One of the great things about Twitter screenwriters is the unfiltered access we get to people from every level of the movie industry. Keep your ear pressed against the virtual door and you can hear everything – from the indie filmmaker planning their next project, to the underpaid assistant griping about insane workloads, to insightful tips to beginners from screenwriting pros – it’s all there for the taking. But back on August 19th, if you were following @MysteryExec, you got something else altogether, as they went on the warpath against the way screenwriters portray women in their scripts. It was an expletive filled, CAP LOCK fueled diatribe, taking the entire profession to task for both the lazy writing of female characters, and the apathetic attitude towards that writing of so many others in the industry.
To give you a taste, here are just a few of @MysteryExec’s tweets on the topic:
I’ve never been known to be overly-politically correct, and this isn’t a new topic by any means, but when someone in a position of authority has the balls to stand up and scream about a topic like this, I take it seriously. So I decided to focus in on one specific aspect - the way that female characters are first introduced in scripts. I sat down and looked through some of my favorite screenplays - sampled across all genres and multiple decades, and from both male and female writers – to see what trends would emerge.
And here's what I found out. Let’s take a look at…
Female Characters and… Pretty Much Every Movie Ever
What follows below are character descriptions from a series of scripts. I tried to select screenplays that had both a male and a female character that played a significant role in the story so that I could compare how the same writer treated the male character versus the female. The results aren’t pretty.
Ready? Here we go.
BODY HEAT (1981): Written by Lawrence Kasdan
a WOMAN rises. As the band plays on, this extraordinary, beautiful woman, in a simple white dress, moves down the aisle. She moves wonderfully. The dress clings to her body in the heat.
Racine, dressed in undershorts, is standing on the small porch off his apartment on the upper floor of an old house. Racine lights a cigarette and continues to stare off at the fire.
Maybe it’s not shocking that the description of the female lead in an “erotic thriller” (man, do I hate that term) would focus on her sexuality, but it’s still worth noting how little attention is paid to Racine’s physical appearance in comparison.
CHINATOWN (1974): Written by Robert Towne
When Gittes looks up, he sees the Young Woman, apparently in her late twenties. She’s so stunning that Gittes nearly gasps.
He looks cool and brisk in a white linen suit despite the heat. Never taking his eyes off Curly, he lights a cigarette using a lighter with a “nail” on his desk.
Here we have a legitimate classic. What some people point to as the perfect screenplay. And yet, again we have our female lead being described as a sexual object, whereas the description of Gittes focuses on his attitude and personality. The decision to describe Evelyn this way becomes even more disturbing when you put it in context with the rest of the story and the horrors this woman has had to deal with throughout her life.
BRIDESMAIDS (2011): Written by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo
Annie and Ted (introduced together)
ANNIE WALKER, mid 30's, is having sweaty sex with TED, handsome, 40.
It is Annie and her best friend, LILLIAN, mid 30’s.
Generally viewed as a triumph for proving that women can do R-rated comedies just as well as men, Bridesmaids still defines Annie by her sexuality. Though, to be fair, Ted is defined the same way. In fact, it seems that Wiig and Mumolo just weren’t that interested in characters descriptions, as their intro for Lillian shows.
My main question is, even though she later drops Ted and gains more respect for herself, does introducing the audience to Annie in a completely sexual manner do the character a disservice? Doesn’t it still fall under the larger umbrella of @MysteryExec’s rant?
RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981): written by Lawrence Kasdan
She is MARIONRAVENWOOD, twenty-five years old, beautiful, if a bit hard looking.
At the head of the party is an American, INDIANA JONES. He wears a short leather jacket,a flapped holster, and a brimmed felt hat with a weird
feather stuck in the band.
Another entry from Kasdan (completely coincidental) and, although we’re in a different genre than Body Heat, we see the same penchant for summarizing his female characters solely by their looks. I love the character of Marion Ravenwood for a lot of reasons, and none of them have to do with the fact that she’s “beautiful, if a bit hard looking”
GOOD WILL HUNTING (1997): Written by Matt Damon and Batman Ben Affleck
He spots two ATTRACTIVE YOUNG HARVARD WOMEN sitting at the end of the bar.
Next to him is WILL HUNTING, 20, handsome and confident, a soft-spoken leader.
That’s some Oscar-worthy writing, right! Seriously though, I give Damon and Affleck a little bit of latitude here because they were writing it for themselves to star in, so maybe it’s understandable that Will would be get descriptors like “a soft spoken leader” thrown in there. But Skylar, the motivating factor for Will to finally get serious about turning his life around, doesn’t even get a name. She’s just an attractive young Harvard woman.
WHEN HARRY MET SALLY (1989): Written by Nora Ephron
Driving the car is SALLY ALBRIGHT. She’s 21 years old. She’s very pretty although not necessarily in an obvious way.
He’s 26 years old, just graduated from law school. Wearing jeans and a sweatshirt.
This one was really interesting to me because Ephron is such a feminist icon in the world of film. But back in the ‘80’s, even she fell into the trap of female characters being solely defined by their level of attractiveness. Remember, Sally had just graduated college as well, but only Harry’s degree is mentioned.
THE BREAKFAST CLUB (1985): Written by John Hughes
A strange young girl, Allison Reynolds, is staring out the passenger window at the school. She’s thin and plain-looking. No makeup, no style to her long, straight hair, no attempt to look like anything. A pale, invisible human being. She’s biting her thumbnail.
Claire (Cathy in this version of the script)
She’s a budding beauty. Much too pretty, much too sexy for her age. One-hundred dollar silk blouse, two-hundred dollar skirt, one-hundred dollar shoes. Spoiled and petulant.
… a big burly man’s man and a handsome, athletic young man, Andy Clarke. He’s wearing frayed, fashionably worn jeans, a surgeon’s top, sloppy old turd shoes without laces. He has a neo-flattop haircut.
I chose to end with The Breakfast Club because, like pretty much every other part of this movie, his character descriptions are spot on, and buck the trend we’ve seen in the other examples. Sure, he describes the physical attributes of the females, but he does the same thing with Andy. And in each case, he doesn’t stop with the physical. Hughes goes on to describe clothing, and in Allison’s case, psychological traits that give us a three-dimensional picture of each teenager.
So what’s the takeaway here? The point of this article isn’t to point fingers, but to point out one symptom of a larger issue. After looking at just a handful of randomly chosen examples, I think it’s obvious that not only is there sexism towards female characters in scripts, but it’s also so ingrained in our culture that a lot of the time it happens without the writer (whether male or female) even realizing it.
So what can you do? Make sure to pay extra attention to your female characters the next time you sit down to write. Go back and read over your scripts. How do you introduce the women in your screenplays? And most importantly, treat all of your characters equally.
Until next time, remember to “BE THE CHANGE,” and keep writing!
- More Specs & The City articles by Brad Johnson
- Balls of Steel Goes Into the Writing Room and Behind the Lines with DR
- Party Pals and Doormat Dudes: Supporting Characters Gone Wild
Tools to Help:
- Creating Unforgettable Characters
- Creating Dynamic Characters On Demand Webinar
- Breathing Life Into Your Characters