Why screenwriters should stop writing stereotypes and start writing people
By Alyssa Berdie
After the undeniably hilarious and very successful, female-driven 2011 comedy, Bridesmaids, there came an influx of female-led comedies opening in theatres. On the surface this seemed like a win-win for women: more female-driven comedies and the recognition from Hollywood that such films aren’t “just for women,” that they can be popular and successful with a broad audience. However, recent examples such as Tammy (2014), The Other Woman (2014), Sex Tape (2014), Walk of Shame (2014), and Identity Theft (2013) did not perform nearly as well as Bridesmaids. In fact, I can’t think of any mainstream female-driven comedies that did as well as Bridesmaids, and I believe I’ve found the cause.
All of the aforementioned films have incredible female comedic actors like Kristen Wiig, Cameron Diaz, Leslie Mann, and Megan McCarthy, but the glaring difference is that, with the exception of Bridesmaids, all of these movies were written and directed by men. On the surface they seem refreshing and unique with their female leads, but when you really deconstruct the narratives of these women, you find that they are simply sexist stories written by men, that happen to star a woman. The Other Woman and Walk of Shame both center around men and not acting “lady-like.” The characters get revenge on a cheating husband and lose a career opportunity over partying and random sex. Identity Theft and Tammy both star Megan McCarthy and typecast her, once again, as the overweight, unattractive, loose canon. These comedies aren’t helping women in Hollywood in any way. Instead they are continuing to keep female characters in two categories: hot and looking for, trying to keep, or obsessing over a man, or fat, crazy and never the love interest.
These movies are a nice effort from the white, cis-male writers who dominate Hollywood and, of course, get far more opportunities to write blockbuster movies than female writers. For example, both Obvious Child (2014), which was written and directed by a woman, and Frances, Ha (2012), which was co-written by a woman, are female-centric, comedy-dramas that received critical acclaim and film festival awards and nominations. However, they did not receive the same support from major Hollywood studios as the comedies written by men, which received few positive reviews.
The issue here is obvious: Hollywood again proves itself to be a sexist industry (among other shortcomings), by attempting to be more diverse in content while still only giving the creative opportunities and support to men. This is not to say that men should be barred from writing comedies centered on women, in the same that women should not be barred from writing male leads. However, these male writers are not held accountable for the fact that they are writing the same sexist movies about stereotypical female characters and hiding behind the guise of “satire.” Ty Burr of the Boston Globe summarizes The Other Woman perfectly, “’The Other Woman’ is one of those loud, cringe-y female-empowerment comedies that feels like it was made by people who hate women. It’s about a trio of heroines who free themselves from their three-timing man by obsessing about him constantly and plotting revenge with laxatives in his cocktails and Nair in his shampoo. It’s as though [the filmmakers] conspired to come up with a movie specifically designed to flunk the Bechdel Test: 109 minutes in which the women do nothing but talk about a man.” If male filmmakers actually thought deeply about the female characters they’ve created beyond the fact that they are women, in the same way they create personality and backstory for their male characters, they might actually be able to write a non-stereotypical woman. But again, no one in Hollywood is saying that this isn’t okay, so why put in the effort if they’re still making money?
“Writers defend their work in the name of satire, when they just perpetuate racist and sexist ideas.”
I’ve witnessed this in my own screenwriting courses. Syllabus week always means the diversity talk, “stop writing all white, straight, male characters,” is always the main takeaway. The need for a “diversity talk” is always met with eyerolls (and sometimes laughs) by the women and people of color in the classroom followed by countless questions from the predominantly white male students—questions that are sometimes borderline racist or sexist. The following week is the beginning of pitches for our screenplays, and of course, many of these same male writers desperately pitch movie ideas with female leads, making sure to point out any characters of color, LGBTQ characters, or female characters—the screenwriter’s equivalent of “I’m not racist, I have a black friend.” They go on to explain these characters as a female spy who uses her sexuality to achieve her goals, the funny lesbian best friend who exhibits all of the characteristics of a womanizing man, or the professional who sleeps with all of her clients but really just wants a boyfriend. The worst parts of the screenplays are the sections that only further illuminate the fact that these protagonists are still as two-dimensional as they were when they were only supporting characters, male characters calling women cunts, or ditzy main characters exhibiting exaggerated sexist stereotypes. These writers defend their work in the name of “satire,” when these types of comedies actually just perpetuate racist and sexist ideas. My professor, a man, made an excellent comment to my class in response to a particularly problematic set of pages from a male writer claiming exactly what I’ve explained: You can write misogynistic characters, but make sure your actual writing is not misogynistic. Your character and their dialogue can be sexist, since sexist people exist in this world, but the actual narrative, theme and tone of the film shouldn’t contain sexist elements unless you are setting out to write a sexist movie.
I definitely agree with this notion, but at the same time what is really the difference? At the end of the day the same tired and outdated narratives are being produced and reproduced continually. It’s not only frustrating but boring. It’s the same story over and over again; who cares what gender the lead is? I am clearly not alone in my opinion; the reviews for these types of movies speak for themselves. It’s not just me, feminists, or women, but broad audiences of people who are simply over it, with women being shoved into only two categories for comedy. Women and men share a lot of the same experiences in America at least—careers, families, education, hobbies, sports, etc. So speaking technically, any movie with a male protagonist could have a female lead instead. However, the ways women and men actually experience these situations are vastly different because of the oppression of women and societal gender roles in America. This oppression has given women a very different path through everyday situations like relationships and careers, and this difference actually makes these female protagonist much more dynamic. In an ideal world, men and women would have had equal experiences, but this isn’t the world we live in. Yes, you can swap a male protagonist for a female protagonist, like so many of these new female-driven comedies have clearly done, but when you actually take that female protagonist and give her a realistic storyline that addresses the different experiences that women face in our world, then as a male or female writer, you have found the key to writing three-dimensional female characters. And not just female characters who are perfect feminists, but characters who are flawed, growing, changing, and experiencing life, just like all of the male protagonists of every (good) film.
There is a serious disconnect between the “diversity talk,” and what students are writing. They are hearing that they need to be more diverse so they attempt to write female characters and typically fail miserably. All of my screenwriting professors say, “Write what you know.” It’s a pretty simple concept: Writing what you know will typically be your best writing because you’ve experienced it. Simply meaning, it is easier to write about a relationship that ended in infidelity when you’ve experienced it because you know the emotions, what was said, and how people acted and reacted both verbally and physically. Real experiences become the base for many writers to create stories that ultimately end as fiction. What these students are missing from this talk is that being asked to write diversely is not asking them to write outside of what they know. They are being asked to write supporting characters that are three-dimensional—for example, women who have more to talk about than the male characters of the film would suffice. The bad reviews for these female comedies written and directed by men speak for themselves, just as the rave reviews and awards for female comedies written and directed by women do. It has been proven again and again that writing what you know will produce some of your best work (if you’re a good writer, that is). And if you are planning to venture beyond writing what you know, do your research. There is nothing worse than a writer whose only research consists of a mass-produced idea of what it is to be a woman in America.