08 March, 2008

The Gender Agenda

There’s been an exchange of views on Shooting People regarding gender and movies.

This is what a female TV writer wrote (beware of spoilers):

"I've been interested to see the reaction to Juno. Are the hostile comments from (mostly male) critics really because they don't like a female protagonist making jokes about male dangly bits in the first ten minutes of the movie (the "pork swords" line, which I loved)? Or is it just the shock of having a female character who's actually smart and witty and answers back and gets away with it? As opposed to:
- going along with your husband's mad plan even though he doesn't tell you anything and getting murdererd (NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN); being trafficked, raped, generally abused, impregnated and dying in childbirth (EASTERN PROMISES), being patronised by Viggo Mortenson. your Dad and every male around even though you're a doctor (EASTERN PROMISES again); waiting tearfully and pregnantly for your husband to come home (RENDITION), realising tearfully that your brother is a terrorist (RENDITION again), being shagged and dumped by Russell Crowe but that's fine because he's THE HERO and he's, like, taking on the bad guys (AMERICAN GANGSTER); meekly giving Russell Crowe his dinner but that's okay because he's a villain but has good table manners (3.10 TO YUMA); standing by your man even though you know he's cheated on you (WHEN DID YOU LAST SEE YOUR FATHER); being horribly murdered while gardening (SUNSHINE), running round after Tom Hanks and catering all his, ahem, needs (CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR), or just being TOTALLY BLOODY INVISIBLE (the pretentious, over-wrought, self-regarding THERE WILL BE BLOOD).

With a few honourable exceptions (ATONEMENT. ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE and a handful of indie films), most roles for women in most English-language movies this year have been crap. Again. Don't get me wrong; I saw and liked most of the films above. I just wish that half the human race (the non-pork-sword- bearing half) didn't continue to be so excluded.

I look forward to someone in Hollywood/the mainstream writing some decent female roles sometime. You know, just the odd one. In my lifetime. Would that be too much to ask?"

And this was my reply:

"You obviously didn't get the memo. Just as it's wrong to generalise about all women, it's been agreed it's wrong to generalise about all men as well. I'll fax you a copy.

While your absurd, reductive sexism raised my hackles, I do think you raised an important issue.

Although 40% of Oscar screenwriter nominees are women, only 10% of feature screenplays last year were. Much screenwriting advice is about writing what you want to write about; showing your original writers voice. And yet should male writers feel obliged to compromise their vision and write better roles for women?

I've always believed we should, and most do, but the main focus should be on increasing that 10%, by eliminating all gender bias in the industry.

And you must have missed the following films last year with decent roles for women (they should be on DVD by now):

Lady Godiva, Because I Said So, Things We lost in the Fire, Penelope, The Brave One, A Mighty Heart, Evening, Waitress, SherryBaby, In the Valley of Elah, PS I Love You, Enchanted, Mr Magorium's Wonder Emporium, The Golden Compass. Over Her Dead Body, Nancy Drew, Resident Evil: Extinction, The Nanny Diaries, The Invasion, Black Snake Moan, Conversations With Other Women, Brick Lane, The Jane Austen Book Club, Fur, Factory Girl, Freedom Writers, The Savages, Music And Lyrics, Bug, Interview, Mrs. Ratcliffe's Revolution"

That set me thinking about the issues of women characters and women writers because I think they are separate issues.

I admit some of the films on that list were tongue-in-cheek but my point was that there are decent female roles are out there, it's just that they may not be in the genre you like or be particularly well-written. But the intention of having a woman as the main character cannot be dismissed.

Movies by Women in the US and The Birds Eye View First Weekenders Club in the UK promote the opening weekends of feature films directed by women. They will let people know when such a film opens theatrically so women can go and support it. This is due to the opening weekend culture which determines whether films are retained or not. I believe the research shows that young men tend to see films over the weekend and older women during the week.

At first I thought it was a quite laudable idea but now it just seems patronising and pointless. Firstly, it’s based on the gender of the director and not the writer, which is auteur nonsense. Secondly, even if it was based on the gender of the writer it would still be pointless. There are good films which are overlooked but after the production stage it's based on the popularity of the genre and not the genitals of the writer or director.

If Tamara Jenkins next directed film was a pacey action comedy instead of a slowburn domestic drama then it would have a huge opening weekend as most men and women would prefer to see that. The same with Noah Baumbach.

I'm unconvinced that supporting any film by any woman director, regardless of how good it is, will change anything. The celluloid ceiling does exist for writers as well as directors in the movie industry but it's due to some execs not trusting women to handle genre pictures and giving jobs to the old boys network. According to the Film Council films written by women actually earned slightly more at the box office on average than films written by men so there shouldn't be that reluctance. Maybe Diablo Cody's spectacular success will change attitudes.

Recent research showed that the average movie-goer is actually a woman in her mid-thirties and it’s mainly women who choose which films to watch when with a partner but the perception still persists that movies have to appeal to kids or men.

While the response to discrimination is often meeting sexism with sexism, it actually requires a more mature and realistic response because it's a complex issue.

