Introducing a New Way to Think About Female Characters in TV and Film

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Chuck Kerr for Variety

TV viewers and moviegoers don’t see character introductions in scripts, but they’re enormously important. These short descriptions — usually just a line or two of text — provide a template for an actor attempting to create a portrait of a vibrant, unique, multidimensional human being.

Well, that’s the theory, anyway. Perusing scripts in his job as a film producer, Ross Putnam often found something else — especially when it came to female characters.

The descriptions contained little other than words like “leggy,” “erotic” and “alluring.” And, of course, there’s the ubiquitous “beautiful.”

Frustrated by the inherent sexism he found, Putnam created the Twitter feed @FemScriptIntros to share those character introductions with a wider audience. Spend some time reading his feed, and it’s hard not to wonder why actresses don’t quit the business en masse.

Consider this entry: “Behind a steamy shower door is the indistinguishable but sexy silhouette of JANE showering.” (Putnam changes each character’s name to Jane to “protect” the identity of the writer.)

“Indistinguishable” is actually the operative word there, in that scattered scribes working solo have managed to come up with descriptions that sound eerily alike. In so many scripts that land on his desk, women are described as “beautiful first and everything else second,” Putnam tells Variety. “If this is how we’re writing these parts, how do we expect it to be any better by the time it’s on the screen?”

The goal of the Twitter feed, which Putnam says got far more attention than he’d ever dreamed it would, was to point out how skewed the entertainment industry is when it comes to viewing female characters.

“It’s a systemic issue,” he says. “It comes from ingrained feelings of how we see women in movies. Women are relegated to the role of object of desire, or the role of someone who’s supposed to motivate action for the male lead. I think we can all agree that doesn’t have to be true, but it’s built into the way we think about women in movies.”

Putnam says he thinks things are slightly better in television, in large part due to a greater number of female creators. But TV’s numbers look good by comparison because the percentages of female writers and directors in film are so very dire. According to the latest data from the Writers Guild of America West, fewer than a third of all TV writers are women, as has been the case for many years. In some categories, representation of women and people of color behind the scenes has not only stalled but gone backward. In film, only 11% of the top 100 films were written by women, and only 7% had female helmers, according to the Center for the Study of Women in TV and Film.

One difference between now and a decade ago is the pervasive influence of social media. FemScriptIntros took off because it is a pithy, swift way to get people to see how pervasive sexist attitudes still are. Putnam says he was amazed by the reaction he got. “I expected to get yelled at,” he says. “I expected some angry phone calls and people saying ‘How dare you?’”

“There are now a slew of Twitter accounts, Tumblr feeds and websites that shed light on script practices and attitudes that used to be invisible to everyone but industry insiders.”
@moryan on Twitter

If there’s a silver lining to be found, it’s in the “overwhelmingly positive” reactions of his peers.

And Putnam’s not alone. There’s been a thriving network of script-advice websites and podcasts for years, but there are now a slew of Twitter accounts, Tumblr feeds and sites that shed light on practices and attitudes that used to be invisible to everyone but industry insiders.

Casting Call Woe does a fine job of sifting through character breakdowns to find the most cringe-inducing ones (“Female character, top is ripped open just before she is killed”; “Young and slutty; she must be comfortable being nude in an audition”; “She is past her prime. Age 23-30”). Another site, Terrible Casting, is doing similarly necessary if depressing work (“A beyond beautiful woman [who] is a buttoned up librarian type until she takes her hair down and is perfection. … No flakes please.”)

Go Into the Story — the screenwriting blog of popular film site the Black List — also chimed in with fine advice recently; the site’s editors and contributors came up with a useful and comprehensive list of films and TV cliches, such as scenes set for no particular reason in strip clubs (a pet peeve of mine).

The most disliked cliches, according to the site’s professional script readers, share some overlap with Putnam’s Twitter feed.

“The girl who’s so-hot-and-doesn’t-even-know-it pops up in at least half of the scripts I’ve ever read,” the Black List community director Kate Hagen wrote on Go Into the Story. As she notes, it’s hardly even necessary to spell that out: “They will always cast attractive actors unless otherwise specified!”

Writing is a lonely business, and it’s easy to lose perspective when working solo. But now more than ever, there are resources writers can consult in a quest to keep their work free of tired cliches, dumb tropes and lazy shortcuts of all kinds.

All of the sites mentioned here have one thing in common: They’re quick reads. It doesn’t take long to absorb their messages about what many writers are doing now and how easily the level of the work could be raised. Even writers on deadline should have the time to look at and think about the kinds of characters actresses are being asked to embody on a daily basis, on endless rounds of auditions that are probably regularly demoralizing.

Of course, it’s not just actresses who need better roles; the culture does, too. It would be beautiful indeed if this conversation resulted in an array of complicated, compelling and unique female characters on screen.

None of them even have to be named Jane.

Debra Birnbaum contributed to this column.

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  1. I like the valuable info you supply on your articles.

    I’ll bookmark your blog and take a look at again here regularly.
    I’m rather sure I’ll learn lots of new stuff proper right here!

