A fantastic line up of women swept onto Theatre B at MCM London Comic Con on Sunday afternoon for the last panel of the day, titled “Who Run the World? Girls!”. The seats were packed, the aisles crammed, and some punters snuck closer to sit on the floor in front of the stage when they had nowhere else to go.
In order of appearance, came Merrin Dungey and Victoria Smurfit from Once Upon a Time, Felicia Day (The Guild, Supernatural), Willa Holland (Arrow), Renée Felice Smith (NCIS:LA), Emily Wickersham (NCIS), Annie Wersching (The Vampire Diaries), Jadyn Wong (Scorpion) and Rila Fukushima (Arrow).
These women have fought and waited many years to get roles that are more than ‘some guy’s little sister’, or the ‘black best friend’, or the ‘love interest’. Now they’ve started to see a change, in TV shows especially, as they star in shows as women characters who can carry their own plot line rather than propping up male protagonists.
Felicia Day expressed that even male side-characters tend to be more developed than female ones, so when she watches a show, she defines a strong female character by asking, ‘Can this woman carry the weight of the show?’. She further explained, “I think that, when we say ‘strong women character’, it becomes a cliché sometimes because you think of a girl in leather pants just kicking a man in the face. But I think we’ve gone so much past that now. If you really ask what people mean, I think, my interpretation is that it’s a woman character who you can understand her emotional point of view, and can imagine her carrying the whole piece, no matter if she’s the lead, or the second, third, or fourth lead.”
“If you look at entertainment, frequently you will see other men characters in a movie or a TV show with the ability to carry a show because they’re so fully realised emotionally, but frequently, especially if a woman is a love interest, you don’t understand who she is, she just moves with the plot to enable the man character to do what he needs to do. I think that’s what is very exciting to see, especially on genre shows, where you can see any one of the women on this panel carrying the show, because their characters are very strong, and to me that’s what strength is.” The audience clapped hard for a few seconds at this great description.
Despite progress being made in female representation, however, there’s still resistance to women having more vocal and prominent roles, especially when marketing these products. The panel was asked if they had encountered this kind of resistance from higher-ups in the industry, and Annie Wersching, who voices Tess in The Last of Us, said, “I remember with The Last of Us there was an issue where the higher-ups didn’t want Ellie to also be on the cover of the game, they wanted it just to be Joel, just the guy, and Neil Druckmann, the director, and Naughty Dog fought for her to be there because she’s just as much the main character as Joel. So, I think it also takes the right people to make the doors open when some narrow-minded people at the top don’t always want that, but I thought that was crazy that they didn’t want her on the front.”
On a lighter note, a member of the audience asked if there was a Marvel or DC superhero they wanted to play. Merrin Dungey said a version of Batman. Willa Holland said a female Flash. Renée Felice Smith said, “Well, this isn’t Marvel or DC, but I’m a big fan of Neil Gaiman. I’d love to play Death. I think it’s a story that has to be told, and cinematically it could be really beautiful and really visual.”
Next, someone pointed out that Emily Wickersham’s character on NCIS has an obsession with sitting on tables, and was this a choice of hers or if it was a habit Emily had before the show? “When I came in and I first auditioned for the role,” Emily began, “it wasn’t written in the script for this scene in the squad room. I was leaning up against the desk, and I guess I just, I didn’t really think about it beforehand, I just hopped up on the desk. Didn’t really think about it during the scene. After I got the part of Bishop they were like, ‘Oh, by the way, loved what you did. Also, a new addition to your character that we’re gonna continue with is we’re gonna put you on surfaces. You’ll do a lot of your work on surfaces—decks, floors, file cabinets—so, I guess they liked it.”
This question extended to the rest of the panel, and Renée told a tale about how she got one show part because she had a bloody knee. “I had fallen outside—I’m a terrible klutz—and I fell on the gravel. I came in, I got a bandaid and put in on my knee, and when I came in and they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s her, that’s the girl, she would fall and have a bloody knee!’ So, that—that’s it.” Her dry tone of voice as she said this sent laughter ripping across the audience.
After a question to do with which Salvador brother does Annie Wersching prefer working with, the panel host asked, since the panel all work with a lot of “great looking men”, do they find that a lot of the questions they get are about the men? “The most frequent question I get asked,” said Willa, “is how is it working with Stephen Amell, and how hard is it playing his sister and not being attracted to him? I’m not attracted to him, guys! He’s my brother, not in real life but on TV. There’s nothing there. But I get asked that all the time, ‘Is it hard—do you want to touch his abs?’”
