Humans director China Moo-Young: "I just didn’t see it coming that my gender would be an issue"

Abby Robinson
·13-min read
Photo credit: Steffan Hill/Starz!/Kobal/Shutterstock
Photo credit: Steffan Hill/Starz!/Kobal/Shutterstock

From Digital Spy

To celebrate Women's History Month and International Women's Day, we've launched Screen Sisters, a collection of conversations with women both in front of and behind the camera about what it means to be a woman working in television.

As well as recognising their contribution to the industry, the series will also examine how far television has progressed, and how much further it still has to go.

Next up, we're speaking to Humans and Intergalactic director China Moo-Young.

China Moo-Young, like so many parents, has had her hands especially full recently.

"I've just been home-schooling four out of five days a week," she tells us. "It's fine, but then I'm working at night and doing pitches on my one afternoon off when she goes to her dad's. It's just been fairly challenging."

Given that she works behind the scenes, China's name is possibly one that you don't recognise. But she's directed on countless series that you will, from Scott and Bailey to Call the Midwife, Humans to Secret Diary of a Call Girl.

Photo credit: Channel 4
Photo credit: Channel 4

The fact that she has carved out a career for herself in this industry is not only testament to her skill and vision, but also to her tenacity. It's a different beast for women. The challenge is greater, not just when it comes to breaking through those first barriers, but staying there once you've tussled your way in.

"Since I've had a child, I've been very consciously vocal about things I need as a mother, because that trickles down to all the departments," she explains. "It's really important because it's why lots of women leave the industry. It's why we have loads of assistant directors that are women on set, and then there's a gap. They have kids and they don't come back. And that's the case with every department.

"The big thing is childcare and making hours more friendly. Offering that woman director – and I hate the moniker of having 'female' put in front of the word 'director' – a nanny in South Africa, or flying the kids out with her. What do we need to offer right off the bat? I think that's as important for keeping people in the industry, to know that it's sustainable, particularly for women."

China cites a recent example where women have shouldered most of the load: "In the pandemic, so much of the home-schooling has sort of fallen into the lap of women, and care-giving too."

Photo credit: Frazer Harrison - Getty Images
Photo credit: Frazer Harrison - Getty Images

75% of the world's unpaid care work – household chores and looking after children and elderly relatives – is carried out by women, according to Caroline Criado Perez's book Invisible Women.

The Office for National Statistics also looked at the period between March 28 and April 26 last year as part of its Time Use survey, and discovered that men were carrying out more than an hour less housework and childcare than women every day, despite taking on more responsibilities.

"When you hire a female director who has children, their needs and wants will be different to a male director who has a missus at home who looks after the kids," she adds. "A lot of women who are directing are put off because they don't have a house-husband. For whatever reason, they might have a partner who can't give up their time, or they don't want to hire a nanny 24/7.

"I think the way the film and TV industry is geared is shifting. But it needs to fundamentally change from that setup of assuming that you've got another partner who will look after your family. All the female directors I know have had those considerations. Do they take time out to have a kid? Or do they not have a kid at all? Or when they do have a kid, they take a few years out, and then they can't get back in as easily."

Photo credit: ITV
Photo credit: ITV

The numbers are showing signs of positive change. According to a report published by the Directors Guild of America, the percentage of women directing the more than 4,300 episodes of television during the 2019-2020 season increased from 31% to 34% (via the LA Times).

But that, while promising, is not parity, and if the support structures that China discusses were commonplace across the board, that figure would be even higher.

It would also eliminate a less tangible but equally disruptive force that acts as a barrier to women's progression in traditionally male dominated fields, such as directing.

"On a job relatively recently, it was quite a male-driven show, and it had almost all male heads of departments, who were all amazing and incredibly supportive. But I remember feeling, because I wasn't known to everybody, the weight of: 'If I f**k this up, no other female directors are going to get hired on a second season.' I remember feeling that and being really pissed off that I have this kind of weight of other women directors. I don't want that. I just want to do a good job.

"But what happens is, if they've never hired a woman director and you do a bad job, that often colours people's perceptions of female directors. If she doesn't handle that, I do think that the next female director that comes in will have their work cut out, which is ridiculous because I'm pretty sure that if a male director messes up, they don't go, 'Oh, we mustn't work with a man again.' It doesn't happen. I think that happens in lots of industries.

"I just didn't see it coming that my gender would be an issue. But it is. And it was."

She adds: "I'm mixed-race. I'm British but Chinese-Jamaican. English by descent. I don't really count myself as BAME, but I think on paper people would consider me to be that. I'm sure people have that experience as well: 'Am I now being judged about my ethnicity and my gender on whether I'm going to be any good or not?'

"The job turned out great, and I had no issues. But I remember thinking that, entering into it."

Photo credit: Maaike Mekking
Photo credit: Maaike Mekking

China is currently working on Sky One's Intergalactic, a sci-fi series about a young cop and pilot who is convicted of a crime she didn't commit and banished to a distant prison colony. But during her journey to her new home, the prisoners revolt and take control of the ship in a bid for freedom.

Guns, hand-to-hand combat and explosions are par for the course throughout, which shouldn't be an obstacle for any woman who wants to tell those types of stories. But in China's experience, assumptions about what you're capable of on the basis of gender can dictate the shape of your career for you, rather than your own passions and interests.

And that's not only limiting for women.

"I still think when you're starting out as a woman director, there's an unconscious bias that certain material will be better handled by a male director; and, by that token, certain material will be handled better by a female director.

