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WHY SPEC SCRIPTS FAIL: Female Part Over/Under Written or Over Exposed – Part 1

Script contributor Stewart Farquar dives deep into why female character parts in movies are left on the sidelines, and why it's important to make sure their parts are equally as well written as their male counterparts.

“Gender distribution lead actors in films in the U.S. 2011-2020. An upward trend in women starring in top movies shows the narrowing gender gap in leading roles from 2011 to 2020. A 2020 report found that 47.8 percent of lead actors in films that year were female, up by more than ten percent in just two years.” Julia Stoll, May 4, 2021. © 2021 Statista. All rights reserved.

Ghostbusters (2016). Columbia Pictures.

Ghostbusters (2016). Columbia Pictures.

Although the above quote, courtesy of Europe-based Statista, appears accurate it doesn’t reflect the failure of the “#MeToo and the decades-old Women’s Rights movements - read equality - to penetrate deep into the mindset of many Hollywood scribes and production executives.

Ever since the first Lumière brothers train film in 1895, movies have been all about men, action and with an occasional exception, an equal female lead or co-lead (His Girl Friday, Kill Bill and their derivative ilk). With all of this machoism and in an attempt to cater to a gender role pre-programmed audience, females poured into skimpy outfits were a required accouterment. The early Bond films had a mix of underdressed, spy-femme fatale character(s) for conquest/conversion and acrobatic tough gals.

[WHY SPEC SCRIPTS FAIL: Formula vs. Structure]

When Netflix researched the most popular films rented over a selected 20-year span from 1998 to 2017 they found the 20 most rented movies. Of that selection only Notebook, The Blindside, Hunger Games had well-written non-ensemble female lead characters. Although Wonder Woman had a strong female lead, the focus in the 2017 most rented movie was not on brains. There was not much combat protection from her wardrobe.

For some reason, other excellent female-driven stories like Hidden Figures, a true story about three black female mathematicians who helped place John Glen safe and sound into space and back. It garnered a 93 percent Rotten Tomatoes audience and critic score, yet never received the same promotional support as the hedonistic, almost 2,000 car-destroying Fast and Furious franchise that started out at a 67 percent audience score and never exceeded 83 percent score. This due to “The lack of a competent story or compelling characters”; per Rotten Tomatoes.

Hidden Figures. Twentieth Century Fox

Hidden Figures. Twentieth Century Fox

I grant that the entertainment industry has come a considerable way from the original Star Trek era where male crew wore form-fitted “practical” costumes while most of the female crew were paraded around in deep cut form fitted minimal outfits that left little to the imagination. With the exception of Seven of Nine, the franchise gradually moved away from “the form fit” and concentrated more on the unique capabilities of the major female characters. Unfortunately, the “other world” females still had a tendency to digress into little more than eye candy. Hunger Games is one notable exception.

The recent 2020-2021 global challenges have taken their collective toll on feature film production. Now, it appears in order to recoup those lost bucks with minimal expense more execs have resorted to their former selves (think Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid vs. Thelma and Louise or Lora Croft as a female Indiana Jones style reboot) by recasting former successful male roles with little more than the least amount of costume the censors would permit and a location change. All this to fool the “ignorant masses” with the same story / different paint job approach to this year’s attempt at a blockbuster film. Audiences begin to tire.

This form of presentation/marketing discourages perceptive moviegoers from spending their money (premium tickets and snack-bar purchases can approach $100 for a family of four). However, it still siphons dollars out of the wallets of those unsuspecting “masses” or groupies who are satisfied with nothing more than a “cheap” escapist thrill.

This marketing style dissuades anyone against the legal standard as to whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. The proffered old cigarette manufacture’s argument; “We just provide what the public wants”; is weak and ineffectual.

[WHY SPEC SCRIPTS FAIL: Creating an Emotional Connection with the Reader]

When a female is stuffed into a role or character previously written for and testosterone stamped by a man, it challenges the façade proffered by the perpetrators of this travesty when they argue that it’s a needed style of escapist visual art. In reality, it’s the modern version of the snake-oil salesman who spouts outlandish promises and then plies gullible villagers out of their hard-earned savings. It does nothing to enhance humankind or reduce the glorification of violence. Be it against women or others. I now expect a Lycra-clad all-female product to morph out of the Fast and Furious franchise within 5 years. Yes, I know, there are very few exceptions.

For the record, I am in no way advocating that “cheap thrill” style movies should not be screened. I just feel that if the major houses, producers, and scribes wish to remain relevant, they look for ways to enhance the human entertainment experience rather than diminish it

Mia culpa. I too am guilty. A screenplay of mine did not represent an original female character effectively. You’d think that a father of two successful daughters would know better. My screenwriter friend pointed out that although she was impressed with my screenplay, she felt that one out of my several female characters should move into a more proactive vs. a reactive bimbo style role relative to her counterpart. Her perspective was correct. I rewrote.

