Here's a character description I read a lot: "she is twenty-something, slim, pretty" and then there will be an add on at the end like, "but not too-pretty" or "in an unconventional way," as if the writer is trying to excuse themselves, like "I'm not really shallow I promise." And right there you have your typical female protagonist in almost every short film script I read.
I remember 4 years ago talking to a friend of mine, an actress, who was auditioning for a short. She explained the concept to me, which basically involved a prostitute being tricked into going to a house where she was kidnapped and tortured. Sounded like sh*t and to be honest I told her that. She then mentioned to me it was the third audition she'd been to in the last 4 months where the plot was about a group of men torturing a woman. Funnily enough she wasn't the only one who had mentioned the large amounts of torture scripts doing the rounds in the world of no-budget short films and I remember being somewhat disturbed by the trend. This seems to have gone down a bit since they stopped making Saw movies (and trust me, this is nothing against Saw, that franchise is equal opportunities, everyone dies horribly), however last year I began to notice a really large amount of rape for the sake drama shorts. It seemed like all of them were written by men and in a simplistic way, they would deal with an innocent, virginal seeming girl (after all we need to make sure nobody thinks she's asking for it) who is exploited by a cardboard "evil man." More often then not the film simply ended up feeling like an excuse for cheap drama, lots of crying, emotional damage and starring at things in an empty manner. The slight twist on this is the "sl*t-shaming" film, where a woman has had a one-night stand and has to be humiliated or shamed by the end of the film.
Now I'm not saying we as men can't make films about rape or make films about one-night stands gone wrong, one of the key issues I think in the portrayal of women in film is to avoid making them precious and untouchable. A good character is a good character regardless of gender. A negative female character does not automatically make your film misogynistic.
And in fact this brings me to one of my biggest annoyances with the majority of the short films, music videos and scripts I see from my peers. Simply put, men need to stop writing women simply as idealized fantasies that are only there to service the male protagonist. The amount of simplistic "meet-cutes" I see where the lead female is simply there to be adored from a far. Her only attibute is to find the bumbling awkward nonsense of the protagonist incredibly charming when he finally jumps through all the hoops required to suffienciently court her. It just starts to feel insulting after a while and this is the point where I really start to wonder about actresses, what they perceive as their important traits being and what it says about how we as men view their value in the world.
Being in a relationship with an actress starts to make you acutely aware of how much more limited the options are for female parts, especially "good" female parts. Taking aside the fact that far fewer films are lead by a female protagonist, even in supporting roles women are often left to occupy more functional elements. When you think about it, there are very few actresses you would classify as "character actors" in the same way you would with men. And in the end, women are often aged out of the business when middle age sets in. Age gaps between actors and actresses are often absurd with many middle-aged actors often playing across from an actress 15 or 20 years younger then them.
I remember thinking to myself, why is it we gender all the acting awards? We don't do it with any other award and in fact it would probably be seen as sexist in any other category to for example separate male and female directors or editors. It would suggest that Thelma Schoonmaker or Kathryn Bigelow need some kind of special caveat in order to be considered worthy. But whenever I've pointed this out to actresses, they have often been defensive, saying the parts for women just aren't as interesting, so they wouldn't be able to compete with the male performances. Now whether you want to have an argument over whether Natalie Portman could've beaten Colin Firth if they'd both been in the same category is somewhat beside the point, it still remains a bleak outlook for women to have about their own profession.
So here's the reason why I'm going on about this. It's very simple. We as men need to write better female characters. I feel like there's this idea that if we get enough women making films somehow everything is just going to even out. Now leave aside the fact that there is an incredible inbalance in the amount men and women in the film industry, currently women make up about 16% of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers and editors, why is it solely women's responsibility to better represent themselves? Part of encouraging a greater flow of women into the industry is to bring about more female led films and more of an interest in female stories and representations of female characters. We can't think of it as an us and them type scenario.
So if you're a filmmaker or a writer, here's a few interesting questions to ask yourself when your coming up with a project.
