There’s a producer who recently began tweeting under the name @femscriptintros. His or her posts consist of the descriptive introductions of lead female characters in the random screenplays he was reading. It’s gone viral. As I write this he-slash-she’s – so far – up to thirty-two amusingly different – yet horribly the same – twitter entries. When read out of context, most come off as misogynist male fantasies. It creates quite a picture. Yet a snapshot or two doesn’t exactly tell the whole story. As a man who’s written his share of women characters, I thought I might shed some light.
I will circle back to the viral tweets in a bit and mount a defense for some of those awful sounding descriptions – or most – of them. But first I’d like to examine a bit from my own point of view.
For starters, I’m male. Married. Heterosexual. A person of faith. Father of a sixteen-year-old-girl. I firmly believe the sexes are equal but different. I could go on and on in micro-qualifiers. But my point is that no matter how much I might want or think I need to pretend otherwise I’m going to write through my own prismatic lens. That’s what makes me, well, me, and hopefully worth reading, be it blog, novel, or screenplay. My unique perspective and the way I spin it is how I make a living.
But is it only my perspective that matters? In the movie world, after I press send on the email to deliver the most recent draft of my latest screenplay, the game turns collaborative in a digital eye blink. From that point on, the quantifiers (agents, managers, buyers, actors, etc.) bring their own unique points of view to the project. And when it comes to female characters – ergo the women in the movie or TV tale – the results can be shocking.
Now. I’m a dude. I’ve copped to that. And the women characters I invent are a cocktail of what best serves the story (in my word-jockey’s opinion) as well as what I know of women from the life I’ve lived. That can be both external and internal. Though considering I believe women are equal to but different than men, there’s only so deep I can slip into my lady-character’s psyche. I do my best. I try to be fair and real while at the same time compose a femme I want to watch and listen to assuming I’ll get lucky enough to have the picture or show produced, cast, and directed as well as I imagined. Actors bring their own interpretations. Directors and producers will have their say, not to mention decisions made by an editor with multiple takes and angles and attitudes to choose from to build the character as they see her.
Like I said, a lot goes into the character soup after I’ve had my say. Nonetheless, it is borne on my page before anybody else gets to add his own psychological two cents.
I’m also a fan of getting the opposite sex’s input. When seeking out notes, any woman making comment on my female characters’ behavior gets an extra sensitive ear. Not for the sake of politically correctness. But for verisimilitude. Last thing I want from a reader or eventual viewer is for anybody to trip over the narrative because something quacks.
Example. I’ve co-written only twice in my career. The second time, it was with my director friend Lexi Alexander. I’d told her a rather structurally complicated romantic thriller that she’d begun to obsess over. I was busy working on other projects and hadn’t the time to write it. Lexi’s idea was that she take a few whacks at the story, with me looking over her shoulder to micromanage things so she’d get the beats just right. Then when I had the time, I’d take over the scripting duties with Lexi as director looking over my shoulder until we were both across the finish line. The plan all along was for me to keep my name as the only writer. Lexi was ghost writing for convenience and efficiency sake – as well as the opportunity to attach herself as the movie’s director.
Yet as I began my pass of the script, it became oh-so-clear that my femme-fatale-turns-sympathetic heroine character had an altogether more potent voice than I had ever imagined. She was alive and kicking character ass to a degree that I couldn’t honestly say I was the sole author despite my procedural omnipresence. I began to insist that Lexi and I share writing credit. Something most would think ludicrous. I mean, how hard is it to say sure, thanks. But one of the reasons I adore Lexi is that she is honest to a fault. She’d agreed to ghost and, in her handshake opinion, that was that. It took some convincing, but I won out. Her feminine voice had evolved into a huge part of the screenplay. It was only right that we share.
Other writers might have thought or felt differently. But again, this is about writing and living through my prism.
Now, as promised, back to those viral, tweet-worthy descriptions of female characters that might come off to some as misogynist. Let’s be real. As author of such descriptors, I acknowledge the blame-slash-credit lands with me. Yet allow me to add this. I cannot describe how many times I’ve received notes from both producers and studio execs (male and female) imploring me to “sex up” the captions introducing female characters while “manning up” the way the male characters are introduced. The reasons for which are simple: to beseech the vanity of movie stars who want-slash-need to view themselves as having cinematic sex appeal. It gets even funnier. I’ve had managers and agents of movie actors feed me actual adjectives to use in character descriptions in hopes of hooking their own client on the material. I’m talking from words like “slinky” to hyphenated labels as in “whip-smart.” This allows the screenplay to act as a reflection from which the celestial thespians can gaze upon themselves. And to be fairer still, I’ve had some reps ask to remove all character descriptions except the age (though perhaps I might want to dial the digits back some five to ten years).
