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.