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Sunday, 3 February 2013

Writing Wrongs: How Female Characters Fare in Hollywood: By guest: Tennyson E. Stead

Editor’s Note:
Tennyson E. Stead is a very prolific producer and screenwriter as well an award winning director with ten years’ experience working in Hollywood and even more than that in theater. I invite you to find out more about his collection of projects both on IMDB and his main website.

Like most of my guests, I met Tennyson through Twitter when he responded to one of my open calls for guests to interview on my podcast. In discussing “Quantum Theory” he took the episode a step further and coordinated one of the single largest panel discussions I’ve had yet by including almost all of the main actors in the one interview.

Tennyson and his team at 8-Sided Films are prime examples of what it means to be both innovative and cooperative as indie artists. One of the things that I like best about the group is their healthy ability to challenge established norms head-on to either validate them or issue a vociferous call to action if they should be changed.

In the spirit of that philosophy, below are some of Tennyson's opinions on Hollywood's use of female characters.

Tennyson, the floor is yours...

Writing Wrongs: How Female Characters Fare in Hollywood

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of what sexism in Hollywood looks like to me, I owe you an apology.  Making a movie is an all-consuming process, fraught with pitfalls and tripwires that can hamstring even the most experienced and skilled of filmmakers.  Anyone who completes that process with something to show for themselves deserves respect.

Because I have such strong feelings on the subject, I'm going to talk in very general terms about the archetypes I see in Hollywood films.  Calling out individual films or filmmakers for failing to live up to my expectations or standards when it comes to social responsibility might help prove some of the points I'm about to make, but it would also take a big, smelly crap on the numerous and notable accomplishments those same films represent.  That task is one I shall leave to the critics.

Besides, picking on individual films is not remotely the point of this article.  My own work as a writer/director is every bit as much a response to the trends in Hollywood that piss me off as it is an attempt to live up to the examples I admire.  More than anything else, this article is about the work I have in front of me.  As an editorial, this article is not going to be saucy.  As a thesis, it may have some value.

As I watch more and more films, I become increasingly convinced that female characters - or rather the ways in which female characters are written - fall into three basic categories.  In general, simpler approaches to character tend to read as more of a behavioral suggestion.  More complex characters read as an example of how someone MIGHT behave.  Obviously, the simpler approach risks offending folks who disagree with the suggestion and can reinforce those behaviors more deeply in folks who agree.  If a filmmaker believes they have no business telling other people how to live, the more complex character is always the better choice... but they're a pain in the ass to write and perform.

So instead folks write:

Any female character who exists first and foremost as an example of womanhood is being used as propoganda.  If a writer approaches a character from the standpoint of wanting to show an audience EITHER the positive OR negative qualities of womanhood, then that character will wind up reinforcing the notion that women all have those qualities to begin with.  There's no way around it, and I secretly suspect that many of the filmmakers who wind up creating these characters actually believe that in certain respects, all women are the same.

Look at how rigidly archetypes get repeated in action films and romantic comedies.  Look at all the winsome ladies out there trying to get the right guy to notice them.  Look at all the bitchy so-called best friends who are subverting everyone's efforts to be happy.  Look at all the damsels in distress pulling men into danger, all the man-eating femme fatales, and all the mothers who realized the value of family over their other, more selfish desires.

Each of these characters is very much like the next, and the story really only needs these characters to highlight the effect a woman will have on the protagonist.  Whether it's positive or negative in it's judgment, the story becomes a commentary on what a woman is.

Do people write these characters because they want women in these roles?  No, I doubt it.  They do it because this is how they know women.  Instead of coming to the conclusion that the story needed a character, the writer decided that what the story really needed was a woman.

That's propoganda.  If it's not deliberate, that fact only highlights the power these archetypes have.

What can you do with that?  Is there any hope of getting someone who doesn't see people as specific and unique individuals to learn a much more complex and overwhelming world view?  Probably not. Do I have the right to tell these people not to make movies?  Of course not.

But try getting me to sit down for a romantic comedy or action film that got rushed through development to meet a release date.

