Columns > Published on January 11th, 2013

Screenwriting: Insert Woman Here - Sidestepping the Sausage Fest

Back in the day, the original Star Wars movies were a big hit at my primary school, except with the girls at recess.  As the boys galloped onto the playground eager to re-enact the destruction of the Death Star or the defeat of the Imperial forces on Endor, they had a plethora of roles to pick from, male characters of varying ages, colors and body types. “I’ll be Han!” “I’ll be Chewie!” “I’ll be Obi-Wan!” “I’ll be Darth Vader!” “I’ll be Boba Fett!” “I’ll be Yoda!” “I’ll be Lando!”  They could see themselves as any one of those guys, and could revel in imagining themselves as an integral part of the story, shaping events in ways of their choosing. Lucky them!

We girls had to draw straws to see which one of us could be Leia.  If the boys were feeling particularly mean, they’d enforce strict limits on the potential Leia pool. “She hasn’t got long brown hair! She isn’t pretty enough!”  Those of us who didn’t conform to Lei-expectations were forced to sit out the fun on the sidelines, condemned to perpetual starwallflower-dom.  Unlike the boys who could try on different characters, goodies and baddies, for size, we were excluded from the fun of the playground narrative simply because of our gender.  If we didn’t take that single, narrow, route into the action (“Leia has to wait over there till Luke and R2 rescue her”), we were out of the game.  No matter how much we pleaded for compromise, the boys refused to bend the rules, even on minor, unpopular characters. “Are you crazy? There’s no way Greedo can be a girl!” We couldn’t really argue, because that’s how it was in the movies: no girls (other than a solitary metal-bikini-clad princess) allowed.

Because it was set in the future, the whole Star Wars experience felt particularly humiliating.  We knew we couldn’t grow up to be Leia (“I haven’t got long brown hair! I’m not pretty enough!”), and there weren't any other options.  Our destiny was an empty void. We felt devalued, surplus to requirements, condemned to the cheap seats as perpetual spectators at the Sausage Fest.

Fast forward three decades, and Hollywood still suffers from a gender divide worse than any school playground.  Although the Star Wars universe wised up and incorporated a few more female characters (especially in The Clone Wars), movie-going these days still requires acceptance that the Sausage Fest is king. From space operas to sitcoms, there’s a huge gap between the reality of women working and functioning within society and the way they are represented on screen.

Geena Davis’s organization, See Jane, crunches the numbers, with some stark conclusions:

  • Males outnumber females 3 to 1 in family films. In contrast, females comprise just over 50% of the population in the United States. Even more staggering is the fact that this ratio, as seen in family films, is the same as it was in 1946.
  • Females are almost four times as likely as males to be shown in sexy attire. Further, females are nearly twice as likely as males to be shown with a diminutive waistline. Generally unrealistic figures are more likely to be seen on females than males.
  • Females are also underrepresented behind the camera. Across 1,565 content creators, only 7% of directors, 13% of writers, and 20% of producers are female. This translates to 4.8 males working behind-the-scenes to every one female.
  • From 2006 to 2009, not one female character was depicted in G-rated family films in the field of medical science, as a business leader, in law, or politics. In these films, 80.5% of all working characters are male and 19.5% are female, which is a contrast to real world statistics, where women comprise 50% of the workforce.

A Hollywood thriller or sci-fi actioner typically involves a parade of men, making way for the occasional, ornamental woman who doesn’t have much relevance to the main plot – or any other women to talk to. This is known as the Smurfette Principle, a term coined by Katha Politt in the New York Times in 1991. If there does happen to be a female protagonist, she’s an isolated case, the only female cop on the squad, a lone femme fatale assassin, or a tigress fighting to protect her kids, and her allies and adversaries are all male.  The Bechdel Test (Is there a scene in this movie including two female characters who talk about something other than a man?) began as a gag in a comic strip in 1985, but it’s become a disturbing measure of gender discrimination.  Too many current movies fail

It's like Ripley never happened...

On the whole, Hollywood suits still like to think it’s the 1990s, and cling to the idea that the weight of a big-budget blockbuster is just too much for a female star’s shoulders.  They persist in their denial of the existence of Angelina Jolie, Charlize Theron, Jodie Foster, Sigourney Weaver, Jennifer Lawrence, Kristen Stewart, Noomi Rapace, Zoe Saldana, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Chloe Moretz, Saoirse Ronan and Emma Stone, who’ve all proved they can appeal to international audiences while driving a story and kicking ass.  Yet movies as diverse as Bridesmaids, Twilight and The Hunger Games have begun to change that thinking over the last couple of years.  There’s more openness towards the idea of strong female leads across different genres.  This is great, but slotting a single (usually white) female into the above-the-line credits doesn’t address the wider issue of the lack of women on screen, or the marginal roles they inhabit.

