Elaine C Smith speaks of ‘mad feminist’ label at launch of female arts prize

Veteran actress Elaine C Smith said young women entering creative roles deserve more support as she recalled some were labelled “mad feminists” for raising concerns about sexism in the 1980s.

Smith, who played Mary ‘Mary Doll’ Nesbitt in Scottish comedy Rab C Nesbitt, said it is a “particularly hard game for young women” entering theatre and television.

She said she is “very fortunate” to have made a career for herself in acting in a world where women in the industry are a minority.

She acknowledged the situation today is “better than it was” when she started out, but said women still need more encouragement and support in the arts.

She spoke to the PA news agency as she launched the £500 Elaine C Smith Student Prize for young women in acting at New College Lanarkshire, Motherwell, which will be given to one student annually.

Smith, originally of Newarthill, near Motherwell, said: “I think for me, I have to put my money where my mouth is and say, ‘if I can help one woman – and hopefully over the years I’ll help quite a few – but by just speaking out you can do that’.

“When I came into the business that support wasn’t really there.”

She recalled the early days of her acting career, saying women were expected to “conform” and expected to be “good girls”.

She added: “You had to know if you said too much, or were too vocal in the 1980s when I started and all that.

“You were seen as a mad feminist by just saying, ‘actually I think that’s a wee bit sexist.’ So you tended to keep quiet, and it was hard for me to stay quiet.

“But you tended to worry that if you spoke out you wouldn’t be used again; you’d be seen as trouble. Whereas if a guy was speaking out they’d be seen as strong, they were great and good for them.

Elaine C. Smith with students and representatives of New College Lanarkshire.
Elaine C Smith with students and representatives of New College Lanarkshire (Ian Dunn/New College Lanarkshire/PA)

“Also there were so few jobs for women that the women who had the jobs hung on to them and were actually terrified of the new women coming up behind them, and I vowed that I never wanted to be that woman.”

The actress went on to say she is “really disappointed” that Creative Scotland’s funding was cut this year by £6.6 million, but she accused the UK Government of being the true culprit rather than the Scottish Government.

The Scottish Government cut £6.6 million from the budget for the national arts funding body for Scotland this year – reversing a previous commitment ministers had made on the funding.

Smith said: “I do know that, without getting political about it, that 10 or more years of austerity, given that there’s certainly a thought process across political parties in the south in Westminster, to shut down Scotland.

“Don’t make the Scottish Government look good. So if you force the Scottish Government – if you’ve got less money to divvy up – and you force the Scottish Government into cutting the money to councils, then you have councils making really tough choices, eventually the public say, ‘this is terrible,’ and of course they blame the Scottish Government.

“Then you’ve got Westminster coming in and saying, ‘oh, we’ll fund that project.’

“It’s a masterstroke by them. But the arts particularly, where there was a big positive attitude towards the Scottish Government, and what they were trying to do in the arts, that’s been a real kick.

“You’ve now got the arts lobby turning on the Scottish Government.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The Scottish Government investment in arts and culture will increase, so that in five years our investment will be £100 million higher than it is now.

“However due to the cost crisis we have had to make difficult choices to live within our largely fixed budgets. Our ability to respond to the cost crisis is limited by the austerity policies of the UK Government and the financial restrictions of devolution.

“We will continue to do everything within our powers and resources to help those in the culture sector most affected by current economic challenges.

“The Scottish Government believes that our screen sector can lead the way in promoting equality, and we are clear on the value of diverse voices telling Scotland’s stories, reflecting our diverse communities and audiences.

“Screen Scotland are currently piloting the BFI’s Diversity Standards, which are designed to encourage equality of opportunity and tackle under-representation in the screen sector.

“The framework includes standards that projects are expected to meet around representation behind and in front of the camera, and in terms of industry access and opportunities.”