06 August, 2008

Why film schools teach screenwriters not to pass the Bechdel test

The Hathor Legacy:

"Anyway, the test is much simpler than the name. To pass it your movie must have the following:

1) there are at least two named female characters, who

2) talk to each other about

3) something other than a man.

So simple, and yet as you go through all your favorite movies (and most of your favorite TV shows, though there’s a little more variety in TV), you find very few movies pass this test.

It’s not a coincidence. It’s not that there aren’t enough women behind the camera (there aren’t, but that’s not the reason). Here’s what we’re up against (and for those who have requested a single post that summarizes my experiences in film for linking reference, now you’ve got it).

When I started taking film classes at UCLA, I was quickly informed I had what it took to go all the way in film. I was a damn good writer, but more importantly (yeah, you didn’t think good writing was a main prerequisite in this industry, did you?) I understood the process of rewriting to cope with budget (and other) limitations. I didn’t hesitate to rip out my most beloved scenes when necessary. I also did a lot of research and taught myself how to write well-paced action/adventure films that would be remarkably cheap to film - that was pure gold.

There was just one little problem.

I had to understand that the audience only wanted white, straight, male leads. I was assured that as long as I made the white, straight men in my scripts prominent, I could still offer groundbreaking characters of other descriptions (fascinating, significant women, men of color, etc.) - as long as they didn’t distract the audience from the white men they really paid their money to see.

I was stunned. I’d just moved from a state that still held Ku Klux Klan rallies only to find an even more insidious form of bigotry in California - running an industry that shaped our entire culture. But they kept telling me lots of filmmakers wanted to see the same changes I did, and if I did what it took to get into the industry and accrue some power, then I could start pushing the envelope and maybe, just maybe, change would finally happen. So I gave their advice a shot.

Only to learn there was still something wrong with my writing, something unanticipated by my professors. My scripts had multiple women with names. Talking to each other. About something other than men. That, they explained nervously, was not okay. I asked why. Well, it would be more accurate to say I politely demanded a thorough, logical explanation that made sense for a change (I’d found the “audience won’t watch women!” argument pretty questionable, with its ever-shifting reasons and parameters).

At first I got several tentative murmurings about how it distracted from the flow or point of the story. I went through this with more than one professor, more than one industry professional. Finally, I got one blessedly telling explanation: “The audience doesn’t want to listen to a bunch of women talking about whatever it is women talk about.”

“Not even if it advances the story?” I asked. That’s rule number one in screenwriting, though you’d never know it from watching most movies: every moment in a script should reveal another chunk of the story and keep it moving.

He just looked embarrassed and said, “I mean, that’s not how I see it, that’s how they see it.”"

Article in full


Laura Anderson said...

Gawd - I'm glad they don't teach like that at the Screen Academy Scotland - I would have thrown a hissy fit! I think 3 of my 4 scripts there were about women "talking to each other" - and never about men.

I guess we weren't aiming to write for Hollywood though :-)

Elinor said...

That's very depressing, Robin and indicative of the lily-livered attitudes that govern many institutions. I think it will change as the audience demographic changes and the film biz finally wakes up to the fact that (gasp!) women buy their own cinema tickets/DVDs/sky subs etc., and that (double gasp!) we enjoy watching films where women don't just talk about men.

Adaddinsane said...

Well yes. B*llocks to 'em. 100% of my scripts have female leads that only talk about men when it is significant to the plot (less than 1% of the time).

Surely all dialogue should be relevant to the plot anyway?

Rach said...

Did they think women shouldn't write scripts either?

Cos that would be sooooo scary and wierd dude cos, you know, that's feelings and motivation and family and stuff.

And what if they wrote action and horror man? You'd end up with the dude's clothes dropping off and the girl with the big gun! And who'd pay to see that?

Anyone at that place with a mental age over 10yrs?

Robin Kelly said...

Elinor, you're right, it is fear and cowardice. While I do have some sympathy towards them - as it's their money and they're scared of losing it - such attitudes mean ignoring all the recent research about women moviegoers and also box office smashes that pass the Bechdel test.