The Hollywood default to a white male character is problematic for a number of reasons – all of which will become more significant as the century advances.  The movie-going audience is becoming more diverse, and international sales (once an added bonus) dictate financial success or failure.  The old model, of targeting movies to appeal to mid-Western male teenagers, is falling by the wayside.  This global, diverse audience is less tolerant of tired, negative stereotypes and may be unwilling to have American standards of equality foisted on them.  Bear in mind that the USA comes a long way down the list when it comes to gender parity – 22nd in 2012, according to the World Economic Forum, down from 17th in 2011. 

Even in the US, women make up slightly more of the population than men, form half of the workforce and buy more movie tickets.  They like to see themselves represented on screen – and here’s the kicker – whatever their skin color, age or body shape, they like to see a version of themselves reflected back.  Very few women look like Angelina or Charlize or Julia or Reese, even in their wildest fantasy moments.  While it’s fun to watch an impossibly skinny and beautiful woman do her stuff, it’s gratifying to see Someone Like Me play a part in the story too.  Women of all ages have aspirations, and enjoy seeing versions of their current, past and future selves solve problems within a narrative, without necessarily being a glamorous, sexualized female lead.  We like to get our catharsis on, see what happens if Someone Like Me gives in to their dark passenger, and then see her punished for her transgressions.

"You get these girls who say 'I'm a character actor' then you see them in a role and nothing has really changed but the outfit" — Juliette Lewis

White men have always had the privilege of projection.  Think of all the great male character actors out there, none of whom possess leading man looks, but are nonetheless are deeply fascinating to watch.  Actors like Chris Cooper, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Harvey Keitel, John Hawkes, Toby Jones, Harry Dean Stanton, Alan Arkin, Tommy Lee Jones, Bryan Cranston, et al all have wonderful, engaging faces that only get more resonant with age and experience.  The characters they play come from a range of jobs and professions and use an array of skills in pursuit of their narrative goals.  They don't have to be heroes, villains, or anti-heroes, just conflicted human beings whose actions (and mistakes) are pivotal to the plot.  These actors have long, consistently successful careers, working on several movies a year, garnering respect and Supporting Actor awards.  None of them will get within a country mile of being declared People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive but that doesn’t matter.  Audiences love them anyway, along with the characters their craggy faces convey.

Where are their female equivalents? The actresses who pop up as key supporting players in movie after movie, or in showy cameos, are few and far between.  Sigourney Weaver does some great work as “Go-To Lady Scientist”, materializing in the third act of movies like Paul and Cabin In The Woods to explain the denouement to anyone who wasn’t quite following the action.  Melissa Leo and Dale Dickey, having labored in obscurity for years, finally got the accolades they deserved, albeit for playing meth-head Moms.  Viola Davis snagged an Oscar nom for her single scene in Doubt.  But these are unusual examples.  Wouldn’t it be great to see the likes of Joan Cusack, Patricia Clarkson, Sandra Oh, Jacki Weaver, Allison Janney, Laura Linney, Rosario Dawson, Martha Plimpton, Jane Lynch, Gabrielle Union, Sela Ward, Kathy Bates, Margo Martindale, Judy Greer and Frances McDormand in several wide-release movies a year, just like their male counterparts?

These ladies, plus dozens more brilliant actresses seem to disappear off a cliff at a certain point in their career.  It’s not that they quit.  As Elise (Goldie Hawn) says in First Wives Club, “There are only three ages for women in Hollywood; Babe, District Attorney, and Driving Miss Daisy.” There’s at least a thirty-year gap between hot-shot DA and elderly Jewish widow who can no longer drive, which leaves a wealth of talent lying dormant, or appearing only in festival-circuit indie movies. Once an actress is no longer willing to sexualize herself as the Babe, the challenging, interesting, attention-getting roles dry up, often until she hits grande damme status (see: Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Betty White).  While male character actors of the same age get meaty supporting role after meaty supporting role, the women have to play Mom or stay home. That’s an awful lot of female perspectives and experiences going unexplored in your local multiplex.

What's The Fix?

This problem represents a massive challenge and opportunity for you, the screenwriter – and for anyone writing a novel with an eye on selling the movie rights.  Conventionally, screenwriters are the lowest of the low in the Hollywood hierarchy, with little-to-zero power to affect any kind of change. Yet, more than anyone else, you’re to blame for the onscreen gender imbalance.  If you’re not writing enough women into your screenplays, especially in minor or supporting roles, it’s no one’s fault but your own. For once, the power to make a genuine, lasting paradigm shift lies at your fingertips.  You can make the Sausage Fest a thing of the past.

The challenge involves finding ways to “Insert Woman Here” without seeming contrived. There’s nothing worse than lame attempts at political correctness – the solo female judge presiding over a courtroom of men, or the sudden, brief and largely irrelevant appearance of a ‘lady boss’.  Screenwriters need to create three-dimensional women within their pages, rather than tossing in a handful of cardboard cutouts with vaginas and hoping their presence in the background will suffice.  If you habitually default to white/male when creating a minor character, and think of your female lead in terms only of her sex appeal, coming up with a colorful and entertaining array of women isn’t initially going to be easy.