"I don't believe this is the case with every exec or every producer, but particularly in genre – sci-fi or thrillers – there's an intrinsic perception that men will intrinsically know how to handle a fight scene, and women will handle a sex scene better. To me, that's mad. That's the most binary, basic, ridiculous way of approaching a project. It's reductive. The number of times I've seen emails to agents or I've heard a producer say, 'We want a female director because we think they'll better handle the intimacy scenes.' Look at Normal People; there was a male director there [Lenny Abrahamson took charge of the first six episodes]. It's sensitively and beautifully drawn. Those actors felt very safe and delivered beautiful performances. It was a male director.

"I think that women do suffer from being perceived that they might not handle big set- pieces very well. I was asked a lot, when I started, how I would handle fire, for example. I know that was early on, when I had maybe three or four things on my CV. But I have male director friends and they've never been asked how they would handle fire. Strangely enough, if you hire really good people around you, like great stunt guys, and you brief them about your vision for the sequence, they do a risk assessment and you work it out.

"But I think that it's changed, certainly in the last five years. Now, I think it's better, because of the #MeToo movement, because women are far more vocal. There are far more female directors out there."

Photo credit: Sky UK
Photo credit: Sky UK

That evolution is producing some of the most powerful television to date. Michaela Coel (I May Destroy You), Ally Pankiw (Feel Good), Dawn Shadforth (Adult Material) and Amma Asante (Mrs America), to name just a handful, were behind the lens of some of the most extraordinary series to air last year. Those narratives ignited essential conversations about sexual assault, the porn industry, gender equality and a raft of other issues, undoubtedly paving the way for the array of untapped female talent that we've not yet had the pleasure of experiencing.

"The more you have strong female storytellers – and I mean 'storytellers' in a broader sense because they're producers, writers or directors – making things that speak to a lot of people, that changes what broadcasters are looking for," says China. "It changes what studios are looking to make, or how much risk they'll put on projects. If it's a hit and there's appetite for it with an audience, it paves the way for more women to make those kind of shows or films."

By ensuring that those women are encouraged and supported, the types of stories that we see on-screen and crucially, how female characters are portrayed within them, will continue to expand. Sadly, that's not typical practice and as a result, it's still very much a man's world.

As China tells us: "That's happened loads, [turning down work because I don't like how the female characters have been written]. It happens on a regular basis. I can literally think of about six scripts in recent months where I think the women are not written with much nuance, where women are described by their looks and their size and their age, without a character trait. You'd be surprised how many scripts still do that.

"It's disappointing because you think, 'Really? She's a size 16 and she's not very pretty, or she's plain? Great.' I don't know anything about her character.

"But in the last five years, there are lots more brilliant scripts with well-drawn, nuanced female characters written by men and women. It's not how it was 10 years ago."

Photo credit: Dimitrios Kambouris - Getty Images
Photo credit: Dimitrios Kambouris - Getty Images

Scripts that "open with dead women or dead children" are another non-starter for China.

The women "do tend to be [naked as well]", she notes. "There would have to be some kind of complete U-turn on that opening of a crime-drama for me. I feel like there's enough of that out there. There are directors who are interested in directing that, and I'm not."

The representation of single mothers on-screen also concerns her. Both the media and pop culture have regularly failed that demographic of women, painting them as tragic or scornful figures, always to be pitied or condemned but never celebrated, and certainly never understood.

"I have friends who are single, working mothers," she says. "And it feels like there's only one way they're portrayed in drama, which is that they're struggling; time-poor; they were left; all of those things. And yet that is a version. That is a true version. But there are 10 other versions of that.

"And also, they're judged. There's this idea: 'Oh great, here I've got a character who's a bit of an outsider because they don't fit in with the 'two point four children'; they don't fit in with the patriarchy; also, they can transgress; they can do things that are going to be exciting, right? They can commit crimes. Or they can get desperate. Almost always, invariably, those women have drinking problems or gambling problems, or just issues. And then they get punished. And then they often get saved by men."

Without those voices sat in writers' rooms and being privy to scripts and pitches, you're lumped with yet more of the same, which so often feeds into the "idea" of what a single mother, for example is. They're laden with damaging untruths, a one-size-fits all approach favoured over the reality.

"[And so often] they're written by a married, white, middle-class man," she adds. White men continue to dominate in virtually every branch of the TV sector. But China, who is very much a realist, is also optimistic about the road ahead.

"I certainly am reading many more projects that aren't just female-driven, but are really well- written, and aren't a procedural crime-drama where it would normally be a male, and they've just changed it to a woman," she adds.

"I'm certainly seeing many more diverse stories – certainly broadly, and definitely much more from the States. I think we've got a little way to go here, but I still think it's happening."

Quick fire Q&A

Which women do you look up to, either on-screen or behind the scenes?

"Directors Susanne Bier, Philippa Lowthorpe, Ava DuVernay, and Kathryn Bigelow respectively for their own incredible vision. Production Designer Eve Stewart. Costume Designer Liza Bracey. On screen, too many to list but my top five would be: Gina McKee, Thandie Newton, Lupita Nyong'o, Marion Cotillard and Ruth Negga."

Who is your favourite female TV character?

"Beth Harmon in The Queen's Gambit."

What's your favourite female-led show and female showrunner?

Natasha Lyonne's Russian Doll.

Is there a particular ground-breaking onscreen moment that places women front and centre that sticks in your mind?

"I think we're in an exciting time because it's not just one singular moment or show for me. It's the whole of I May Destroy You, Fleabag, Killing Eve, The Handmaid's Tale, Big Little Lies and The Morning Show to name just a few."

Digital Spy's digital magazine is back! Read all issues now with a 1-month free trial, only on Apple News+.

Interested in Digital Spy's weekly newsletter? Sign up to get it sent straight to your inbox – and don't forget to join our Watch This Facebook Group for daily TV recommendations and discussions with other readers.

You Might Also Like