Look at the first two films on that list of films in my reply. Lady Godiva is a British film written and directed by a young woman. She was proactive in getting funding (more than the vast majority of writers are) and got it made which is to be applauded. It opened to universal hostile reviews and word of mouth finished it off. It still hasn’t reached Birmingham on general release, so I haven’t seen it. One way to look at it would be she got her film made and the male critics and lack of support by male distributors killed her film. But is that really what happened? It’s a story about a woman by a woman, so why didn’t women rush out to see it? Should they be obliged to?

Because I Said So was written by two women and I walked out of it. Was it because there were too many women in it, in lead roles, threatening my masculinity, as suggested? No. It was because it was rubbish. But a previous film by the writers’ is one of my all-time favourites.

I linked to this article last year which tries to explain why women are low in numbers in the film industry:

“(Robin Swicord) went to the Writers Guild with her concerns. "Most of the people writing in magazines and running the publishing world are female. Most of the people coming out of writing programs are female; most English majors are female. I don't understand why male writers are dominating screenwriting," Swicord says.

Further analysis uncovered a complex set of obstacles for women: as writers and directors, they don't tend to get agents easily, possibly because agents tend to pick those candidates with the best career options. In a male-dominated business, women's stories weren't felt to be marketable to what has always been presumed to be a male-dominated audience, she says.”

I do wonder how many people think in terms of male stories and female stories. Is it just the studios? Is it the audience? Should I be thinking that way? Are Aliens and Silence of the Lambs female stories? Are Saturday Night Fever and About a Boy male stories? Are there really no films that men and women enjoy equally? Men aren't from Mars and women aren't from Venus, we're all Earthlings.

For me, it’s about genre and story and characters we can relate to. While our gender is fairly important to our identity, it isn’t all that defines us and shouldn’t be all that defines our characters. The sexist writers will never create good roles for women or men because they think in clichés and stereotypes. (The same goes for racist and homophobic writers, obviously.)

I can't honestly say that more women screenwriters will redress any gender imbalance in the movies because two of the most misogynist unproduced scripts I have ever read were actually written by women. While the first writer was simply unaware of the politics, the second considered herself a strong feminist and yet her theme and characters and story were completely offensive. When I asked her about it, she said it couldn’t be misogynist because she is a woman who doesn’t believe in that sort of thing.

What both had done was spend all their time thinking of plot and none on thinking of the characters and story, so they were clichés and stereotypes. The first characters and plot development we think of are going to be the most obvious and what we see all the time in fiction which will tend to be the boring, traditional and conventional stuff - especially if we're trying to copy commercial successes . That's why I believe in spending a little extra time in developing those characters and their stories.

Readers have assumed I’m female due to my gender neutral name and my strong female characters but it’s not because I have any great skill or ability in writing women, it’s just about what attitude you have when you create characters and stories. As our Rach says here, everyone can write outside their gender if they want and do well at it.

This is what John August wrote (I blogged about it here) :

“I did a rewrite of a movie for a pretty big producer. In the original script, the sister of the protagonist was a flight attendant. I changed her into a pilot, just because I thought it was more interesting. The producer insisted that I change it back, because, “That’s absurd. I’ve never seen a female pilot. I just don’t believe it.”

I know a female commercial airline pilot; I had recently been on a flight with a female pilot; four seconds of Googling could give me the exact statistics that I needed to prove that female pilots are not the Yetis of aviation.”

As I said in that previous post, it’s not just the stereotypes of professions that need to be challenged but other society assigned gender roles. More women use the Internet than men and yet how many woman Internet experts do you see portrayed? The same with gaming. Why perpetuate the myth woman can't be and shouldn't be geeks? What's the point of it?

Here’s a riddle for you:

A man and his son were in a car accident. The man died on the way to the hospital, but the boy was rushed into surgery. The surgeon said “I can't operate, for that's my son!” How is this possible?

I’m always astonished by how many people can’t solve that riddle, both men and women, but we are conditioned to think in traditional gender roles and it’s hard to break free of that.

In the UK only about 7% of surgeons are women but even if it was 0.7% it still wouldn’t be far fetched to have a woman surgeon as a character. Research has shown that female doctors will shun surgery as a career path due to it being seen as a traditional male bastion.

Screenwriters shape society and don't just reflect it. In a recent survey of 101 animated and live action children's films only 28% of speaking characters were female and 17% of people in the crowd scenes were female. What does that say to girls about how marginal they are in society? It might even say the film industry isn't for them.

I’m not talking about making every woman in our scripts the protag who is a positive role model devoid of flaws in a high powered job, just that the traditional thinking which can’t imagine a female airline pilot or surgeon is probably not able to imagine an active female lead character either.

Tamara Jenkins, Oscar nominated for the Savages said of the women characters in the other female nominated scripts: "They're not all likeable and schmaltzy and perfect and lovely women."

Diablo Cody said: "We're given this chance to promote fresh representations of women. For me, my thought is if I wrote a movie, I'm not going to fill my movie with stock girlfriend characters.”