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. I expect further illumination on the subject.
Thanks for the post, Doug. In both screenwriting and fiction, do you find that you choose men as the protagonists more regularly as a result? Or, do you just say to yourself, “Self, I’m going to write women as I know them” and, like with any other character, hope they come through as realistic? It’s a question I’ve run into with my own writing, and I’m curious how you handle it.
Yes and know and both, Kevin. Of course, in screenwriting sometimes you’re choosing a man because the studio asks you to make it accessible to (name the top three male actors). Then there’s my own writing and it’s more the latter in that I’m picking the character I want to see in that story. Male or female. And I always try and write them truthfully as I’m able. Thanks for asking.
I might just be a little bit tired of people complaining about everything lately… so when the articles on that twitter account surfaced, I got more annoyed at the articles than the descriptions. I’ve only attempted a script once (shudder) and my lead female descriptions could be somewhat lumped in with “misogynist male fantasies” because I just didn’t look too much into it. I wouldn’t use words like “undeniable beauty,” but I wouldn’t fault someone for it either. Not that I know a lot about script writing haha, BUT it’s my understanding that they need to be short and to the blunt point. Am I wrong on that? I’m trying to think of how movie heroines I love would be described in a script… probably not much better than those posted. I could probably look some up- like Leeloo or Ripley then compare lol
I care a lot about character development… so half of me thinks descriptions should just be written with a little more class, but half of me knows I just see what ends up on screen and I’m generally entertained with that.
All that being said, I haven’t seen your scripts, but I do love your female characters… equally strong and vulnerable. You keep them interesting, so I would trust you on this subject… even femme-fatale-turns-sympathetic heroine characters =p
Thanks Cara. It’s a sticky wicket being fair and true vs those who are easily or righteously offended. Yet we must press on despite ourselves or despite the trolls.
From Stacy Chambers who’s having trouble posting:
“I think women are calling out for different stories that they’re not seeing produced. Lots of masculine tent pole stuff–which is fine; we women love those, too–but to constantly see female characters ONLY described in terms of their sexuality… it can get wearing for us to see and read. We don’t all fit that tiny, sexy mold, and we have more to offer. ”
“And the answer, I think, is to not only keep talking about this, but for women to jump in and write write write. You know that old saying “Until the lion learns to write, every story will be the hunter’s”? That applies here. (Although I’ve heard a lot of stories of women in the biz who have said they simply can’t get a foothold no matter how much experience they have–another layer that needs to be addressed.)”
I suppose is safe to say “to each his own” Or in Frank Miller’s words:”I like to draw hot chicks, fast cars and cool guys in trench coat. So that’s what I write about.” Guess who is out of equation then?
If I am a famous Hollywood screenwriter and someone asks if I am willing to do an action script with even more famous male star, I might do just that. Or better to say to write such a piece about “muscles and tits” at the cost of being accused as misogynistic freak. If I feel it’s the better way to tell a story, so be it.
Go your own way, Milo. And don’t stop. You might break through with something new.
Yeah, I’ve had that same thing… I’ve written things only to be told by a rep / director / producer / whomever it that such and such HAD to rewrit LIKE THIS or LIKE THIS and so on… and it’d make me wince, but it was such a small thing, and there are bigger battles… you had to let it go.
but yeah, this happens.
Bigger battles, yes. And like you, I’ve sucked it up and made the sometimes obvious changes. As long as you don’t turn around bend over BEFORE they request it.
As a man, I too try to write “real” women. But sometimes it’s difficult because as a man, there’s no way I can get into a woman’s head. What I try to do is remember a woman’s behavior/reaction from past events. But I admit, I’m sure they’re off here and there.
Another point to make when discussing the writing of female characters in Hollywood is to remember that Hollywood is a business. Businesses are designed to make money. Hollywood is driven primarily (although not as much as when I finished film school & started writing) by a specific demographic; males 18-35. A script with a kick-ass female detective lead that also looks like Kate Upton and ends up saving the world is going to have a better shot at getting made than a smaller character piece about a grandmother that saves all the neighborhood cats when the local park is shut down.
I don’t necessarily agree with it, but as a writer, if you’re trying to break into the biz, you have to be aware of it to a certain point.
I getcha Bryan. Though I’d like to see some “breaking into the biz” paradigm’s shift into breaking down the walls with new paradigms.
So would I.
My first screenplay to garner significant attention went to an executive at a huge, A-list prodco who decreed that the female lead could not be romantically involved with both the protagonist and antagonist, necessitating the elimination of a significant (and compelling, IMHO) subplot. T’was then I learned one of the Hollywood Spec Script Commandments: The female shall serve the Hero.
