Sexism by design

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I try to write an even mix of male and female characters. I know the Bechdel test is a throwaway gag and just a talking point, not a serious yardstick … but I like to pass it if I can. But sometimes, it just doesn’t happen. Sometimes the design of the story conspires against me and the characters have to be specific genders. Sometimes, it means only having one major female character by default.

For example, a script I’ve been working on recently came out this way. I tried to even the genders out a bit … but just couldn’t, not with the story I was supposed to be writing. Basically, it’s a fantasy feature based on a pre-existing male character.

The protagonist has been male for hundreds of years. There is no female equivalent of him. This story tells of his origins, how he came to be him. Starting him off as a woman and having him change into a man would be odd. Similarly, replacing him with a woman or explaining he was always a woman and people got the legend wrong … it’s not a bad idea for a film, but it’s not the film the producer wanted.

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I should probably point out here, the producer is a woman.

The protagonist is a man. There’s no way around that.

Next up is his love interest – she’s a woman. She could be a man, I guess; but given who this story is about, then the controversy that would cause would overshadow everything else about this story for no good reason and would actually be depriving the story of the only female character. Just to be “shocking”.

There are two villains. The main, behind the scenes controlling one and the one who does all the physical fighting.

For this is an action-adventure yarn.

Think of them as Star Wars’ Emperor and Darth Vader.

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The Emperor character could be a woman. Easily. The character is a legendary figure also, but there are male and female versions of this anthropomorphic personification in myth. So yeah, she can be a she.

Except, there have been three very popular films out recently with the female version of this character. Oh, and a fourth one just came out recently. The female version has been done, a lot. So much, in fact, that it’s becoming hard to find a new angle on that character.

The male version, to the best of my knowledge has never been done on screen before.

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Add to that the fact the Vader-villain is also over-done in recent years and I felt I was facing a problem. I think I can get away with my version of the Vader-character because my version is different to everyone else’s. I don’t believe I can get away with two seen-it-before characters … so the Emperor-villain becomes a man.

The Vader-villain I could create a female version of. It would be fresh and new and more interesting … but … and this is probably just as sexist as making him a him … the Vader-villain has to be physically beaten up by the male protagonist and people tend to balk at boy-on-girl violence.

I sort of understand that, but I also find it a bit weird.

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Boy-on-boy violence – that’s fine. Who doesn’t want to see guys kicking the crap out of each other? In an action setting, that is.

Girl-on-girl violence – yep, that’s fine. In almost all cases.

Girl-on-boy? – That’s a weird one – it often manifests itself as a slap in an otherwise non-violent movie. During a domestic argument, it’s apparently perfectly acceptable for a woman to strike a man. He probably deserves it.

But if it’s boy-on-girl? If the man slaps the woman in the same situation … no one is comfortable with that unless there’s extreme provocation. And possibly not even then.

Lois punched

I guess it’s all about generalities. Generally, men are physically stronger than women. Generally. Not always. Generally it’s hard for the weaker to bully the stronger. Generally. Still not always. So maybe a strong person hitting a weaker person looks like bullying, no matter the gender?

For whatever reason, whenever I’ve been completely equal-opportunities with violence in a script, the producers get upset about it. Unless it’s a female-protagonist martial arts film, in which case it’s absolutely fine.

Male protagonist hitting female antagonist?

Makes people nervous and no one wants to spend money nervously.

Sledge Hammer! It's fucking Sledge Hammer! On a T-Shirt! I fucking love Sledge Hammer, I does!

I’m not saying this is the right attitude to have, just observing it exists.

So the Vader-villain had to be male too.

Who’s left?

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The protagonist has two mentors – a physical one and a mental one. The physical one was the producer’s idea and she wanted him to be male. I didn’t get a choice on that one. Plus, as part of the story, our male protagonist gets mistaken for his mentor … so kind of had to be male. Not really, but I was tying myself up in knots trying to make it work when it was explicitly against the producer’s wishes.

Just pointless.

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The other mentor, the mental one … I can’t think of any story reason why he had to be a man; but there is a personal one. I wanted a specific actor for the role. I’ve had him in mind for years, but never found a space for him in anything I’ve written. I really, really wanted to write this role for him.

Yes, it’s selfish and probably sexist … but … well, there we go.

And that’s how it happened.

Some of the minor characters are women. Some (because it’s a fantasy) are gender neutral. But overall, the majority of the cast are men because that’s (kind of) what the story demanded.

Does that make me happy?

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No.

I have a daughter who I want to write positive role models for. I want her to have the kind of heroes in her life that I had growing up. I want them to be women who aren’t scantily dressed and who don’t use their sexuality to get them out of tricky situations. Well, not all of them all the time anyway. I also feel there’s nothing wrong with a bit of scantiness and sexual wiles now and then, so long as it’s appropriate to the story and not all the women all of the time.

And the ultimate truth is I work on a lot of scripts. This isn’t the only script I’m going to write and it may never get made. Overall, I try to write as many roles for women as I do for men. That doesn’t mean every film has to be exactly fifty-fifty.

At least, I don’t think it does?

Does it?

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Categories: Industry Musings, My Way, Random Witterings | 5 Comments

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5 thoughts on “Sexism by design

  1. I think the major issue here is that you’re producing a piece of work for someone else. If this was you on your island, lazily dreaming up the perfect script to pitch to A.N. Other Producer, then you could ask yourself these questions. You could do the story of Sharon the Perfect Lady and her adventures with friends of either gender. But you’ve already said this producer lady has laid down several requirements. Your job as writer is to turn in the best version of the story you’re being asked for, not to knock down years of gender stereotyping.
    I say this as the father of three girls – I’d love them to grow up in a world where female characters on screen aren’t seen as eye-candy or “token action heroine”. I’m trying to write a romance novel this month, just to prove to myself that I can write what I want to write, not just what turns up in my head. I’m in charge of my imagination! With that settled, then maybe I can decide to write something that features a female protag who’s worth reading about, who’s not just in search of a sparkly boyfriend, or a millionaire to fulfil her BDSM fantasies….
    You’ve considered the options within the brief you’ve been given, and it sounds like you’re doing a thorough job with what you’ve got. My hat is off to you.

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