There are a range of approaches. It's not about making your screenplay woman-centric.  It's about acknowledging that wherever male characters go (apart from a few very specialist circumstances, like a medieval monastery), female characters can go too.

You could —

  • Look to TV for inspiration: Breaking Bad’s Skylar and Marie, Scandal’s Quinn, Mellie and Verna, Dexter’s Deb and La Guerta are all current examples of fascinating and flawed females who don't need to trade on their sexuality for storylines.  TV writers are much more conscious of needing to appeal to a diverse audience, and are way ahead of their movie counterparts on the curve.
  • Use the Reports function in your screenwriting software to keep track of your ratio of female/male characters.  Set yourself a goal of somewhere between 33-50% female characters and make sure they speak 33-50% of the dialogue – don’t leave them hovering in the background, voiceless.
  • Track how many scenes contain more than one female character.  Are they talking to one another? About something other than a man? Pat yourself on the back - that's a Bechdel Test win! Welcome to the 1980s.
  • Boost your female character count by featuring women in walk-on roles as taxidrivers, nightclub bouncers, school janitors, firefighters, mechanics, surgeons, mortgage brokers etc
  • Give your protagonist allies and enemies of both genders – if Judi Dench can climb the MI5 career ladder as M in the Bond movies, and Marion Cotillard can launch a takeover bid for Wayne Enterprises in The Dark Knight Rises, you can mix it up any way you want. 
  • Connect your male lead to female characters for reasons that don’t involve sex or romance.  Or a mother/son relationship.
  • Revitalize your period piece by populating it with female characters that challenge the usual archetypes.  Don’t think of your Western in terms of the usual cowboys and whores, but include a revisionist take on the pioneer women of Little House on The Prairie, or intrepid frontier explorers like Isabella Bird. Throughout history, wherever men went, women of all shapes and sizes weren't far behind. 
  • If you're writing a contemporary thriller, don't default to all-male bad guys. Make the head of your Mexican drug cartel a woman, and give your thriller some ripped-from-the-headlines pzazz.
  • There are women in the army. Watch the documentary Lioness (about female support soldiers -- mechanics, supply clerks and engineers who fought alongside Marines in Iraq) and rewrite your war epic to acknowledge their contribution.
  • Remember that there are plenty of women out there who kill — they don't attract as many headlines because they don't tend to get caught as easily or as quickly as their male counterparts.
  • If you want a traditional male lead/female romantic interest dynamic, go ahead.  But give your female lead a real job, individual priorities, and other women to talk to.  Steer her out of the Smurfette zone.  Create additional conflict and drama by having her follow her own agenda, instead of putting her entire life on hold for the protagonist.  Consider an Act Three or midpoint betrayal, when she decides she doesn’t share the protagonist’s goals and strikes out on her own.
  • Create compelling female characters who must deal with physical imperfections, along with whatever obstacles the plot throws at them. Problems can be as minor as Karen Crowder’s (Tilda Swinton) excess perspiration in Michael Clayton, or as major as Beatrice’s (Noomi Rapace) scarred face in the upcoming Dead Man Down or Reba McClane’s (Emily Watson) blindness in Red Dragon.  Perfection is boring, for both the audience and the actress.  Make your female characters real enough to be flawed human beings, instead of glass virgins.

If you can insert more, and more interesting, women into your writing, the upside is potentially huge.  Agents, managers and producers claim they’re looking for ‘fresh voices’ in screenplays – fresh, but not that fresh.  They want writers who can write within genre frameworks without being too predictable.  What better way to defy cliché and make your writing stand out than to write a screenplay that acknowledges conventions but is teeming with women in supporting roles?  Also, if you write quirky, interesting females, great actresses will come running.  They will batter down your door.  They will buy you dinner and introduce you to all the producers, financiers, and studio heads they know. They will move heaven and earth to get your movie made because they are so starved for a gratifying role, even if their character only appears in three scenes.

And, most importantly, you can sleep easy, knowing you’ve provided an interesting and diverse array of role models to a young girl.  You’ve prevented her from growing up thinking the only way she can play out her fantasies is as a scantily-clad brunette space princess.  If she doesn’t want to be Leia in the playground re-enactment she can be someone else.   She can pick and choose, just like the boys have always done.

What are your favorite examples of female supporting roles in movies? Who are the female characters that make you cringe?  Nominate your favorite female heroes and villains in the comments below.

About the author

Karina Wilson is a British writer based in Los Angeles. As a screenwriter and story consultant she tends to specialize in horror movies and romcoms (it's all genre, right?) but has also made her mark on countless, diverse feature films over the past decade, from indies to the A-list. She is currently polishing off her first novel, Exeme, and you can read more about that endeavor here .

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