WHY SPEC SCRIPTS FAIL: Female Part Over/Under Written or Over Exposed – Part 2

Script contributor Stewart Farquar takes a closer look at why the legacy entertainment industry has now become part of the problem rather than a solution in terms of providing rich and well-written female characters.
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The movie business is over. The movie Business as before is finished and will never come back. Barry Diller, Chairman Interactive Corporation (IAC) past chairman of Paramount and Founder of Fox Television, by David Gura, July 8, 2021 © 2021 NPR All Rights Reserved

Before we explore some of the films that I promised in Part 1, let’s talk about the lack of quality in product under wide release in 2021. It could be argued that the demise of large movie theatre presentations is a recent occurrence. However, it has been a long-term slow death. A review of both the size of venues (read multiplex closets), a raft of meaningless comic book fantasies, CGI drivel, and pseudo skin flicks has a lot to do with the loss of audiences. A discerning audience has trouble developing empathy for a female character who is in either a revealing or skin tight wardrobe. Attention is diverted/diluted/objectified and a lasting meaningful connection is lost.

The opening box office numbers, pushed and published by paid shills in an attempt to impress a potential audience member as to how good the product is and to provide a puff piece for the creator, fall off rapidly after the preliminary audience is satiated with their fill of gratuitous sex, violence and demolition derbies. Viewers flock to these offerings to vicariously vent their frustration and anger about the quality of life each is living. This venting has the same value and staying power as a candy bar sugar high. Which is, in turn, why we are left with more sex and violence in derivative remakes/sequels. An unfortunate by-product of the corporate addiction discussed in Part 1.

This high fades fast. The legacy entertainment industry now becomes part of the problem rather than a solution.

This quality of life is reflected by Henry David Thoreau who wrote in his chapter “Economy” from his book Walden: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation…”. This is not true of all “men”, but is apropos in 2021 when a large mass of people emerges from over 15 months of comparative seclusion. As they emerge from their isolation people will understandably grab at anything in an attempt to recreate some semblance of order in their lives. In 2021 it’s a search for a release after months of pent-up anger and despair. Destroying things can temporarily serve as a vent, but who cleans up the physical and psychological mess? What is the long-term damage to the collective psyche?

Yes, I know that it’s Show BUSINE$$ and suits “Follow The Money”. Nevertheless, audiences are wising up and have started to seek out alternate venues for uplifting entertainment. After the pent-up anger and frustration has vented, audiences want and need to experience something that inspires them and helps them feel good about themselves and their collective futures. Always catering to the basest aspects of humanity does little to elevate the human spirit.

Elevating the human spirit is supposed to be the purview of art in ALL of its forms.

One focus of Part 2 is that the sexual objectification is as much the fault of a female actor as it is the writer and the production company. Take the recent bruhaha with Sharon Stone and director Paul Verhoeven of the film Basic Instinct as an example. Nobody forces an actor to take a role or perform illicit/provocative acts. So, they can’t complain when they are objectified if and when they do accept such a role and direction. Many female actors set firm limits on what they will and will not do. The argument that an actor needs the work so has to do “it” or not be cast is specious and demeaning. A condition more evidenced by the news in late 2020 and early 2021.

Before you clamber to castigate me, know that I am in no way placing all the “blame” solely on writers, actors, or production companies. Rapid technological advances have also fragmented the collective viewing experience. Although, I must emphasize that a major contributor to the decline in large venue theatrical attendance is the ongoing and overwhelming lack of parity in roles both above and below the line. Audiences crave role models. When parity in quality roles and positions occurs, then the amount of a female body NOT left to the imagination will no longer be demandé for actors. I’m aware certain roles may call for a small amount of exposure. I refer to the entire film in a bikini-style costume while the men are fully dressed. The Mad Max and Fast and Furious franchises are perfect examples. They have their place, but do we need a steady diet of them?

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Although I may invite the ire of some, the long delayed latest 200-million-dollar comic book thriller, Black Widow, directed by Cate Shortland opened to an estimated 80 million dollars. It is not only devoid of a meaningful storyline; it has a under credit post story scene that drags on for ten minutes. The story also required form fitted Lycra costumes for the female stars to remain true to previous character appearances and keep the “focus” of the fanboy base. It took a 67 percent drop over the July 16, 2021 weekend. Theater owners are faulting simultaneous release.

Black Widow, Marvel Studios.

Black Widow, Marvel Studios.