Hmm, Mick. I haven’t heard that commandment. Not to say it doesn’t exist, let alone serve as the basic movie formula. I’d like to think if you specked a La Femme Nikita or Lucy or Jessica Jones that it might get significant attention because I myself am crazy about kick ass women.
Agreed. My choice of the word “commandment” was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, and I like to hope that my experience was atypical. I imagine that the opinion of an established writer such as yourself might carry more sway than that of an unknown.
Yes and no. Sometimes as an established writer they are more expectant that I will play the game. And it’s the new untested writers they look to for shifting the fulcrum. Most times though, the change in perspective comes from succeeding at it despite their protestations.
That’s an encouraging perspective. Though my manager tends to advise me to sell something first, then explore fulcrum-shifting. 🙂
Perhaps. But it was my fulcrum shifting work that got me noticed and earned the chance to write on assignment the populist box office dreck which paid for my house.
That’s the dream, in a nutshell (but you know that).
Funny story: I was working on a spec that I feared was becoming too similar to [an existing franchise], so I tried my best to make it as different as possible. My manager sent it to an exec at a big prodco (I won’t mention his name, because you very likely know him). He loved the script, but his very first note was, “Can you make it more like [that very same franchise]?”
I guess I don’t understand what’s so hard about this. Just start by writing a person. Not a woman, not a man, A PERSON.
We’re all taught that men are neutral and women are “other.” But if women can write realistic men, there’s no reason why the inverse can’t be true. Start with the humanity of the character. The rest is just decoration.
Allison. There’s nothing to disagree with in your comment. So why my reply? You inspired me to add this; If writing is art and/or invention, should it matter how a character is written or described? You or I may not care for the expression or depiction. But I couldn’t argue with the author working from his or her prism.
I think it matters very much how a character is described. That’s what your whole post is about, no? The description leads to the portrayal (by a casting agent, director, and actor), and the portrayal is what the public sees. I believe artists (at least those who will share their expressions with the world) have a responsibility to accuracy– emotional and otherwise.
When I see wooden female characters, clearly added to behave in Frank Miller’s ideal way, lacking any agency or internal world, I roll my eyes and stop caring as much about the film. At its worst, it reinforces the idea that as a woman my job is to serve men. As its best I feel like I wasted time and money on a film.
Artists can do whatever the hell they want of course, but the whole point of sharing your creation with the world is inviting viewers/readers inside your vision. If you invite me inside and then tell me I’m less than human, you bet your bippee I’m going to argue with that original description, because it’s likely indicative of how complex and rich your characters are in general.
(sorry for the dual screen name thing, it’s still me) 🙂
We live in a world where “equality” doesn’t always compute, translate, or exist. As a strong female, I better get to be “smoking hot” and “witty” and sure, tell me to “batt my eyelashes” and “flip my hair” while I give someone a mental asskicking with my intelligence. Best of all worlds if you ask me! I’m not an actress (thank god, no offense). But isn’t that in the job title to best “transform” into the part you’re getting PAID to act? Let’s not forget what the general public wants to see! I might not agree but until the majority of people stop obsessing over Kim Kardashian’s ass or The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, written instructions and directions for women in script just cannot be taken at face value.
As to the concept of misogyny, I’ll bring it back to the ultimate battle in society which is civil rights. Equality. I see sexism as the same thing as racism. To which, bringing it back to script-talk, does anyone know the story of what Samuel Jackson told Leo to do when he was struggling with being and saying the racist words and lines while filming Django Unchained? If not, look it up, it’s brilliant; it’s the perfect example of ACT and be the part WRITTEN and did it not make for a great film?
Boom! Brett, I couldn’t agree more. Or relate more. As much as I can. As a dude. Thanks for joining the fun.
Fascinating! I never considered that descriptors may be to entice certain people. The plot thickens. 😉
Is that a fat joke?
The screenplay critics tell you not to write things we can’t see. So, if we can’t write a physical description of the woman, and we can’t write things we can’t see, that doesn’t actually leave a whole lot.
Writing in the character intros, that she’s smart, or energetic, usually gets slapped down by producers telling you not to tell the actor how to do their job. All the non-visual stuff comes out in the actions and words of the character.
Good point Angry. Proof again that THERE ARE NO RULES.
[…] “When seeking notes for my screenplays, any woman making comment on my female characters’ behavior gets an extra sensitive ear. Not for the sake of politically correctness. But for verisimilitude. Last thing I want from a reader or eventual viewer is for anybody to trip over the narrative because something quacks.” Screenwriter Doug Richardson On Writing Female Characters […]