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  2. Che Broadnax says:

    Are writers seriously complaining that they need examples of how to introduce a woman without making it about her attractiveness? Aren’t writers supposed to have an imagination? Do you need to be spoon-fed?

    Here’s an example from a script I wrote:
    JESSICA (17) pops the cap of a well-used tube of HOT PINK LIPSTICK, regarding her reflection in the MIRROR. It’s the inexplicable face of a DREAMER living in a world that makes a habit of CRUSHING DREAMS.

    Look, I called her an ingenue in a gritty world, without describing her as pretty or attractive despite this or that. It’s the lead, so there’s a very good chance somebody with conventional beauty is going to be cast, but I’ve given her something besides LOOKS to describe her character.

    How about:

    KIMBERLY (19) stands waiting, arms crossed. She sports black jeans, two sleeveless t-shirts, and a flannel around her waist. She also sports the assured CONFIDENCE OF A HUSTLER, the callouses of a SURVIVOR.

    Again, you get an idea of her PERSONALITY and her PRESENTATION, without talking about her dewy skin or unblemished beauty. I describe her sense of style, which says something about the character’s personal choices. But an actor with any body type or facial structure can play this part. And it shows this character is more than just their looks. Sometimes a character’s physical attributes ARE among the most important character traits. So, yeah, introduce the TROPHY WIFE CLICHE with something about her looks, if you must. But, when the overwhelming majority of female characters are described by their looks — and female characters make up an underwhelming minority of major roles — we can see a clear cultural trend toward, you guessed it, objectifying women.

    I get it, film is a superficial medium, it’s about what we SEE, but still. Can’t a character be SCRAPPY without being SCRAPPY, yet BEAUTIFUL?

    Is there anything about the character besides her looks? Then USE THAT!

    Imagination. We’re writers, we’re supposed to have that and use it.

  3. Emily says:

    While I fully agree with everything said in Maureen Ryan’s article (which mainly focuses on her support of social media campaigns such as Putnam’s @FemScriptIntros, which work to expose the inherent sexism in Hollywood,) Ryan completely misses an opportunity to offer any sort of solution to this problem. While she is correct in arguing that @FemScriptIntros effectively satirizes all that is wrong with how Hollywood writes women, Ryan misses a big teachable moment to instruct screen writers how to fix their introductions. After all, the audience of screenwriters that she is addressing is 76% male, who due to their inherent biology, may not know how to accurately write female characters.
    While looking at character introductions in isolation is instructive, pointing to the problem is futile if there is no solution offered. If anything is to be done to fix the misrepresentation of female characters at its root (which according to Ryan is their character introductions), attackers such as Ryan need to offer simple solutions for screenwriters to follow. All she has to do is look at the comment section of this article, where screenwriters are calling her post “a totally misguided quest” and “all complaints, no solutions.” They are even saying how they “would love to hear/read good solid advice for doing better female character introductions.” Look! The screenwriters that she is attacking are literally crying out for solutions! Ryan – don’t just complain, teach.
    One way to do this is to offer a clear cut formula for screenwriters to follow. For a shining example, look to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Geena Davis offers two simple solutions for screenwriters to help create equality for women on the screen. One way is to add in one simple line whenever they are writing crowd scenes: “half of them are female.” Historically, crowd scenes are only 17% female, so writing this in the script gives a specific direction for the filmmakers to follow, otherwise, it just may go unnoticed. Her second simple solution is to go through the script and change half of the characters to females. It’s a simple, fast way to create complex and interesting female characters. It is solutions such as these that Ryan needs to provide in her piece in order to make her argument more effective. For in adding simple, tangible steps toward a solution, Ryan’s piece would become instructive and helpful instead of yet another rant about the inherent sexism of Hollywood.
    Since Ryan failed to offer any simple solutions like Geena Davis did, I will offer one for all the screenwriters out here, specific to character introductions. When writing a character introduction, make sure that at least of half the description is dedicated to something besides her looks. Yes, it is important to at least describe the “look” of the character to help guide the production team, but there needs to be more. A person is more than their looks, and their introduction should address this. See Ryan? That wasn’t so hard. To all you screenwriters out there, before you send out your script, check over your character introductions to make sure that there is more to them then their looks, and you might just save your script from the garbage bin.
    While I full-heartedly support Ryan’s views and the campaigns that draw attention to the deep-rooted sexism in Hollywood, Ryan missed a big opportunity for a teachable moment. She uses Putnam’s twitter account as verification for her views instead of as a base line to put forth solutions to fix the problem that this twitter account presents. Instead of offering screenwriters a simple solution to create stronger female characters, Ryan only pushes them only farther away by alienating them with an attack. Next time, Ryan should think about her audience and the opportunity for a teachable moment before she publishes.

  4. Paul Rose Jr says:

    I was really hoping for some suggestions or solutions. The title implies as much. Instead, it’s just a rehashing of the Twitter feeds and websites I was already familiar with that point out the problem. I would love to hear/read good solid advice for doing better female character introductions. Thanks.

