Extraordinary Women

‘Extraordinary Women’ is a series of interviews with some of society’s most inspiring and intriguing women. It is an attempt to redefine the conversation around women in the media, without sensationalism but instead to authentically listen to and record their voices.

Holly Tarquini

In her extended essay ‘A Room of One’s Own’, Virginia Woolf critiques the way women are represented in fiction. She says that:

 “Almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that…”

This limited view of a woman’s existence is not unique to fiction and unfortunately, it has not greatly improved since the publication of Woolf’s text in 1929. It is a plague which is particularly rampant within the film industry. Last year, fewer than 5% of films were directed by women and top female actors earned 60% less than their male counterparts.

Holly Tarquini, Director of the Bath Film Festival, was dissatisfied with the status quo and sought to create change. She developed the F-Rating, a method of analysing film by three criteria:

  1. Does it have a female director?
  2. Is it written by a woman?
  3. Are there significant female characters on screen in their own right?

Speaking at Dublin’s Cinemagic Film Festival, I met with Holly to discuss society’s limited view of gender, feminism and the future of film. She’s pretty incredible!


How would you describe yourself both personally and professionally?

Gosh, that’s a huge question [laughs]. If I was attempting to be very succinct, I would simply describe myself as a feminist as that permeates through all aspects of my life. However, if I needed to expand on that title, I would say that I am a feminist that is incredibly passionate about the stories that are told on-screen and specifically, who tells the stories.

How do we measure the importance of such stories?

Those stories have an enormous influence on each of us and on the inner narratives that we harbour internally. They dictate the inner-dialogue that helps us to decide the ways in which we view ourselves. This self-interrogation can produce a negative lens through which we see our aesthetic as body-dysmorphic or, we can develop an egotistical view of ourselves which permits a certain confidence where we are conscious of how we position ourselves and are deliberate in the space which we take up. I firmly believe that film and television greatly influence the way in which women view themselves, and to quote Geena Davis, ‘If she can see it, she can be it’.

That’s such a powerful quote.

It’s a fantastically neat way of depicting the idea that the more diverse representations of being a woman, a girl and non-binary that there are on-screen, the more we can tease out the characteristics that will help all audiences to feel that their experiences are valid and important.

Yes, because I don’t think such evolvement would solely impact women.

There are so many aspects of being human that are not represented on-screen and I firmly believe that it’s because there is only one segment of society who have been granted permission to pen stories for television and film. Mostly, these are cis, middle-class, middle-aged, able-bodied, heterosexual, white men. When you look at it from an abstract perspective, the niche-ness is utterly bizarre [laughs].

When you take a microcosm of society and analyse its evolvement, it’s interesting to see even how that status quo is maintained. It’s wonderful to see a greater representation of little people on-screen but where are the little women, the little people of colour, gay little people and trans little people?

I’ve never thought about that before and you’re absolutely right. It feels that although change is occurring, we are still continuing and reinforcing that homogenous dialogue. It’s terrifying [laughs].

When we were speaking earlier, you described yourself as a feminist and I understand from informal conversations that you claimed that word when you were very young. Can you remember when you first understood what a feminist was and why it related to you?

From as early as I can remember, I didn’t want to be a girl or a woman. I had this innate understanding of my limitations if I chose to describe myself as a girl or a woman and I saw myself external to those boundaries. My childhood was littered with stories where the woman was not the protagonist, she continuously needed to be rescued or she was the witty side-kick who was a little bit feisty [laughs]. I wanted to be the main character.

How did that impact your quotidian life?

Greatly! From the age of six until eight, I was called George [laughs]. I looked like a boy and as far as I was concerned, I was a boy. Back then, the term non-binary didn’t exist within colloquial vocabulary but as a child, had the concept been explained to me – had I understood that I did not have to define myself as either a girl or a boy – I probably would have leapt at such an opportunity. Those were the roots of my feminism. I was wholly taken in by the gross unfairness of the gendered culture.

My PhD research is on student voice and particularly, giving children a say about matters which affect them in schools. How would you recommend that schools react in such a situation?

Well, I’ve never been very passive [laughs]. When I went to school, I didn’t inform my teachers that I would like to be called George, I just didn’t respond to anything else. Quite quickly, they began to call me George and recently, I found school books from that era where teachers had corrected my work and in their comments, they called me as George. I don’t remember it ever causing conflict or anyone ever articulating that it was not something I could do and I went to an all-girls school too and had to wear a skirt [laughs].

Were your family and friends supportive?

Very much so and in particular, I keenly remember a dinner with my best friend’s family where her mother, a surgeon, told me that she was performing (as it was called then) sex change surgery. The realisation that I could physically become male gave me space to really contemplate what it would mean to be a boy and how it would differ from my experience as George. That dinner was revolutionary as I began to realise that such surgery was not for me but it did underline the fact that I decided not to partake in the performance of society’s given genders and instead, I decided to be me.

That desire to just be yourself mirrors much of my own personal maturation but to move the conversation on, when did your frustration with the film industry first come to fruition?

