Sexism – Opening the can of worms

Some time ago, I was asked to be in a magazine article about men taking on the role of Mum (Mom, to you North Americans). Because Mrs Dim had a proper job, no, a CAREER, and I was just playing at being a writer, I was labelled a Househusband and asked my opinions on all sorts of things. Oh, and they wanted some photographs: Would I mind just putting on this apron and holding a duster…?

The picture was really nice. It was of Eldest Weasel sitting next to me at the piano, neither of us in an apron. I heard the photographer sulked for three whole days, but really, I wasn’t going to put up with that. So I have strong views on sexism and equality.

Obviously, not the picture I was talking about....

I used to get irked, as a neophyte writer, when I saw competitions that were restricted to female writers, like the Orange Prize for fiction. There are none, that I know of, that are restricted to men. The reason for this is the perception that men dominate the writing industry, and they don’t need any help to succeed. Since I found my niche writing plays, got published and began to earn some money, my bitterness has faded somewhat (In the early days I even considered entering competitions disguised as Damina, my most common typing error, but it hasn’t happened…yet.) But this week my good friend and Star Script Reader Lucy V Hay posted notice of a women only Screenwriting competition: and I dropped a snide little note on her Facebook page, demanding the end to sexist writing competitions. That’s lead to a fairly long string of comment and counter-comment and I wondered if the blogosphere has anything to add. Here’s how it breaks down:

  • There is no doubt that men are the majority in screenwriting success. More films written by men get made, more succeed at the box office, and women screenwriters seem limited to cuddly rom coms like Norah Ephron writes (Which aren’t bad in themselves: I’m a big fan of “Sleepless in Seattle” and am irrationally attached to ‘Music and Lyrics”, but this is not the be-all and end-all of female writing.)


  • Faced with a dearth of decent scripts by female writers, the incomparable Zahra has asked for women to submit scripts. Only women. Plot lead, not character lead. This is not going to be “Eat, Pray, Love” on a shoestring, folks.


  • Lucy encourages her friends on Facebook to stretch themselves and come up with something suitable. If your window onto the world of screenwriting was Lucy’s Facebook page, you’d believe that it’s a fifty-fifty split between men and women. Lucy herself is no slouch behind the keyboard, having written and produced “Slash” which is NOT a Romcom.


  • I point out that excluding men just because they’re men is sexist.


  • Lucy asks if it would be considered racist to hold a competition for black screenwriters (who are also under-represented). I have to say “yes.” Isn’t it? Excluding white writers because they’re white isn’t “better” than excluding black writers. You’re discriminating on grounds of skin colour, and that’s racism.

The problem comes when you say “Ok, we won’t use positive discrimination, smartarse, so how ARE we going to get more women screenwriters?” I don’t know the answer to that one. I’m tempted to say “It doesn’t matter”, partly because I know that’ll wind people up, but also partly because I think then you get the really passionate ones rising to the top DESPITE the prejudice. Yes, they have to be 100% BETTER than the male opposition, but that leads to better films and the men having to raise their game. In an industry accused of dumbing down and looking for the lowest common denominator (Michael Bay, I’m looking at YOU), I’m all for raising the bar. Kathryn Bigelow made ‘The Hurt Locker” and that was pretty good. A lot of people started saying “Hey women can direct, can’t they? Why aren’t there more women Directors?” I don’t think anyone held the door open for Kathryn, she didn’t make “The Hurt Locker” (Or her previous films, let’s not forget those) on a “Give her a leg up, she’s only a woman” programme. Oh boy, I’m going to be in SOOOO much trouble for that one.

I’m a regular reader of Scriptshadow where I learn a lot about writing scripts and reading them, and one of the things I have learned from there is that GOOD scripts are hard to find, even from established writers. It shouldn’t matter the sex, height, hair colour or favourite muppet of any writer, as long as their scripts are good. I can’t believe that the first thing readers in studios check is the gender of the writer. What’s more likely the problem (and this is something that Zahra mentions) is that the execswho greenlight the various projects are looking at returns and betting on a particular demographic, which determines which types of movies get made, and those are, for whatever reason, not the ones usually written by women.

