This Twitter Account Shows A Pretty Shocking Trend Among Female Characters In Screenplays
A gorgeous woman, JANE, 23, is a little tipsy, dancing naked on her big bed, as adorable as she is sexy. "*BONUS PTS FOR BEING THE 1ST LINE," producer Ross Putman adds to a tweet on his new Twitter account, @femscriptintros, which sheds light on the roots of how women are portrayed on screen — from their very introductions into the screenplays they occupy. Putman takes descriptions of women from scripts he reads, changes the names to Jane, and posts them to the account. These screenplays show how overwhelmingly female characters are judged by appearances alone: what they're wearing, how old they are, how long their legs are, if they're beautiful but a little broken. (With that last one, can't you already taste how a man is going to swoop in and renew her faith in love-slash-life-slash-happiness?)
Less than a day after his first tweet, Putman's account has over 16,000 followers, and it's increasing fast. The lines he quotes aren't credited (his Twitter bio includes the disclaimer, "Apologies if I quote your work"), but perhaps that's for the best; instead of shaming individual writers, it shows the rampant issues with how women are written into film, continuing an essential and ongoing conversation about the gender gap at all levels in Hollywood.
2015 brought its share of good things for women in film, with many efforts to promote the conversation about gender inequity in Hollywood. There was a Harper's Bazaar roundup of 22 famous women discussing gender disparities in Hollywood; Maureen Dowd's New York Times Magazine cover story featuring 63 women both behind and in front of the camera; a Variety story about women tackling the pay gap, and much more. And for those who weren't up on the times, there was immediate and withering backlash: the Hollywood Reporter drew ire for its overwhelmingly white, male round table featuring what it called the "most notable" directors in Hollywood. (Where was Ava DuVernay? Leigh Janiak? Sam Taylor-Johnson? Catherine Hardwicke?)
But that doesn't mean that the conversation has prompted tangible change, so we have to keep talking — and that's why the @femscriptintros account has emerged as such a critical time. While the conversation has largely focused on faces in front of the screen and the directors at the helm, there's been far less talk about who's writing the characters that directors and actors then translate. One-dimensional female characters often come down to the words put in their mouths — while Natalie Portman's Garden State character has depth due to Portman's careful, researched, and empathetic performance, in the end, she was written by a man and in many ways constructed for and through a male gaze. Since the film's release, it's been excoriated for providing a female character who exists solely to break the damaged, depressed male lead out of his shell and show him how vibrant life can be — due primarily to the character's construction through the gaze of its male writer, director, and lead role.
The male gaze is on full display in the @femscriptintros tweets. "Athletic but sexy" reads one; "very beautiful, very troubled" describes another; "she was model-pretty once, but living an actual life has taken its toll" says yet one more. Each synthesizes impossible binaries seen through a lens that cater to traditional conceptions of femininity — effortlessly beautiful, cool without trying too hard. Because Putman doesn't attribute any of the scripts, there's no way to be certain whether these were written by men, but the statistics show it's likely. The 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report from the University of California, Los Angeles's Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies revealed that the number of female screenwriters has steadily declined since 2011, dropping from 14.1 percent to 13.0 percent to 12.9 percent by 2013.
While criticisms of characters who subscribe to types — "cool girl," "manic pixie dream girl," "carefree," "woman-child" — are valid, they need to dig deeper, to look at who is writing these characters in the first place and not just what is written. Yet even if some of the scripts on Putman's account are written by women — statistically as well as contextually unlikely — that, too, might say something. Is there an expectation that this is how female writers must present themselves in order to even get read? It seems incredible that scripts so reductive, so blatantly sexist, could make it onto the screen, and yet as we all know, it's happened again and again. As for the people who make them happen, directors, they're predominantly male, too; the same UCLA study showed that in 2013, women made up just 6.3 percent of directors.
Writing, though, is perhaps the most fundamental level on which this all plays out. Descriptions like the above make me wonder how the female characters who do survive the production process and gain distribution were described in early drafts. How did that Garden State role read on the page? What about Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl, whose monologue is one of the most scathing take-downs of the "cool girl" trope around, in a film that was both written and adapted from the novel by a woman? Putman's @femscriptintros provides a window into how the characters that we decry end up on screen in the first place — and forces audiences to reexamine how they look at gender in Hollywood. It's not just Jennifer Lawrence's Lenny Letter essay on the pay gap, or the fact that Ava DuVernay turned down the opportunity to direct the Black Panther film. There's a wide gender gap throughout Hollywood, right down to the writers and the characters they're writing.
Oh, and in the time it took me to write this essay, @femscriptintros doubled its follower count. People are listening; it just takes someone to say it.
Images: 20th Century Fox; Giphy