues on the stage.

I was following some beautiful pearls of advice from Sarah Dollard and Jenny Colgan — promoting our strong voices and our support for one another — and asking us to listen and believe each other.

Because we will continue to tell our stories and find ways to be heard.

It’s important for me to note that only one story on stage had anything to do with Doctor Who. So in my wrap-up, I turned to the positive in Doctor Who. I mentioned how many people at the convention had come and thanked me for episodes or moments in my work, especially telling me how Heaven Sent had helped them through a troubling time, had brought them through some type of grieving.

I thanked the audience for this, but moreso for what they had done for me. As our work had helped them, their support and passion bolsters us.

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I spoke about how Doctor Who had also been a healing place for me — I thanked Steven Moffat and Peter Capaldi and, as always, the crew, for the most tremendous environment to encourage both creativity and positive messaging. I reiterated Steven’s words that we still have a lot more work to do (the lack of diversity on the stage was evidence enough), but we all intend to continue to do it.

And I ended with the 12th Doctor’s words:

Laugh Hard. Run Fast. Be Kind.

There were a lot of hugs after that. And some tears. I returned to the green room to gather my belongings to head to my airplane, As I walked in, the men in the room who had been at the panel spontaneously applauded. That, too, I will not forget.

Oh, brilliant.