Johannesburg - It is a rare thing on South African TV: Two talented and powerful female characters going head-to-head in one show.
This week, viewers of Mzansi Magic’s The Queen were thrilled by the arrival of Gracious Mabuza (played by Rami Chuene) and her battle with Harriet (played by Connie Ferguson). Harriet and Gracious are both divas and drug dealers.
A report compiled by Sisters Working in Film and Television, which was launched at the Durban International Film Festival last month, revealed that 78% of women working in the industry were discriminated against because of their gender. The report also included accounts of sexual harassment and even rape on set.
Chuene, for one, agrees with the study’s findings.
“It is true that women in the TV and film industry are being discriminated against,” she said, adding that sexual harassment in the industry is commonplace, with “men finding it okay to touch, fondle and even force themselves on women”.
OVERWORKED, BULLIED AND UNDERPAID
In addition, women are often overworked, bullied and underpaid.
“It used to be a small issue, but now it has become a state of emergency because our women live in constant fear. If we do nothing, soon it will be a way of life, an accepted way of living,” Chuene says.
Ferguson urges women to expose the perpetrators, because keeping quiet allows it to continue.
“As women, we also need to have confidence in our talent and not depend on our looks and sexuality for possible roles,” she says.
Ferguson said Chuene was perfect for the role of Gracious because she was fearless, an extrovert and didn’t take herself too seriously.
“Rami has been a ball of energy and is extremely hyperactive. If you don’t shut her up, she won’t stop talking. I think she was Brutus’ relative in a previous life. She’s brought a different energy to the show and I absolutely love working with her,” she says.
Chuene is more than thrilled. “It’s always a pleasure to be given a platform to do what you love best.”
PORTRAYING WOMEN ON TV
The two have worked together before, on Generations, but Chuene had a cameo role.
How do these two actresses believe women should be portrayed on TV?
It depends, says Ferguson: “Society has different classes of people and they need to be represented in their entirety.”
Chuene agrees, saying women are so different from one another “that it would be unfair to have a set textbook as to how women should be portrayed”.
“We have stories to last a million lifetimes. We need to hear and see the story of the housewife and the corporate woman, the stories of the abused, the violated and the ones who simply gave up,” she says.
Ferguson and Chuene have had their fair share of dramas as female actors.
“Film and television have historically, in most cases, had men in leading roles – in front of and behind the cameras. The biggest challenge has been fighting to change the status quo. We are slowly moving away from female characters playing supporting roles to male leads,” Ferguson says.
Now the industry is realising that female characters can drive a story just as well as male characters. “The modern woman is assertive, knows her worth and is not afraid to show strength and leadership without losing her femininity,” she says.
Chuene, however, says there are higher expectations of female actors who not just have to be good at their craft, but look like models as well.
ACTING AND PRODUCING
Ferguson is one of few black women in South Africa to own a TV production company, which she co-owns with husband Shona.
“I have never tried to lead like a man. My strongest quality is getting things – even close to impossible things – with a smile,” she says.
Adding producer to her acting job has had it’s challenges.
“I was so used to being successful as an actress that the thought of failing as a producer paralysed me. We sat on our ideas for the longest time until we decided to take a leap of faith in 2012 and focus on building and growing Ferguson Films,” she says.
Catch The Queen on Mzansi Magic every weekday at 21:00