  5. symbol48 says:

    Maureen,

    I’ve been a longtime follower of your work. Thought you might find this of interest on my site Midnight Oil Studios. In response to a link to this article sent by a member of the desert screenwriting group I started.

    Best,

    John Fraim

  6. Emma Fan says:

    I’m still seething ABC made OUAT, a show with three female leads, about misogynist mens manpain, and turned their lead into a clingy, needy, pathetic mess whose abusive LI became her shadow.

    I mean, how did this happen????

  7. BillUSA says:

    At this point of our advancement in technology, life has been made so much easier for us as compared to people who existed a century ago, that we’re at the point of people having just too much time on their hands.

    I mean, just what does anything mentioned in the article have to do with real life? It’s weird that malcontents in art are now the new censors. What do they really know about anything beyond the realm of entertainment? That Hollywood has its hand in national issues or politics in general should be enough to keep one awake at night.

  8. loco73 says:

    Well just go and read the YouTube comment section for the newly released trailer for “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”…and see the reactions to Felicity Jones…and yet “another woman” having been cast as the lead in “Star Wars” movie…

  9. Not Sexist Male Screenwriter says:

    Just as many male descriptions are of men being wealthy, successful powerful men. Women = sex symbols. Men = success symbols.
    And nobody ever calls screenwriters out on being sexist when they have male characters who are serial killers, drug dealers, mobsters, & scumbags of other sorts, as “man haters”.
    We’re only safe writing ‘nice’ female characters – not too sexy, not negative in any way. And then they complain about all the boring, generic female characters. It’s a no-win situation. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

  10. The Boy That Cried Twitter says:

    It’s never the good intentions of articles like these that piss me off — so much as how people run with the controversy until the importance of the issue gets lost in the media feeding frenzy.

    “Beautiful, with a layer of humanity scraped away” may be bad writing but it’s not sexist. It’s shorthand for what a character looks like and describes the immediate and tangible impression the writer wants you to have as you meet her. An intro is not supposed to be a deeply substantive CV of a character’s life achievements, self-worth or merit. It’s supposed to be a ‘first impression” — a first impression that writers, in the best of screenplays, will often flip on it’s head to dramatic effect. Do you think Legally Blonde was a sexist character? Google the screenplay and see how you feel about her introduction then get back to me for a debate on whether or not intros can be used to judge the merits of a character.

    Here’s Callie Khouri’s intro for Louise in THELMA AND LOUISE:

    LOUISE is a waitress in a coffee shop. She is in her early-
    thirties, but too old to be doing this. She is very pretty
    and meticulously groomed, even at the end of her shift.

    Are we going to call Callie out for describing Louise as physically attractive, even after a long shift when a mere mortal woman’s makeup would have long faded? Are we going to get our panties in a bunch for her calling a 30 year-old waitress ‘too old to be doing this’? I hope not because who we think Louise is when we first meet her and who she turns out to be, is the power of the writing.

    Had Putnam cut and paste the above description into his twitter feed, nobody would have batted an eye or defended it. So let’s give some of these writers the benefit of the doubt here. Granted, some of these excerpts are adolescent and sexist but too many feel like filler so it’s time to stop scraping the bottom of the barrel for twitter-food. The point has been made. Let’s not beat it to death to the point that describing a character as beautiful or attractive gets you putnum-listed.

    • David H. Lawrence XVII says:

      Not to mention that the unspoken goal here is, apparently, to have scripts and the projects made from them be more reflective of real life.

      What a totally misguided quest.

      Viewers are not interested in seeing the bland, boring uninteresting day to day occurrences portrayed on-screen – they respond to and become fans of highly magnified, elevated and shinier versions of what they see around them. Every popular show on television and every successful film has the detritus removed, the action amplified, the lines rewritten, and the characters made more beautiful.

      No, really. Every one of them.

      A better looking actor is more appealing to the audience. Male or female, audience members overwhelmingly prefer that to “normal” looking actors. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

      If you’re going to go after screenwriters for this, please extend this to every novelist that has ever described a female protagonist the same way, and every playwright that creates their female characters that way.

  11. enrgodinez says:

    Lol what a stupid article and completely biased.

  12. s says:

    All this blather about how “poorly” female characters are introduced in scripts (ignoring the fact that the male characters are often described in the same fashion) yet never are there any examples provided for how a writer is now supposed to describe these characters so what good are articles like this? All complaining. No solutions.

  13. Jacques Strappe says:

    Sounds like a lot of screen writers are really prepubescent boys…Bring in racially, gender and sexuality diverse writers and problem most likely solved.

    • enrgodinez says:

      You do realize male characters are often described like this as well? Besides I don’t think you actually read screenplays at all and by the way much less know writers in the industry much less either, Read the screenplay of American Psycho written bu a woman by the way and has many characters descriptions similar about Patrick Bateman.

      • GKN says:

        I agree, and add the fact that scriptwriters have been advised for years that they need to make their scripts “sexy” to get read. If a person’s looks and seductive powers are important to the story (and they usually are), they do need mentioning, no doubt. And though some of these descriptions display unthought-out sexism and immaturity, the key is probably rather how gratuitous they are – or not.

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