Specs & The City: Female Characters and… Pretty Much Every Movie Ever

One of the great things about Twitter screenwriters is the unfiltered access we get to people from every level of the movie industry. Keep your ear pressed against the virtual door and you can hear everything – from the indie filmmaker planning their next project, to the underpaid assistant griping about insane workloads, to insightful tips to beginners from screenwriting pros – it’s all there for the taking. But back on August 19th, if you were following @MysteryExec, you got something else altogether, as they went on the warpath against the way screenwriters portray women in their scripts. It was an expletive filled, CAP LOCK fueled diatribe, taking the entire profession to task for both the lazy writing of female characters, and the apathetic attitude towards that writing of so many others in the industry.

To give you a taste, here are just a few of @MysteryExec’s tweets on the topic:

Seriously. Follow @MysteryExec

Seriously. Follow @MysteryExec

I’ve never been known to be overly-politically correct, and this isn’t a new topic by any means, but when someone in a position of authority has the balls to stand up and scream about a topic like this, I take it seriously. So I decided to focus in on one specific aspect – the way that female characters are first introduced in scripts. I sat down and looked through some of my favorite screenplays – sampled across all genres and multiple decades, and from both male and female writers – to see what trends would emerge.

And here’s what I found out. Let’s take a look at…

Female Characters and… Pretty Much Every Movie Ever

Yeah.  This is kinda what he's talking about...

Yeah. This is kinda what he’s talking about…

What follows below are character descriptions from a series of scripts. I tried to select screenplays that had both a male and a female character that played a significant role in the story so that I could compare how the same writer treated the male character versus the female. The results aren’t pretty.

Ready? Here we go.

Kathleen Turner and William Hurt's mustache in BODY HEAT.

Kathleen Turner and William Hurt’s mustache in BODY HEAT.

BODY HEAT (1981): Written by Lawrence Kasdan

Matty
a WOMAN rises. As the band plays on, this extraordinary, beautiful woman, in a simple white dress, moves down the aisle. She moves wonderfully. The dress clings to her body in the heat.
 
Racine
Racine, dressed in undershorts, is standing on the small porch off his apartment on the upper floor of an old house. Racine lights a cigarette and continues to stare off at the fire.

Maybe it’s not shocking that the description of the female lead in an “erotic thriller” (man, do I hate that term) would focus on her sexuality, but it’s still worth noting how little attention is paid to Racine’s physical appearance in comparison.

She's my daughter AND my sister!

She’s my daughter AND my sister!

CHINATOWN (1974): Written by Robert Towne
 
Evelyn Mulwray
When Gittes looks up, he sees the Young Woman, apparently in her late twenties. She’s so stunning that Gittes nearly gasps.

Gittes
He looks cool and brisk in a white linen suit despite the heat. Never taking his eyes off Curly, he lights a cigarette using a lighter with a “nail” on his desk.

Here we have a legitimate classic. What some people point to as the perfect screenplay. And yet, again we have our female lead being described as a sexual object, whereas the description of Gittes focuses on his attitude and personality. The decision to describe Evelyn this way becomes even more disturbing when you put it in context with the rest of the story and the horrors this woman has had to deal with throughout her life.

Bridesmaids

Bridesmaids

BRIDESMAIDS (2011): Written by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo

Annie and Ted (introduced together)
ANNIE WALKER, mid 30’s, is having sweaty sex with TED, handsome, 40.

Lillian
It is Annie and her best friend, LILLIAN, mid 30’s.

Generally viewed as a triumph for proving that women can do R-rated comedies just as well as men, Bridesmaids still defines Annie by her sexuality. Though, to be fair, Ted is defined the same way. In fact, it seems that Wiig and Mumolo just weren’t that interested in characters descriptions, as their intro for Lillian shows.

My main question is, even though she later drops Ted and gains more respect for herself, does introducing the audience to Annie in a completely sexual manner do the character a disservice? Doesn’t it still fall under the larger umbrella of @MysteryExec’s rant?

