Interview | Dawn O'Porter – 'TV networks don't think women are as good as men.'
You’d be mistaken for thinking that Dawn O’Porter is some kind of superhero. Journalist, reporter, performer, documentary maker and novelist are but a few of the titles she’s achieved in under a decade. Yet she sits in front of me now, very much a real person, trying to squeeze in a quick bite to eat. ‘I’m sorry if I’m sniffing all through your recording,’ she says, ‘this soup is really hot and it’s going to make my nose run.’ When we meet she’s in the middle of a nationwide book tour, signing copies of her new novel Goose. She’s in Leeds for one day before hitting the road again. She’s wearing a vintage dress newly bought from Upstaged, her favourite Leeds vintage shop, discovered during filming for her upcoming Channel 4 show. With its vintage slant, the show looks set to be characteristic of what Dawn does with her twists on the norm: it’s the same, but different. The same, but better.
The same can certainly be said for her two novels, Paper Aeroplanes out last year, and the newly published sequel Goose. They’re technically books for teenage girls, and teenage girls should definitely be reading them. But the books have found a special place in the hearts of women of all ages. The story of Guernsey teenagers Renee and Flo frankly refuses to shy away from the nitty gritty. It’s the cool older sister you needed, as a girl, when you got your first period at school and died of embarrassment. It’s decidedly feminist. ‘I think the version of feminism that the book would cover is just women being unapologetically honest.’ Dawn admits, ‘It was a deliberate choice that the girls in the book didn’t have to apologise for being sexual, or didn’t have to feel awkward that they were so honest about what was going on.’
This honesty is a crucial lesson to young readers, as well as a statement to older ones. Teenagers will read the scene in Goose where Renee experiences her first “fanny fart” after sex, and may be completely shocked. As shocked as the old man sitting near to our table, who chokes into his cappuccino when I broach the subject of vaginal flatulence. ‘It’s the kind of thing when you think “why don’t all girls know that that’s a possibility?”‘ Dawn says, eyeing the coughing gentleman with a smile, ‘And then when it happens to you it’s so mortifying, and it’s going to happen to everyone at some point.’ The reaction from Renee’s partner, Dean, is a “so what?” and a shrug. ‘Dean’s a real arsehole’ Dawn says, ‘but I didn’t want to make him an arsehole in that moment. She’s embarrassed enough as it is, and I wanted the girls who read it to feel like it didn’t matter. Because it doesn’t matter.’ In regards to teenage anxiety about sex she suggests a sense of responsibility. ‘Teenagers are brutal to each other. As an adult with hindsight you can put it in a book and hope that teenagers read it and think “okay, I’m normal.”‘
When I ask if she sees herself as a trailblazer with books like these she’s unsure, ‘I do think that when relationships and sex are written about in young adult fiction they’re written about romantically, and not particularly honestly. It’s a version of a book that the author wants the mother to approve of. ‘ She considers for a second, continuing emphatically. ‘That’s how a lot of them read to me. And maybe it’s the fact that I don’t have a mother, but I don’t give a shit if mothers approve of my book or not. I want teenagers to read it and go “I can really relate to that.” I think this kind of patronising idea that teenagers aren’t sexual or teenagers don’t have real feelings is not going to get anybody anywhere.’
It seems a natural progression that someone who rose to fame creating progressive and interesting TV should channel that into “feminist books for teens.” Her new show, This Old Thing, hits screens at the beginning of May. ‘It’s a make-over show, but not like “you’re insecure about your thighs so we’ll put a pair of spanx on you and change your hair” type of thing. It’s more that we have some really cool girls who spend loads of money on clothes but have no sense of style, so we say let’s spend it in a vintage shop, find you some amazing outfits.’ Nevertheless, Dawn admits that TV is losing its edge. ‘I’ve done This Old Thing, which I love. It’s been a real passion project, but there are very few things I want to do on TV now.’ She talks at length, and with stupendous insight, about the dismal state of affairs television now presents for women. ‘I’ve pitched so many shows, and I get told they’re too female. But they’re commissioning endless How to Make Your Body Better and Ten Years Younger and all this stuff. Why can’t the shows for women be funny? But nobody’s buying the programs and I think that’s a massive flaw in the system.’