1. Why is my character male?
Are you simply making the character male out of identification with that gender? What about the character specifically classifies them as purely male and can that story only be told from a masculine perspective? You'd be surprised how many times you could actually switch the gender to female and still keep the same story. Now I'm not suggesting men and women's life experiences are exactly the same, more often then not, there would be minor tweaks that would need to be made. In point of fact, many of those tweaks bring about a fresher angle on a familiar story. Think of some of the great male parts. What would a female Taxi Driver be like? What would a female One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest be like? What would a female Nightcrawler be like? The point is not to switch all your protagonists to female; it's just simply to suggest thinking in terms of gender rather then automatically making the character male.
2. What is the purpose of the female characters in your script?
Are they purely ornamental? What actual personality traits do they have beyond being "pretty" and possibly speaking with an accent. Take for example the million meet cutes where a man see's a woman and has to work up the courage to speak to her, causing lots of comic embarrassment and a final victory when he finally works up the courage to ask her out. To me romance in films is far more effective when portrayed as two characters reaching a genuine connection. This well-worn meet-cute storyline adheres to old fashioned courting ideals and the male fantasy of women as a prize. My thinking is; why should the woman be interested in the male character? At a certain point, it simply suggests that the female is both not proactive and dumb if she simply submits to the plot point of the protagonist finally being able to speak to her. So what? I mean presumably if she goes on a date with him, they'll have to actually have a conversation at some point. Don't treat the woman simply as a prize; make it about two people equally finding a spark with each other. The man can still be the protagonist; just don't make the woman simply his accomplishment.
3. What's the purpose of the violence?
This is specifically referencing torture or rape for shock value. Question what the need for it is. A friend of mine after reading a script another friend sent him, came back with an interesting comment. The script was a very well worn and ham-fisted attempt to make a worthy film using rape as a simplistic dramatic device. My friend pointed out, if the guy was really interested in exploring the trauma or rape, why not go down a totally different route and explore it with men. And in point of fact, as a male writer/director, he was much more likely to be able to identify directly with a male rape victim as apposed to a female rape victim. He pointed out that male rape is a very rarely covered subject mater, even though for example men make up 53% of the rape cases in the American military and it's estimated about 70,000 men a year are raped in Prisons in the US. However, depictions of sexual violence towards men are much rarer and that speaks directly to male filmmakers being far too comfortable with portraying sexual violence towards women. So I'll say it again, what it the purpose of the violence in the short?
4. Think about perspective.
Now this is one I'm very much guilty of. I don't want to come across as a prude. I feel there's nothing wrong with portraying sex and even having titillation with in a film. But here's an interesting point. A lot of people have noted that quite a lot of my work will contain scantily clad women and have themes revolving around lust and sex. When people point this out, I would often get defensive, feeling I needed to stick up for myself and make sure people didn't think I was being exploitative. And while I'm inclined to let myself off the hook in my own films (music videos are a slightly different story) I would say that I think like many male filmmakers, I am guilty of the male perspective, (i.e. the "male gaze" for anyone who's read Laura Mulvey). Certainly if you look at my films there's a fair amount of shirtless men and men in sexual scenarios, but perhaps unconsciously the camera tends to favour the women more with in the shooting and editing, interacting with them more and by default sexualising them more. I could also potentially try and let myself off the hook by saying it may also be down to the difference in perspective of how we as a culture view semi-clothed women as a apposed to semi-clothed men. A bare female ass for example draws a very different reaction to a bare male ass. Regardless, I think it's a useful exercise as a filmmaker to keep in mind the idea of the male perspective and to what extent you are sexualising your female character and favouring her as the sexual object within the scene.
So why am I writing this? I have f*ck all power and I'm not going to be changing Hollywood anytime soon. Very simple, I consider myself a feminist and by extension a feminist filmmaker. Now when I say that, I don't mean my films are about women's rights or specifically women's issues, what I mean is I attempt to treat my female characters as equal to my male characters with as much depth and reality as I can. I'm not saying this thinking is a particularly revolutionary concept, I just think in order for us to advance the cause of women in film, we can't just be thinking about making big splashy "women movies" it needs to be about just making more well-rounded female characters. I'm a filmmaker in my 20's, if young filmmakers took this idea on now and became more conscious about what they're doing with their female characters, it means that by the time some of us reach positions of power with in the film industry, we will already be working from a stand point of being able to execute change. I think it's great to encourage as many women to work in the film industry as possible and bring about a true shift to equality. But f*ck if they don't already have enough pressure on them already, we as male filmmakers need to do our part too.