International Women’s Day: A View From A Broad in London

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U.S. TV producer Caryn Mandabach first got the idea for the TV series Nurse Jackie when she visited her goddaughter, who was working as a nurse in hospital in a tough New York neighborhood. On the subway, Mandabach found herself riding next to a woman balancing a basket on her head. The basket began to shudder and a serpent appeared at the brim. “F***ing snakes,” said the woman. When Mandabach repeated the story, her goddaughter barely reacted. Alongside the relentless drama of real hospital life, snakes on subways seemed unremarkable.

One might have hoped that by 2011, women in high-powered positions would seem at least as unremarkable as a snake on a subway and that events marking the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, such as the London breakfast at which Mandabach retailed this story, would be celebrations rather than campaign rallies for women’s rights. Instead the discussion at my table centered on the impact on women of the Arab uprisings and the strange and pervasive influence of Princess Diana, an icon, but not a feminist. In discussion with Jana Bennett, the President of BBC Worldwide, and British comedian and writer Jo Brand, Mandabach told her startled audience that there were currently no female leads in U.S. network comedies. (She later conceded that Tina Fey might be considered a female lead but more properly could be described as engaged in ensemble work.) The desire to ensnare the elusive 34-year-old male viewer, irrespective of the wisdom of aiming advertising at such a viewer when the greatest proportion of household purchasing decisions are made by women, skewed commissioning decisions towards TV pitches dominated by male characters, Mandabach explained.

The comparative rarity of women on our screens and in public life means that the lists of prominent women that news organizations produce on days like this often overlap. It’s no surprise to see Aung San Suu Kyi among this website’s rebellious heroines and heading The Guardian‘s 100 Most Inspiring Women. It’s exciting to find Yemen’s protest leader Tawakul Karman on TIME‘s list, and a little depressing to discover both Lady Gaga and Madonna on The Guardian‘s list (and Gaga ahead of Madonna?)

Some guests at the breakfast debated the merits of these lists. Others, notably Miriam O’Reilly, a Guardian honoree after winning an age discrimination case against the BBC, refrained from comment. And then some of us joined a march that culminated at London’s arts and culture complex, the Southbank Centre, hosting Women of the World, a festival showcasing women’s achievement (full disclosure: I was on the festival committee and will moderate a panel discussion on women and amortality at the Royal Festival Hall as part of the festival this Sunday). I found myself marching shoulder to shoulder with actress and former Bond girl Maryam d’Abo. Women’s rights and James Bond may seem unlikely bedfellows, but as my colleague Megan Gibson reported yesterday, Bond aka Daniel Craig accepted an undercover mission for International Women’s Day. If the ultimate man’s man has come out swinging for women, gender equality must surely be realized within our lifetimes. (Follow the link.)