Her frustration couldn’t be more apparent, and it’s justified. With the immense amount of intelligent, hilarious female talent on twitter, in journalism, the extent to which TV fails to reflect it is absurd. There is no existing space on TV for women to be themselves, no position for them to occupy. ‘But why isn’t there?’ Dawn is exasperated. ‘Why aren’t there five or six really big, crazy, ballsy female shows on? Where a woman doesn’t need a male co-host to pull it off? Like Caitlin Moran, Grace Dent, Lauren Laverne, those kind of women, why haven’t they got a show with really news-based stuff?’
I ask about the BBC guidelines to have at least one woman on each panel show. Dawn is unconvinced. ‘Having gone on 8 Out of 10 Cats a few weeks ago, it doesn’t work. Because it’s not that women aren’t as funny, but men are just more competitive on these shows.’ She says that, despite the friendliness of the guys on the show, it was just not a great experience. ‘I went on, got loads of shit for the way that I looked afterwards from people, because I was the only woman, and my hair looked a bit weird.’ She jokes but her point is deadly serious. ‘But it was like, I don’t want to be the only woman on the show, I’m not that interested, I just want to make TV shows that are really funny and not have to compete all the time.’ She argues, then, that it shouldn’t be about crow-barring women into this male-dominated format. ‘I kind of thought the answer was half men half women, but now I think men can keep the bloody panel shows, but can the TV channels just commission some shows for women? That’s the problem, there’s no balance.’
‘You go in and pitch a strong female show and you feel like people are rolling their eyes. Unless it involves image in some way. I don’t want to sound like a hypocrite because I’ve got my show going on. But that was easy to sell, whereas a discussion show isn’t. I think as much as I love Richard Bacon, when his Beer and Pizza Club came out I was just like, it’s women who are told they just sit around talking! So when that gets bought, why won’t they buy the female version as well for the next night? It has to stop.’ She considers her next point carefully, then repeats with confident resignation, ‘I just think TV networks don’t think women are as good as men.’ A sad shrug. You can’t help but agree with her.
Sitting and chatting with Dawn, you really get a sense that she’s someone who has worked hard to get where she is. Every question brings forth a torrent of insightful observations: she knows what she’s talking about. She is particularly offended, then, that interviewers sidetrack her and focus solely on her marriage to actor Chris O’Dowd. ‘I did an interview on the phone earlier, and they spent the entire time talking about Chris. It was so rude. I thought, why are you talking to me? Because you couldn’t get him?’ It’s in-keeping with her frustration at a world which has shown her that women are often just a side-show to the main male event.
But with women like her continuing to occupy a platform, the future isn’t all that bleak. If telly is letting women down then they’ll thrive elsewhere until execs come to their senses. ‘I think that’s why young people are reading more broadsheet journalism because they’ve got people like Caitlin and India Knight writing for them, but those people aren’t on TV. And twitter is giving people access to more journalism. So I think maybe we’re reading more which is good.’ And if books like Goose are the future of teenage fiction, then it won’t be long before there’s a whole generation of girls who refuse to be told they’re not as good as boys, despite what the TV tells them. And, in a small part, we’ll have Dawn O’Porter to thank for that.
Paper Aeroplanes and Goose are available in paperback now, published by Hot Key Books
This Old Thing will air on Channel 4 in May
Follow Dawn on twitter: @hotpatooties
Photo: courtesy of Hot Key Books
bbcbbc comedybooksCaitlin Moranchannel 4Dawn O'Porterdocumentarieseveryday sexismfeminismGooseGrace DentHot Key BooksIndia KnightJennie PritchardLauren LavernePaper AeroplanessexsexismteenagersThis Old ThingtvTwittervintagewomen