Netflix didn’t buy into this need for “female skin for success” mantra. Their anthology series The Queens Gambit broke the Netflix record by having 62 million households watch it. When it first ran, it ranked #1 in 63 countries. It will long be remembered for its outstanding writing and lead female actor’s performance. There is a lesson to be savored in this comparison. In this example more is better. More clothes. More brains.

However, more streaming services will go the way of Quibi, that had to sell its $1.75 billion commissioned content and assets for approximately $100 million, if these services fail to continue developing parity in female roles regardless of the targeted demographic.

How do we as writers create meaningful NON-ACTION roles from a female perspective? Some streaming services and a few legacy productions have “seen the light”. According to Jason Mirch of Stage 32 Script Services:

“The mandate now for networks and streamers are "bold and edgy" series.”. “In order to break out in a crowded market, you need a big hook and compelling characters.” “And you need to be able to push the boundaries a little bit”. Copyright © 2021 Stage 32, All rights reserved.

Pushing the boundaries does not mean removing more wardrobe nor is it a license to include more erotic content. Come on. Writers such as us are supposed to write for HOLLYWOOD not North Hollywood.

I get that roles and positions don’t always need to be a 50/50 proposition or any other non-binary spread. However, a token anything designed to appease (fill in the blank) does not help to further parity. Is the next thing we see a demand for “blind auditions” as the pendulum swings too far in one direction or the other? Let’s hope we can stop this PC approach before it goes too far. A position above or below the line should be offered to the best available at the price the budget can afford. PERIOD. Fortunately, there is now a glacial shift away from female roles that were once relegated to those actors who can exhibit excess testosterone tempered with curvy eye-candy.

The writer has an enormous responsibility, Nothing, I repeat NOTHING is produced unless a scribe first pens it.

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Let’s explore a few exceptions to these unfortunate misogynistic conditions I have just described.

In this author’s opinion, Sally Field is the actor who has the highest number of strong female roles, at least 15, the epitome of which is the 1979 film Norma Rae. This was a role that Jane Fonda, Jill Clayburgh, Marsha Mason and Diane Keaton turned down. It won 2 Oscars. Sally Field, best actor and Best Music. Uncredited staff of Variety commented that “Norma Rae is that rare entity, an intellectual film with a heart.” Good female roles do exist. Study the script.

Norma Rae, Twentieth Century Fox

Norma Rae, Twentieth Century Fox

The chart that follows is a select list of films that scored 70 percent or above on Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer, the critic’s recommendations. With a nod to a few dystopias, moderately plausible science fiction fantasies or consistently exceptional performances, the chart is primarily focused on those stories that depict strong women who overcome a persistent bias in either the workplace, the home, or society in general. For the most part this selection does not represent films where “women were squeezed into roles formerly written for men”. The one exception is the 1940s romantic comedy His Girl Friday, where Rosalind Russell more than holds her own against Cary Grant and in which she portrays a role that was originally written, in a 1928 Broadway play The Front Page, for a male reporter.

The movie selection also does not include some improbable comic book pseudo larger than life roles or unrealistic Sci-Fi composite knock-offs. Rather the choice attempts to depict human based roles that explore a unique feminine point of view that doesn’t need to devolve into a cheap thrill to hold the audience’s attention. The list is by no means exhaustive. I welcome any additions that meet the cut-off criteria. The chart is an attempt to show writers that there can be great and rewarding roles for women / female impersonators. The cut-off is a 70 percent Tomatometer score.

SCORE * = CRITICS TOMATOMETER SCORE ON ROTTEN TOMATOES

Purposely not included are those unrealistic storylines that require gratuitous sex and / or violence along with off-world exercises that objectify women in either action or dress. Female characters who hold their own is the focus.

It is unfortunate that in segments of the entertainment industry roles for women accent body shape, size or condition. Not many women are like Twiggy and Cindy Crawford or men like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dwayne Johnson (The Rock). Age effects one’s body in a variety of ways. Many times, it does so unfairly for women.

Television has done much better at diversifying the appearance requirements for female actors / impersonators across a broad spectrum of product from Ugly Betty to RuPaul’s Drag Race. Something the writers for and executives of the film industry would do well to take note of if they wish to remain relative players in the ever-changing entertainment delivery landscape.

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

This means that writers MUST stop objectifying females in their writing and concentrate on the talent, skill and wisdom age brings to the story. Dame Maggie Smith, recently most notably by her Harry Potter and Downton Abby roles, is an example of a long career that was based on skill not skin. There are others.

In PART 3, a further exploration of some of the trailblazers for women in entertainment. Plus, thoughts on how to create, portray and give strength to female characters. I welcome your constructive comments.


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