It peaked in 2014, with the release of the annual statistics of female and male representation in film. It noted that less than 5% of the Top 200 films were directed by women, which meant that 95% of those films were directed by men. I can viscerally recall how angry I was at that statistic and how ludicrous it seemed that in 2014, that such a lack of representation was still acceptable. It was that moment that spurred the development of the F-Rating.

How did you set up the F-Rating, particularly how do you envision making it sustainable?

Well, it’s not in the least bit sustainable [laughs]. We have existed for two years and our initial aspiration was to evolve so that we would F-Rate our programme at Bath Film Festival with any films that were directed by women, written by women and had significant women on-screen. We thought that we might get some local press but the whole world made contact and wanted to hear more about what it was that we were doing [laughs]. It was surreal but brilliant.

Was it difficult to manage?

It was an enormous task because the F-Rating, well, it’s really just me. The festival takes up about four to six months of the year and is organised by me and a core team of approximately five people, along with sixty to eighty kind volunteers. However, for the remainder of the year, it’s just me working in isolation. I’m currently exploring how best to manage the F-Rating to ensure that it does evolve, become sustainable and most importantly that audiences and cinemas receive communication about the F-Rated films which are soon to be released.

Is there any specific genre that is most favourable to the F-Rating?                                                                                                                     

The more expensive a film costs to make, equating to a higher level of financial risk, the less likely it is that the film will attain an F-Rating. Therefore, the lower the budget and risk, the more likely it is to receive an F-Rating. International blockbusters are the least likely and documentaries are the most likely, followed by art-house and independent films.

Are platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime amplifying women’s voices or are they reinforcing the systemic oppression?

Television has taken enormous leaps regarding the representation of women with a diverse cohort of voices becoming protagonists liberated from the narratives of being the side-kick but instead are becoming the hero. This mirrors the change which is happening in writers’ rooms, among producers and directors too but sadly, this is not reflective of the mainstream film industry.

Thank God for Shonda Rimes [laughs].

Exactly but regarding Hollywood, it was the financial success of ‘Jaws’ that changed the landscape. For the first time, the viewer was perceived to be a male teenager and although that is not true because more women purchase cinema tickets than men, that is who films are being made for and it is the primary reason why so much of mainstream cinema is bland. Every film is fighting for one single demographic.

How can other festivals emulate the success of the F-Rating at the Bath Film Festival?

I am not precious about the F-Rating and my objective is that festivals and cinemas take the method that we have developed and use it to include greater representation of women in their programming. It’s essential that they manipulate this tool themselves and not just duplicate films that are within our programme as it will make them ask different questions when they apply it to their unique jurisdiction and setting.

What is the most difficult aspect of F-Rating a film?

The third criteria – ‘Are there significant women on-screen in their own right?’ – can be quite contentious. Defining the word ‘significant’ is wholly subjective and I would never F-Rate a misogynistic film, even if there were multiple significant women on-screen.

If women are on-screen but if the only purpose is for them to be viewed through the male gaze, you would not include it?

Exactly. Whereas, I would give ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ an F-Rating but some feminist friends of mine would be in complete disagreement. It is perfectly acceptable that one cinema might give a certain film an F-Rating but a film festival might refuse to do so. Amplifying that debate about what is going on on-screen is incredibly important and intrinsic to the development of our thinking and critique.

It’s about asking questions and viewing programming in a different light. You visited Dublin for the Cinemagic Film Festival which is predominantly aimed at reaching younger voices but how can teenagers participate in the conversation?

I wanted to encourage them to watch films differently by introducing them to the Bechdel Test and realising how few films pass the test: does the film have two women on screen, who have a conversation with on another, about something other than a man? They were appalled [laughs]. I also wanted to find out if young people care that most of the films which we consume are made by one demographic.

Do they?

It’s heartening because many of the young people that I come across are very politically aware and engaged.

How do we reach those who aren’t as politically fluent?

It’s difficult because firstly, the word feminism continues to have negative connotations and secondly, those who come from lower socio-economic backgrounds, particularly young boys, are often very disadvantaged and the notion that they should be fighting for someone else’s rights whilst they continue to feel oppressed is somewhat contradictive.

The notion that we can only have one debate at a time permeates so much of our culture. Within the film industry, we are currently debating the wage gap but somewhat silencing the erasure of people of colour on-screen.

I agree and the majority of feminists are intersectional and what we are collectively fighting for transcends any individual’s oppression.

We can’t emulate the behaviours of those currently in power but instead, we should bring about bringing forward as many diverse voices as possible so that the ideal is challenged and that minorities are empowered to speak for themselves, rather than being translated by the most palatable voice.


Finally Holly, how do you see the F-Rating developing over the next decade?

The overall ambition is that it ceases to exist because it is no longer required. There have been three sizeable reports regarding women in film and the Directors UK report advocated for 50% of the public funding for films be given to women. This mirrors the Swedish system and in under two years, films made by women have won 69% of the prizes at film festivals. The British Film Institute have agreed to distribute 50% of funding to female film makers and that initiative alone will eradicate the myth that women just aren’t good enough at producing, directing, acting in or writing films [laughs].

Holly is on Twitter but discover more about the Bath Film Festivalthe F-Ratingupcoming F-Rated films and the Cinemagic Film Festival.

Interview originally posted June 28, 2016

Sinead Burke