Of the almost 10,000 scripts I have read for major screenplay contests as either a semifinal or final judge along with those from my private clients, over 75 percent of the female characters were either portrayed as a helpless damsel in distress solely introduced to further the drama of the story for the male, someone for the male lead to spill his guts to, eye candy in dress and behavior, or just a stress relief style girlfriend/floor mop for the male lead. Many of these female characters had no story of their own and rarely survived to the denouement. Thankfully, I have noticed a slow change over the last 3 years. For contests, I’m unaware of the writer’s name or gender. Also, I cannot and do not make changes. I just mark female exploitation down.

Many of the current TV procedurals (Law and Order, NCIS, CSI) have taken pains to migrate female characters away from the Baywatch style window dressing in both behavior and dress to a parity in wardrobe, dialogue, and skills with their male counterparts. A love interest may develop but it’s as a real-life story/plot not as a vicarious attention grabber

[WHY SPEC SCRIPTS FAIL: The Hero's Journey]

There is no difference in the capability of the male and female brain to acquire, assimilate and adjudicate facts or disparate information. There may be small structural differences that are more hemisphere communication rather than capacity and ability. As such, with any given condition there may be a different way to approach or resolve a situation. Regardless of the direction taken or method employed, in the end, a viable solution is attained. This thinking method, which most often creates a point-counterpoint between male and female characters, makes the story an interesting journey vs. a Terminator style solution.

If we look “across the pond” at British Film and Television we find a long history of gender parity with less of an emphasis on body curves and provocative make-up. This is obvious when the Miss Marple/Sherlock Holmes comparison is presented. In the United States, and most of Central and South America, the focus has glacially moved toward female intellectual and social prowess and away from feminine guile or a character presented as a blatant and an overt sex object with her neckline cut to the navel.

Attendance at red carpet events in an Haute Couture equivalent of a string bikini does little to further the parity objective. As a man, I have no objection to the display. However, in this post-Weinstein period and to keep the parity message on point both a female actor and any scribe who writes female characters have to be clear about what is for sale.

It is hard for many suits, both male and female, to adjust their myopic mindset away from the “sex sells” mantra as the only way to market entertainment. They have a corporate addiction to shareholder profits and their year-end bonuses. It is unfortunate that these same execs seem to have not progressed from the concept that they are “selling” only to male audiences. Poorly made/cast romcoms (Down To You & Gili) haven’t helped thoughtful progress along these lines. Again, there are a few excellent romcoms.

This year’s progress in parity, 2020-2021, the movie industry did not fare so well.

“It's a Man's (Celluloid) World: Portrayals of Female Characters in the Top Grossing U.S. Films of 2020. The percentage of top-grossing films with female protagonists dropped dramatically from 40% in 2019 to 29% in 2020. 49% of films featured male protagonists, and 22% had ensembles.”

© 2018 Dr. Martha Lauzen. All rights reserved.

Any scribe who wishes to submit a potential blockbuster script is well advised to write grounded in shared human experiences. It represents a lazy writer who performed minimal research when a female character is relegated to “doing the same things as a man” and in the same way. In reality, their work amounts to little more than a plagiaristic cloned gender swap. To realize true parity, a strong female character should achieve comparable results from a unique female perspective. This could be but does not necessarily have to conform to the, “as a man would do it” catchphrase.

The female remake of Ghostbusters: Answer The Call was entertaining but failed to present or develop the complete and unique feminine approach. It was a marginally acceptable financial bomb. In essence, it was a reboot/sequel with a 49 percent vs. the original male cast’s 88 percent audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. Granted the male sequel was almost as bad.

Another failed attempt of shoving females into established male characters is the exploitative Ocean’s 8 sequel. Even with an ‘A’ list female cast, it failed to reach. Yes, I accept that there may be a place for gender role swapping. It’s just a hard sell to the preconditioned and loyal fan base.

As I stated above, dialogue, behavior, and dress MUST reflect the obvious unique and separate albeit equal male and female mental abilities even if the physical abilities and approach differ. Not all men are hulks and are in no way created equal. Each has their own unique skill set. Same for women.

[Women Are People, Too: 6 Ways to Write Better Female Characters]

Before some of you get all excited about which films you feel have been overlooked, no worries. We will explore some of the more notable films that embody strong female lead characters in part two. We will also explore ways to enhance your writing using your observation skills and common sense. We may even have space to discuss a non-exploitive way to describe a strong female character that includes their traits, dress, behavior, and skill set. No, it’s not a formula.

Comments and critiques are encouraged. I welcome the opportunity to explore your thoughts.

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