Indy and Marion, the perfect couple.

Indy and Marion, the perfect couple.

RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981): written by Lawrence Kasdan

Marion
She is MARION RAVENWOOD, twenty-five years old, beautiful, if a bit hard looking.

Indy
At the head of the party is an American, INDIANA JONES. He wears a short leather jacket,a flapped holster, and a brimmed felt hat with a weird
feather stuck in the band.

Another entry from Kasdan (completely coincidental) and, although we’re in a different genre than Body Heat, we see the same penchant for summarizing his female characters solely by their looks. I love the character of Marion Ravenwood for a lot of reasons, and none of them have to do with the fact that she’s “beautiful, if a bit hard looking”

Is it any wonder that "attractive Harvard student" stole Will's heart.

Is it any wonder that “attractive Harvard student” stole Will’s heart.

GOOD WILL HUNTING (1997): Written by Matt Damon and Batman Ben Affleck

Skylar
He spots two ATTRACTIVE YOUNG HARVARD WOMEN sitting at the end of the bar.

Will
Next to him is WILL HUNTING, 20, handsome and confident, a soft-spoken leader.

That’s some Oscar-worthy writing, right! Seriously though, I give Damon and Affleck a little bit of latitude here because they were writing it for themselves to star in, so maybe it’s understandable that Will would be get descriptors like “a soft spoken leader” thrown in there. But Skylar, the motivating factor for Will to finally get serious about turning his life around, doesn’t even get a name. She’s just an attractive young Harvard woman.

She's so cute and perky. Do we really NEED to know what her degree is in?

She’s so cute and perky. Do we really NEED to know what her degree is in?

WHEN HARRY MET SALLY (1989): Written by Nora Ephron

Sally
Driving the car is SALLY ALBRIGHT. She’s 21 years old. She’s very pretty although not necessarily in an obvious way.

Harry
He’s 26 years old, just graduated from law school. Wearing jeans and a sweatshirt.

This one was really interesting to me because Ephron is such a feminist icon in the world of film. But back in the ‘80’s, even she fell into the trap of female characters being solely defined by their level of attractiveness. Remember, Sally had just graduated college as well, but only Harry’s degree is mentioned.

This is the 80's right here. No other documentation needed.

This is the 80’s right here. No other documentation needed.

THE BREAKFAST CLUB (1985): Written by John Hughes

Allison
A strange young girl, Allison Reynolds, is staring out the passenger window at the school. She’s thin and plain-looking. No makeup, no style to her long, straight hair, no attempt to look like anything. A pale, invisible human being. She’s biting her thumbnail.

Claire (Cathy in this version of the script)
She’s a budding beauty. Much too pretty, much too sexy for her age. One-hundred dollar silk blouse, two-hundred dollar skirt, one-hundred dollar shoes. Spoiled and petulant.

Andy
… a big burly man’s man and a handsome, athletic young man, Andy Clarke. He’s wearing frayed, fashionably worn jeans, a surgeon’s top, sloppy old turd shoes without laces. He has a neo-flattop haircut.

I chose to end with The Breakfast Club because, like pretty much every other part of this movie, his character descriptions are spot on, and buck the trend we’ve seen in the other examples. Sure, he describes the physical attributes of the females, but he does the same thing with Andy. And in each case, he doesn’t stop with the physical. Hughes goes on to describe clothing, and in Allison’s case, psychological traits that give us a three-dimensional picture of each teenager.

So what’s the takeaway here? The point of this article isn’t to point fingers, but to point out one symptom of a larger issue. After looking at just a handful of randomly chosen examples, I think it’s obvious that not only is there sexism towards female characters in scripts, but it’s also so ingrained in our culture that a lot of the time it happens without the writer (whether male or female) even realizing it.