Merrin Dungey and Victoria Smurfit, on the other hand, most often get asked what it’s like working with Lana Parrilla, who plays Regina Mills in Once Upon a Time. “It’s probably the only show I’ve done where the question is about a woman, and I really actually love that,” said Victoria, “because you do get asked a lot, ‘What was it like doing a bed scene with Phil le Blanc?’ So it’s really nice to be always asked, ‘What’s Lana like? What’s Lana like?’ And, for the record, she’s magic.” The audience aww’d at how sincere Victoria and Merrin’s admiration was for Lana Parrilla.
The next question to the panel asked what advice would they give to young women wanting to go into acting and other male dominated jobs. Renée answered first, saying that it’s important to embrace your idiosyncrasies. She felt that one of the reasons she’s been employed is because she sounds different and she looks a certain way. “I think that’s a good thing—letting your differences define you. Embrace yourself , be comfortable with yourself, and don’t be afraid to be yourself. I guess that would be my advice.”
Merrin sternly added, “Get a thick skin, because not everyone is going to like you, and it doesn’t matter. You have to love yourself, you have to trust yourself, and you have to be brave. Something happened not too long ago where I was CC’d into an email that I wasn’t supposed to see. I read some stuff about myself that I didn’t want to hear—that somebody had an opinion about me—and I had to go back and work with this person. You have to have a thick skin, particularly as a woman, because we have this thing about wanting to be liked and to people please. That is not going to help you get the job, or to get the job done.” Her frankness caused another round of applause and the panel nodded in agreement.
Things turned to social media as the panel was asked what it was like to receive direct reactions to their characters online. After a few glances up and down the table, Felicia Day inched closer to her microphone. “I’m very lucky to be mostly on the internet with my work,” she said, “which sometimes can be disheartening, but 99 percent of the time it’s very encouraging. When I hear from people with Charlie from Supernatural, she’s a geek who’s a lesbian, but she’s not defined by those traits. She is a human being, she’s fully fleshed out. We’ve seen an amazing journey for her, and she happens to be these other things.”
“I think, especially on TV, we see people in categories like, ‘best friend’ or ‘love interest’ or ‘evil person’, and all the characters on this panel seem to be more nuanced. I think that’s where you see people respond and be inspired to either be who they want to be, or follow a path they never would have followed before. That really is what the most beautiful thing is about being an artist—whether an actor, or a painter, or a writer—you’re affecting change in other people.”
This eventually led to someone asking how the women on the panel dealt with frustration when working in the field of acting. Victoria leant to the mic and said, “Wine,” to everyone’s amusement. When no one else elaborated, the host asked, “Is that it? Anything other than wine? Is that a panel of wine-os?”
Laughing, Renée elaborated, “I think I would just say talk about it, like with anything else in your life, when something starts to bubble up and you feel the rage burn inside of you, talk about it. I had a situation on set very early on where a camera person kind of scolded me in a way that, I felt, he wouldn’t scold anyone else on the show, but because I was brand new and I looked like I was a sixteen year old little homeless child, he felt that he could throw his weight around with me. So, from day one I had to be really straight forward and say, ‘Hey, please talk to me as you would talk to everybody else. I’m trying to do the best job I can and the only way I can do that is if I’m respecting you, then please respect me.’ And so, I think, just being vocal and getting it out there, rather than pushing it down is the healthiest way to deal with it.”
On the flip side, Merrin added to this, “I think that’s true, but I also think that you have to stand up for yourself and have your boundaries.” She referred back to the unkind email she’d read and said that there was no way to talk about it with the person involved. She just had to go in and get it over with. “Some things you can’t always work out, because some people have a higher position and they don’t want to hear about it, or whatever. It’s called a job for a reason. Sometimes you just need to go and be great, do your job to the best of your ability, be on time, be kind and polite—because you didn’t win the lottery, you just got a great job—so respect everybody. Just go do your job.”
The panel rounded off by talking about what motivates them to get up in the morning and go do their job—for Willa it’s the passion she receives from her fans, for Annie it’s to make her mother proud, and for Merrin it’s to provide for her kids and to be an inspiration to them.
After forty-five minutes of great questions and answers, the women walked off stage to a thunderous round of applause and much cheering. If you haven’t seen any of their shows, hop to it! They’re involved in fantastic stories right now that are part of, what many are calling, the “Golden Era” of TV.