Tag Archives: Screenwriting

Writing women right.

Do female characters get a bad deal in the movies? It’s a point that’s been raised quite a lot recently, since Joss Whedon helmed the Avengers movie, and he’s known for producing stories with strong female characters. Well, he is, and he isn’t. Because the problem here isn’t Joss Whedon or which Marvel super heroines he didn’t include, it’s defining what people mean when they say “a strong female character .”

The guru of all things screenwriting, Lucy V Hay of Bang2Write has devoted a lot of time to this very question. Like a lot of contentious issues, it’s often easier to say what a strong female character ISN’T. Lucy’s a great person to talk to about this because she’s articulate, she’s educated (in screenwriting terms as well as general education) and she’s passionate about the subject. For example, many people cite the character of Sarah Conner (from the Terminator films) as a strong female character. Lucy argues that they are mistaking physical strength with strength of character. Taking a male action character (like John Maclane from Die Hard) and recasting him as a woman does not make a strong female character. She makes some more good points about Sarah Conner’s character flaws too. Back to Lucy in a minute.

In “Avengers Assemble!” we have three female characters, essentially. There’s Pepper Potts, who’s only briefly around, but shown in those moments to be a central part of Tony Stark’s life – quite a shift for the egocentric playboy. What does she DO in the film? In the biggest scene she has she demonstrates that she can stand toe to toe with Tony and see him for who he really is, and she overrules him to allow Agent Coulson to make his pitch. Bearing in mind that so often the role of the superhero’s girlfriend is to be captured and scream a lot, she’s doing ok. In the first Iron Man film, Pepper is shown to be exceptionally good at her job, in control of her emotions and able to keep her head in a chaotic situation. She’s not given the option in the same way here, but she’s not just eye candy.

Second, and in the biggest role, we have The Black Widow. This is where the main controversy rages because, duh, she wears a skintight suit for most of the film, she looks real pretty and she doesn’t have superpowers or a tech-stuffed suit of armour. Is she an embarrassment to her sex because of these things? I don’t think so. When we first see her, she’s apparently being interrogated by some bad guys. Tied to a chair, unarmed, in evening dress, and they even know exactly who she is. Then we discover that she believes she’s interrogating THEM, and BAM! She’s out of the chair and the men are incapacitated. What I saw was that she used their preconceptions of her to manoever them into the position she wanted, extracted the information she needed and was physically capable of defending herself and escaping. She didn’t need rescuing, or superpowers to escape, just superior training and confidence.

When she’s sent to retrieve David Banner, she shows common sense and emotion – she’s willing to lie to him about the amount of backup she’s brought, and she demonstrates understandable fear of the damage he could do. There’s no macho bluster, but she’s not screaming and standing on a chair either. She holds her own in the big fight, and when Captain America is handing out the roles each hero will take, he doesn’t tell her to stand at the back and roll bandages. She gets to defend the population, and later elects to go after the big shiny portal thing herself. She has a big decision to make and you can see that it is hard for her, but she makes the right choice, the logical choice at the right time. She shows, IMO, strength of character.

The final female character to look at is Agent Hill. Since she’s in uniform, I viewed her as a female in a military organisation, something with which I have had personal experience. My wife’s experience in the Armed Forces, and that of the other women we have met, says that when you’re in a male-dominated environment where your feminine nature is seen as a disadvantage, you have to be better than the men to be accepted. Better, in this case, in military terms. When Agent Hill is informed that another agent has been turned and is helping Loki escape, she snaps into action, not questioning or hesitating (from my viewing of the film, though other opinions exist) and even fires on the agent in question. She is efficient and calm and maintains focus, even when under attack. Would a male character have respoded the same way? Well, they SHOULD have. Should we expect a female character to act differently in this role because she’s a woman? I don’t think so. Women have fought (and are still fighting) for equality in many areas. A female CEO is not unlikely, and she may run her business in a different manner to her male equivalents, but she is still required to make that company a success. You may change the manner in which you do things because of your gender, but the reults need to be the ones expected of you. In a military organisation that means following orders, reacting quickly and keeping your head. The same goes for male or female.

The main issue might be that action films do not present a good format for showcasing the feminine aspects of a character. In the Resident Evil movies, Alice is strong, persistent and determined. She’s female, but are there aspects to Alice that wouldn’t be demonstrated by a male character? I don’t think so. Steel Magnolias shows a whole group of strong female characters. It shows how women can provide support for one another within a group, how they can share details and emotions that men would traditionally find hard to open up about. In that movie, you could argue that it was the maternal nature of the women that allowed them to care so much for each other, to provide the group love that sustains each character through their individual struggles.

