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Female screenwriters slowly changing the script


4180699022_1eff4e0008Women are writing their own parts to escape the limitations of male-penned scripts. 

Female cineasts are practiced at low-level suffering; that perpetual ache as we sit through hour upon hour of celluloid stereotypes, cringing at false representation, raging at the denial of agency, resigning ourselves to a life of looked-at-ness’.

For the predominantly white, masculine, heteronormative framework of moviemaking has long served to house absurd ideations of femininity and misconceived, often damaging, depictions of womanhood.

We’ve been the perfect housewife; the femme fatale; the kooky foil; the deranged pursuer.

More recently we’ve been machete bait; power-mad with shoulder pads or a wallflower deftly concealing her ‘hotness’ behind a pair of horn-rimmed glasses.

This century, more often than not, we’ve been the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl (MPDG): cultural shorthand for “that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures”.

This latter example is the most recent incarnation of woman as cipher, serving only to advance androcentric plots.

The MPDG has become nothing short of a cultural irritation, a scabrous exercise in infantilisation and a reminder of what young women should be to men: a muse; a pretty thing with cow eyes and a lilting voice who props up the hero and soothes his ire with whimsy and daisy chains.

Laurie Penny wrote recently of the spectre of the MPDG in her own, and other women’s, lives.

She asserted the cultural and sociological importance of the stories we read, and see, and astutely dissected the effects of fictional representations of gender on behaviour: “women behave in ways that they find sanctioned in stories written by men who know better, and men and women seek out friends and partners who remind them of a girl they met in a book one day when they were young and longing”.

If the comments section beneath Penny’s New Statesmen article is anything to go by, the MPDG trope has fettered a generation of young women, binding them to subordinate self-perception and denying them agency.

It’s as pervasive as the ‘bunny boiler’ trope, yet all the more insidious for masquerading as something inspirational, if not aspirational.

And when us women do get to talk on film, we talk, of course, about men.

The Bechdel Test, created by cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985, exposes and critiques the gender bias in filmmaking and the limitations of female characterisation.

To pass the test, a film must satisfy three criteria:

(1) It must have at least two women

(2) who talk to each other

(3) about something other than a man

Unsurprisingly, a large proportion of films fail this test.

The Bechdel Test has its limitations, and a pass is not necessarily the hallmark of a feminist, or even a very good, film.

It is, nonetheless, the most prominent and easy to apply gauge of gender parity in film.

It highlights the one dimensional nature of female conceptualisation and the disinclination to depict women as anything other than hollow carriers communicating meaning through the relationships between the primary male characters.

A recent, wonderful, film that would fail the Bechdel Test miserably yet reclaims and rescues female characterisation is Before Midnight, the third in Richard Linklater’s trilogy of films disseminating and dissecting the intricately etched romance of its protagonists, Celine and Jessie.

These films are the very definition of intimate and do not pretend to be about anything other than love and romance, and whether there really can be anything magical or sustainable in either.

They contain carefully, deeply drawn characters of the opposite sex who do little but talk. In equal measures.

The depiction of the female character, Celine, is so rare precisely because she is depicted from the interior; we make our own judgements on her character based on the things she says and the way she acts. She is not perceived solely from without, delineated through male eyes.

Both characters are how we perceive them to be, and how we make sense of the way they make sense of the world.

Unsurprisingly the actor and writer Julie Delpy co-wrote the screenplay and contributed largely to the conceptualisation of Celine.

Steve Rose recently wrote in the Guardian about the wave of female actresses who are turning to screenwriting in, as he perceives it, an attempt to create better parts for themselves.

‘Most movie representations of women are male constructs’  writes Rose ‘and not all those males understand the opposite sex as intimately as their own’.

Quite, but although Rose cites a wave of female actor/screenwriters doing it for themselves, he ignores the elephant in the room: the inhospitable and sexist nature of Hollywood for women without connections.

A recent report discovered that contributions like Julie Delpy’s are rare: women accounted for only 14 per cent of writers working on the top 250 films of 2012.

A more recent report by Susan Orozco revealed that women screenwriters’ scripts currently make up a smaller percentage of speculative script sales – scripts written before they are sold – than at any time in the last two decades. Between 2010-12 only 9 per cent of speculative scripts sold were written by women.

And it still seems as if women are more likely to get films made if they are coded as ‘feminine’; that is, independently produced, quirky, quiet, off the beaten track.

It’s no coincidence that Rose’s list of stand-out female screenwriters includes a film about a ‘dizzy New-Yorker struggling with post-college maturity’ and last year’s Celeste and Jesse Forever, a self-consciously cute and quirky story of divorce and acceptance.

Female scriptwriters undoubtedly make for less limiting, more realistic and more progressive depictions of women and womanhood. Yet it feels as if they are still doing this within the confines of what has been designated ‘female space’.

We want more women talking about something other than men, yet we also want woman being and doing more without men.

And we want them doing it loudly.

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