So what can you do? Make sure to pay extra attention to your female characters the next time you sit down to write. Go back and read over your scripts. How do you introduce the women in your screenplays? And most importantly, treat all of your characters equally.

Until next time, remember to “BE THE CHANGE,” and keep writing!

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5 thoughts on “Specs & The City: Female Characters and… Pretty Much Every Movie Ever

  1. Tras

    Isn’t the purpose of the introduction to give the reader and casting an idea of the physical look of a character?

    Hinting at personality through description is important, but if the character is a female banker, it’s likely she will look a certain way that is more uniform than say, a wacky woman who might wear green leggings, pink polka-dot shirt with a yellow bow in her hair.

    1. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman

      Another purpose of writing a crafty descriptor is to attract the actor to the role. Often agents receiving scripts for their talent will skim straight to the description of their character. If that description doesn’t jump out at them as an interesting role, they’ve been known to toss the script in the pass pile.

  2. donag

    ARCTURUS and Leona Heraty — You really “GOT IT” right. Congratulations. What you are asking Leona is “Where’s the romance?” There is NO romance, anymore. Just sex is NOT romantic. Perhaps that’s why there seems to be more violence and rape toward women these days.

    And, Brad, it’s time someone brought this adolescent sex and violent viewpoint to the attention of the producing powers-that-be because, emotionally, these folk seem to have never outgrown adolescence. Unfortunately, the current crop of producer women seem to be trying to surpass the men in this genre, just be be ‘relevant.’

    The Brits are taking over in the romance department, especially with their historical screenplays. Why? Because cultural rules at the time made sexual and violent behavior toe the line. The strong conflict there is social and emotional, not brutal. The word, “gentleman” meant something to everyone in those days.

    Comedy is stuck in the same rut. Profanity and explicit sexual language is the norm. Young people haven’t heard the jokes and sketches of Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Red Skelton, Lucille Ball, Phyllis Diller, et. al. compared to those around today who depend solely on ‘blue’ comedy. “Tain’t funny McGee.”

  3. ARCTURUS

    Since we’re on the topic of raging tweets and sexism in movies… Let’s not forget that a fair portion of today’s “original” scripts tend to have the same old-same old, utterly contrived, strictly young-male-moviegoer plots that fall into one of the following categories: (1) Ka-boom! We’re all doomed!; (2)Smash ’em up/blow ’em up (3)Slash ’em up/cut ’em up; (4)”I’m So Important/Strong/Intelligent/In-demand that the CIA/FBI/NRA/White House/Drug Dealers/Terrorists/Interpol/Aliens are all chasing after me!”; (5)Helpless Playboy frat hos being slowly tortured to death by depraved sociopath (not to be confused with the “Slash ’em up” category); (6)Soul-less, mechanical, gratuitous, violent sex (which, not too long ago, use to be called pornography, but lucky for moviegoers, the categories have merged…no pun intended); and, last but not least, (7)Gratuitous violence of any kind, length, duration or depravity. I can’t imagine why moviegoers no longer pay to see movies… And I don’t think the rampantly sexist, one-dimensional female characters in scripts actually tops the list of things that need to change in Hollywood, even though it is close to the top. Dear Kings of Hollywood: You have no clothes on… please… put some clothes on. Sorry, but somebody had to have the cajones to say it…

    1. Leona Heraty

      Thank you, Brad, for this excellent article. It’s very eye-opening, and yes, we ourselves must be the change we wish to see in others, and the world, for positive changes in general, and in screenwriting.

      ARCTURUS, I totally agree with you about the gratuitous sex and violence in many of the movies today. That’s why I love older movies…they’re much less violent, the sex is only implied, and not shown (which is much more erotic), the plots are excellent, and the characters are interesting and make me want to watch these movies over and over again. Thanks for having the courage to say what many of us, myself included, feel about many of the movies that are being released today. However, the good news is that today, there are some excellent movies too, like The King’s Speech and Gosford Park, and many more, that we can all enjoy and learn from as screenwriters.

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