Responses to men:
As I see it, most female exploitation cinema characters are ultimately a response to men.  Recently, The Mary Sue wrote a very compelling editorial to this effect. Check it out here.

Whereas a propogandistic female character is a statement about what a woman is, a respondent female character is a statement about what men are.  Genre cinema is filled with them.  About half of these characters are charged by their writers with the task of filling a role traditionally held by men - and more often than not, their success is determined by how closely their efforts and exploits resemble the men who have done the job before them.  Cops, monster slayers of all description, and soldiers who are female characters are generally taking these roles on at the expense of characteristics usually described as feminine, like their ability to build relationships with other people.  When they succeed, it's because they learn to quash those qualities.  Male characters in these stories will put their well-being at risk for a larger goal, and will often grow from the experience.  How often do female characters wind up stronger and better people at the end of these stories?

Not often, guys.

Despite the fact that these characters might well find better ways to solve their problems by leveraging their feminity (which does not mean seduction), the archetypes persist.  Why?  Because that's how a more masculine person would find success.

On the other side of the sexism scale, there are those characters who represent what it is men want to see in women... or at least what the writer thinks men want to see in women.  This is where the fetishes come into play.  When a woman is portrayed as either submissive or dominant on screen, especially in a sexualized way, it's nearly always through imagery and archetypes that were popularized by men.  Again, this is not a force of bad in and of itself.  At the same time, we need to keep in mind that using these tools to define a character ties the character inextricably to the expectations that misogyny has placed on women.

Many women will point out that these images can be reclaimed, and that the experience can be liberating.  Perhaps.  Time will tell, and it's not my job to know that.  As of now, I don't think they have been.  What's more, I become very suspicious when I see male writers and directors trotting out these tropes in the name of feminine liberation.

Guys, we're buying into the notion that women are - or can be - defined by what we think about them. That's bullshit, and I don't want it in my movies.

Finally, female characters in film can be portrayed as:

Rather than serving as an example of what a woman is or what a man wants from her, some female characters are just... people.  This is undeniably the hardest thing for a screenwriter to write... or for an actor to perform, for that matter!  Archetypes are effective storytelling tools because we all know the characters.  When faced with a nice guy asking to buy her a drink, we all know what the soldier-bitch will do.  We all know what the sweet, accommodating  girl next door will do.  At the same time, in real life... we have no idea what that woman across the room will do.  Even her close friends might be surprised by her reaction.  There's a million factors involved.  Hell, she may not make the same decision from one night to the next!

There are PRECIOUS FEW female characters in film that inspire that level of uncertainty... or curiosity!


For one, it's nearly impossible to create that!  To have so many details in mind that every decision seems to emerge from the swirling chaos of a life is... time consuming.  It requires brilliance and massive amounts of labor from the writer, the director, and the actor to do it well, and those few characters that achieve this kind of reality are cherished forever.  Hamlet.  Faust.  Tartuffe.  Michael Corleone.  Frodo Baggins.  The Little Tramp.  Lawrence of Arabia.  Now name some women.


With female characters, someone in that chain of brilliance and labor always seems willing to take the easy way out.

There's also the simple and frustrating fact that so many writers and directors don't know this is something that can be achieved at all.  There is no movie, in my opinion, that would not be improved by a little more honesty and surprise.  When genre films that would ordinarily be expected to offer the audience flat or one dimensional characters do something more, the audience always responds with excitement and interest.  Audiences love getting the chance to learn to love a character.  At the same time, some folks in Hollywood look at those flashes of brilliance as lightning in a bottle - uncontrollable, unreliable, and therefore unworthy of pursuit.

They are controllable.  What it boils down to is a great writer, a great director, and fantastic casting. This is what I aspire to in my work, and I believe in my heart it's what the audience deserves.  My current film, Quantum Theory, is something I wrote specifically because I have some wonderful actresses in my life.  I want the audience - as well as folks right here in Hollywood - to see how rich, how delicate, how strong and beautiful and complex they are as performers and as people.

How else will folks truly learn to love them?  How else can they grow as performers?  What are we doing this for, if not for those things?

Thank you for reading, everyone!  Don't be a stranger!

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