Part of the Joss Whedon mythos is that he put females into roles they weren’t offered before. He’s said many times that Buffy the Vampire Slayer came about from him feeling sorry for the blond cheerleader that was always being dragged into the shadows by the monster and eaten. He said “Wouldn’t it be great if she gets dragged into the shadows and then kicks HIS ass?” The fact that the TV series then made so many connections with regular teenage life – the feeling that you have a secret identity that no one else gets, that you’re struggling with getting to know your own body as it changes, that some people seem to become monsters overnight… Well, that was a bonus. In Firefly, Joss put Zoe in the crew as first mate and enforcer. She’s calm and competant, but military, very much like Agent Hill. She’s not dumb muscle (they have Jayne for that), she’s a sane voice for Mal to confer with, a conscience and a friend. She’s like Spock to Kirk, only with a better outfit.

So leaving out many of the more outre Marvel superheroines was a good move. The Black Widow is not super-powered, she’s human, and she’s flawed, with her dark history to overcome. She’s a real woman, albeit one that’s trained to kill (and you could say that about my wife. As long as you’re a fast runner…) and I think she’s as real a character as you could hope for in a movie about a magic box from Asgard opening a portal to allow in an invading Alien Army.

So, back to Lucy : Here she talks about things that can make a strong female character. I would argue that it’s easier to write a strong female character in a new movie, than try to write a strong female character that also conforms to existing material (like, for example, Wonder Woman.) Nobody fights minute character history changes like comic book nerds. A while back, after watching the original True Grit, I asked Lucy what she thought of the character of Mattie Ross. I had been surprised by the portrayal of the young girl as spirited, determined, and above all unchanged by the end of the film. No one tries to gentrify Mattie, to make her more of a girl. She remains hard-headed and in fact influences the two male characters that accompany her more than she is influenced by them. Lucy replied that it’s only in the last thirty years that female characters have been watered down, so perhaps we should be looking to the noir heroines and antagonists for inspiration?

Who are your favourite screen women, and why? What female characteristics are ignored or overplayed in cinema and tv today?

Other places that cover this topic: http://screencrush.com/reel-women-avengers/

http://riosfan.wordpress.com/2012/05/31/black-widow/   : The blog of the amazing Sarah Rios, who deals with The Black Widow very eloquently, and includes a segment on that conversation with Loki which I meant to talk about and didn’t. D’oh!

All photos pinched shamelessly from around the internet with no accreditation. Sorry. All Avengers pictures are the property of the movie and Marvel, I don’t own them, and certainly do not have a collection of photos of Scarlett Johansen as Black Widow.

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A few questions….

I'm thinking....I'm thinking...Aren't I?

So last Friday I was a little stuck for a post. My friend Belle was in the same position, and she bravely posted a Blogoem (her word!) and I criticized it using my amazing Editor powers. Feeling guilty, I went back later and posted a brief poem of my own. However, in the spirit of solidarity, and because Kristen says I should be blogging more often (Listen to Kristen, folks! She KNOWS!) I’m going to put up a longer poem I wrote as a guest post on the immortal Lucy V Hay‘s blog. Lucy is a Script Reader, writer and Creme Egg eater, and so the poem is based on writing for the screen, rather than the stage or the novel, but a lot of the questions will be familiar to any writer. Ok, enough excuses, here goes:

Does it drive you slightly batty

If the plot is light and scatty

And the characters are all the writer shows?

Or do you find yourself quite dotty

If the characters are spotty

But they race to find the bomb before it blows?

Do you scan the first ten pages,

Making sure the hook engages

Or relax and just see how the story flows?

Do you write till you’ve got plenty?

Do you aim for that one-twenty?

Or just write the thing and see how far it goes?

Is your timeline front to back?

Do you think Quentin T’s a hack?

Have you got Three Act Structure coming out your nose?

Is your “STORY” copy tattered?

Is your “Save the Cat” all battered?

Do you read them til your sunward window glows?*

Where do you get your ideas?

Do you visualise your fears?

Do you take a pair of friends and make them foes?

Do you write in pen or pencil?

Do you use a structure stencil?

Do you have a writing room where no one goes?

Do you write outside your zone?

Do you work your best alone?

Do you exercise to keep you on your toes?

Now you may well find me tasking,

With these questions I keep asking,

But I’ve tried to write myself, oh, Heaven knows…

But I ask ‘em and I question

Ask which secret is the best ‘un?

Because essentially I’m finding any reason to avoid knuckling down and really coming to terms with the story I’m trying to write.

There you have it. No apologies, and if you think it was terrible, fee free to tell me so. But don’t blame Belle. And if you think I can’t make money from my rhyming skill, check out “The Crime done in rhyme” on Lazy Bee Scripts and eat your words!