These days we’re told a lot that the internet is a great leveller. It can raise public awareness and the wrath of the many against what used to be impregnable corporations. It allows the little guy to produce his own web series and distribute it, bypassing the big studios and riding the word of mouth wave to financial success (or at least, infamy). Can the internet beat the masculo-centric viewpoint of the movie studios, or are they right in their assessment of the movie markets? Sure, I like films where things blow up, but I haven’t been to see ‘The Expendables” yet, and I won’t go until I’ve seen ‘Toy Story 3″. Probably not even then. The two screenplays I’ve written that I’m happiest with are character pieces where nothing blows up. I grew up with “Star Wars” and have a deep abiding passion for Sci-Fi but I have NEVER written anything with spaceships in. In eighty-odd plays, only three could be considered to have any Sci-Fi connection. One is a Star Trek spoof sketch (“Strange New Worlds”). One is a time-travel comedy (“Fight the future”) , and the other is a deep thought play about a 1950’s “Flash Gordon”-style film cast, stuck when their leading man is injured in a car wreck (“Waiting for Twist Stiffly”). I don’t believe I write like a man, or like a woman, or like a small, furry creature from Alpha Centuri. I write like me, and if I entered a competition for screenwriting, I’d enter it as me, not as a man.

I believe that good female writers should have as much success as good male writers. If women only screenwriting competitions will get us there, then ok, I’ll back off and cheer ’em on. But if you have a better idea, I’d love to hear about it.

5 responses to “Sexism – Opening the can of worms

  1. Not only you, Damian – I’d love to hear how to make screenwriting (and indeed SO many other professions) a more equal playing field on both sides without positive discrimination; after all men are under-represented in primary schools for example and sometimes you will see job descriptions with stuff like “we particularly welcome applications from male teachers at this level”.

    Positive discrimination is not a perfect answer. But at least it’s an answer – in terms of recognising it shouldn’t only be one group dominating. It’s harsh on the individuals involved – I’m getting on a bit now, so can’t access the “young” contests anymore, that smarts – but like you say, what else is there in redressing the balance?

  2. Hey D

    I pretty much agree with what you have said above – and as I said on the FB thread, I’m not a fan of positive discrimination myself and I was around in the bad old days (I’m a weensy bit older than Lucy) when it was deemed ok for ITV to turn me down for a runner’s job because they wanted a bloke! I worked backstage in the theatre where it is (as you’ll know) HARD graft and I’m not big – but I soon learned that my lack of size meant nothing and I had to keep up and keep my mouth shut (bet you can’t guess which I found more difficult)… c’est la vie.

    The thing with what you have rather overstated as a screenwriting competition is more of a gauntlet to women writers to actually write better parts for female characters… I said plot driven rather than character driven cause I am still a tomboy and microbudget because that is where my experience lies. I wrote the blog and as an afterthought – added an incentive… send it to me and if I like it I’ll option it. Really just to get people to pull their fingers out their arses and get them writing. I do really hope there is at least one that tickles my fancy though – because I do need more stuff on my slate, and I already have cunning marketing plans brewing…

    Good luck with what you do – but know we are fighting the same fight and on the same side (i think!)

    • Thanks Zahra – and sorry for making you sound like you’re running the next Red Planet Prize! I once did the admin for a Worldwide Short Story competition, so I don’t envy you the reading you’ve got ahead of you. Hope there’s plenty of gold in the river.

  3. Hey there,

    You visited my blog earlier today, and I wanted to respond on your blog, increasing the chance that you would get it.

    When I first started reading your comments, I thought you were going to focus on the main flaw of my post — which is that not all men are like the ones I focused my post about. I kept thinking of my husband and all the wonderful men and fathers I know that don’t rape, pillage, or destroy the female sex.

    What you disagreed with was my point that no one was doing anything, and yes, you are correct. Even as I was writing that line, I was thinking that it rang untrue because prior to writing it, I found some extraordinary sites of organizations that try to create awareness of this issue. My issue is that as many as there are out there, crying out for these abused girls, they don’t seem to have much power. At least not enough to end it. I am inundated with these violent images, and the numbers just keep increasing since it’s a world-wide concern. But anyway, thanks for commenting and bringing it to my attention.

    That said, I loved you latest post. I think it’s wonderful that you live a life with gender reversals – it’s a great example for the kids.

    As to writing, I wish more women out there were writing grainy scripts, books, and non-fiction centered on something other than “Romance.” Continue to fight the same fight in reverse sexism – although I am on the opposite team, I agree with you and believe that women should be achieving on their own merit and not because they are “women” — it makes us appear as if we are taking a hand out, as opposed to doing it on our own.


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