Of course this cuts both ways and the depiction of men in British television, where drama commissioners and the audience are mainly women, has been the subject of some debate and controversy.

Avoiding any type of stock character isn’t about being politically correct, it’s about being fresh and original. Reflecting the truth and diversity of society is just a bonus.

But having said all that if you hate women or men or blacks or whites or gays or straights then that is part of your personality and your unique writers voice and you should just carry on, it's nothing to be ashamed of. It's obviously no barrier to getting work, it's just a matter of finding a producer who shares your beliefs.


Scoping Study into the Lack of Women Screenwriters in the UK (124pp pdf)

Writing British Films - who writes British films and how they are recruited (58pp pdf)

Women in Film and Television

Taking the Lead: Women and the Changing Face of Television Drama (video panel discussion)


Lucy said...

Yes to some degree Robin I agree with you, especially on the notion of the drama genre, but I can't help but feel you wouldn't feel so "content" (for want of a better word, I know you're an enlightened guy and not actually trying to be stroppy) about the situation particularly with ref to action roles if you were female.

By this I mean Alice of Res Evil is a strong female character??? To me she is little more than a man - with the added bonus that we get to see her tits. And very nice they are too, but a STRONG FEMALE LEAD so often means A MAN WITH BOOBS and btw - how often do we see a hero like John McClane with his bits on display? Though I suppose you could make the argument re: muscly chests, but they're hardly ever nude in the same way Alice is or betrayed as vulnerable.

That's why women get so frustrated about a "lack" of roles: Jodie Foster is a good example of a woman who usually plays actual female roles - yet even in PANIC ROOM she holds an axe above her head like a man would and has to rely on her muscles rather than her wits (as we would expect a woman would) to save herself and her daughter.

To me, it's not that good female roles in action movies aren't there: yes it's great fun to see women overcome men using the same force that might be used against them. However, I think it's more that women don't feel they are represented in the light they feel (feel being the operative word btw) is "true."

Robin Kelly said...

Indeed, "content" isn't the right word. I just feel often the failure of roles for women is due to not good enough writing, which lets down the male characters as well. But we have to applaud the attempt to have a woman as the active main character and not just a "stock girlfriend" and save the rage for the real sexist/misogynist stuff.

I honestly don't remember Milla Jovovich being topless for Resident Evil, but she has done completely nude photo shoots for magazines so I'm not sure she feels exploited. However, you do raise a valid point.

In the real world, people are more likely to watch a film or buy a DVD if there is nudity. Screen captures of that nude scene will be available out of context in newspapers, magazines and the Internet. But in context I feel that being nude doesn't necessarily mean vulnerability and can be about empowerment.

It's true that men's chests aren't officially secondary sexual characteristics but 'Torso of the week' in More! and heat (and the comments I get about my chest) suggest that's changing. The jokes used to be about Demi Moore always being topless and now they are of Matthew McConaughey always being topless. We all know that women now feel liberated enough to be capable of "blatant objectification of a fit male". :-)

When I talked about gender roles I don't just mean particular jobs but also whether men or women are allowed to cry or be physical.

The argument has been made before that men solve conflicts by using their brawn and women solve them by using their brains but that's not really true, is it? You might as well say all men are thick and all women are intelligent.

The scale of violence against women worldwide is shocking and getting worse but we can't really deny that women are capable of violence.

If women are violent it's said they are acting like men, if men are peaceful it's said they are acting like women. It might "feel" like a positive empowering stereotype for women to hold onto ("If only the world were run by women everything would be alright") but I believe all stereotypes should be discarded - even the ones that make us feel better about ourselves.

Rach said...

Interesting debate, and thanks for the plug. If we take the Alien franchise, an old favourite.

I didn't feel Ripley was less feminine because she could handle a gun. In fact her feral response when Newt was threatened is one I think most Mothers have felt at some time. And yes I cheered when she appeared in the loader.

However the Lambert character drove me nuts. A complete wimp who, unlike Gorman, was not allowed to redeem herself.

I wonder if it was significant that Ripley was originally written for a man.

To be honest I don't think the sex of the writer is the problem with female characters. I suspect it is more the attitude of the production companies.

I'm sure great scripts for women characters are being written but they have to be picked up.

And they won't while the prods insist on targeting a demographic that certainly wants to spend time in a dark room with a woman, but I think they have something more private in mind.

Our girl's night out is usually to a cinema and is more likely to be horror or action film than a women's film (oh I hate that phrase). And I'm the youngest in the pack.

So we sit there in a room of 30yrs+ people who apparently don't go and see films??

And sadly we often look at the list of films and think "What's the lesser of the evils here?" So yes we then go for eye-candy. But we would rather choose a well written film with strong characters, male and female.

So maybe we need a few prods waking up and giving us those scripts and then, just because the script type has openned out, the number of women writers will increase.

Oh I know. I'm so naive. Now where's that Doom DVD. I need some gratuitous muscle.

Rach said...

Oh and the resident Milla fan says she isn't naked but she starts out in a couple of teatowels and some string.

However he prefers her later on. She's clothed but she is now a strong character. That, apparently, is more attractive.