*With the arrival of dawn. Because you’ve read all night.

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: http://networkedblogs.com/79hge 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.

Bang bang bang of head on desk (originally posted July 6/09)

It’s been weird, all this time with Mrs Dim at home, yet no real time to ourselves. We play tag team sorting the tiny weasels a lot of the time, like this morning where she took Eldest Weasel off to her new Summer Camp and took Middle Weasel along for the ride and a shopping trip afterwards. I had Tiny Weasel at home with me, but she just slobbed in front of the Wii and then a dvd while I piled into the backlog of script reviews I had.

I’ve joined Twitter, amongst other things, since coming to Canada, and have noticed a strange thing. I believe I am friends with famous people. This is, no doubt, the appeal of both Twitter and other social networking things – Felicia Day sends me personal messages when she’s up to something. I get to hear about Penn Jillette’s day. Tv’s James Moran lets me know how things are progressing with his latest projects, and when I comment on his blog, he will often reply to my comments. There’s no other way , in the normal scheme of things, where I could exchange a few words with a writer who’s contributed episodes to Dr Who, Torchwood, Crusoe, Spooks and written the feature film Severance. Occasionally, I remember that he’s not my friend, that if we met on the street, he’d be hard pressed to recognise my name (especially since the Avatar that appears next to my comments post is a small dog…) but most of the time I think of him (and all those other famous types I’m following on Twitter) as people I can chat to. The more I think about this, the less healthy and more stalkery it seems.

Anyway, today the Twitter/Facebook/blog thing has let me down badly. It started with Lucy Vee posting that she hadn’t gotten into the BBC Writer Academy. I used Lucy’s Script reading service when I wrote a TV pilot a while back. Her comments were good, incisive and should have been inspiring. I should have jumped right back into that script, made the changes, redrafted and started submitting. But I didn’t, I pleaded the excuse that we were leaving the country, that the script needed time to sit, that I had other projects. And so, like my other two screenplays, I have completed the first draft, gotten good feedback and abandoned the project.

Next Lucy posted a good piece about what it takes to make it in the writing business. What she said could have been boiled down into “Don’t be like Dim”. Plug away, keep writing, work hard, don’t give up, make your own movies, enter competitions… All true, all right, and yet I don’t do any of that.

Should I? I’d love to be a screen writer. They make a hell of a lot more money than I do with my plays, and as James Moran has shown, if you get tapped by the right people, you can find yourself with more work than time (something I have right now, but not for the same happy reasons). But Lucy’s article made me stop and think about what I’m doing. Do I want to be a screen writer? Do I want to write for TV, and if I do, shouldn’t I get off my butt and do something about it? There’s always reasons not to write, always a day when I can’t get at the computer, or get a minute away from the kids. The blessed time when I have the day time to myself always seems to be just around the corner, and yet I can’t run any faster or make it there any quicker.

Most of my plays get written. I have an idea for the stage, and somehow it dribbles out onto a page somewhere. There are outstanding projects, sure, and I’ve never finished a full-length idea, though I’ve had…ooh..several.  I suppose the difference is having the publisher. If I complete a play, or a sketch or whatever, I send it through my partners at TLC to be checked over, and if they like it, it goes on to Lazy bee and gets published. I finished my first screenplay a decade ago, and people read it, gave me feedback and I started the rewrite…and it went nowhere. I can’t write the stories I want to write and stay within the more rigid rules of screenwriting. Like I found with the Women’s Magazine short story thing, there are rules and boundaries, and if your stories don’t fit them, you won’t get anywhere.

Obviously I’m suffering from an unnecessary dose of self-pity. Must be the hell of living in a beautiful country with an amazing family, cute puppy and crazy house. But it bothers me, so I’m bothering you with it.

You know, maybe the problem is that I haven’t been reading the blogs of any successful playwrights. I’ve read all about screen success and I think that must be what I want. I watched Dr Horrible and was sick with jealousy. I’ve almost finished watching both seasons of The Guild and not only thought how good it was, but how deceptively simple it seems – check out the the photos of filming and you’ll see it’s not all done on webcams and laptop editing packages – this is The Biz, done for the web but with standards so high it makes Channel Five look like a two-bit operation…Hmm, maybe that’s a bad simile. So maybe my note on the family Summer Wish List – Make a movie – will stay unticked this year. I don’t have an idea for a short I can film myself, and I really don’t want to make something that looks too tacky and cheap, not when I’ve seen how well it can be done. Should I resolve to stick with stage writing? Or push the envelope and see what I can acheive outside my comfort zone?