Monday, June 07, 2010

How to piss off a woman reader

Yesterday I read a screenplay by a new writer that offended me so much I was physically angry when I finished it. Nevermind why I was reading it, I was and I had to finish it. And it made me very very angry.

There was a woman in this script who was severely beaten by several men in a warehouse. She begged and pleaded constantly, and when she got the chance to escape she needed a man's help to get out. She was the only female character in the story. In the end her only escape from her predicament was to get married to her knight in shining armor.

If you enter a contest or submit your work to a studio or a rep, do not assume your reader will be male. You might end up with a woman - you might end up with someone like me. And there is no way in hell someone like me would EVER put through a script that offensive to women.

It's more than just the Bechdel test John August talked about last week, although this particular script definitely failed that test because there was only one female character. But it's also about the personality you give your female characters. I can't tell you how many times I've read a script that describes every female character by her hair color and not much else, or simply says she's hot. Or she has no sense of backstory, or her entire reason for existing is to give the big hero someone to save. This is not okay.

Personally I take just as much time developing my male characters as I do my women. I see them each as individual people who have desires and insecurities and interact with each other in ways that reflect their past experiences. It doesn't matter what sex you are, as a writer you should be able to do this.

Imagine if you read a script where it was all women characters except for the one man in the story, who they all tie to a chair and beat while he whines and prays for them to stop. Think about what kind of reaction you'd have.

Do not assume a man will be the only audience for your script. What happens if the reader is a woman? Look at your script. What does it say about women? How would it make you feel if you were a woman reading this?

I don't need every female character to be a badass with a gun, but every woman has skills, even if her skill is to use sex to get what she wants. When you have a weepy woman who does nothing but wait to be saved by a man, especially when she's the only female character in your story, you have not done your job as a writer.

In this particular screenplay I kept waiting for the woman to take matters into her own hands. I hoped that her story arc was to realize that she wasn't helpless, that she had to fight to defend herself or use whatever skills she has to escape. Instead she just kept on waiting for someone to save her while she took her vicious beatings.

If that was your script, punch yourself in the face right now and never pull that misogynistic shit again.


  1. I think I love you.

  2. Excellent post. I have only one complaint, and that is the inference that this bullshit wouldn't piss off a male reader as well. Unless I'm a complete anomoly when it comes to readers, I'd want to draw and this writer for his misogyny as well.

    Sadly, the scene you describe only rates about a 5 or 6 out of 10 on the misogyny scale when it comes to the level of offense in the stuff I've seen.

  3. Excellent post. I'm right there with yah, helpless female roles tend to be somewhat shallow. And what sort of example is that for an impressionable girl(or even guy) watching it?

    I definitely think of my little sisters when writing female roles. Like, is this a character that could be a hero for my sisters? My sister's are badass already, but everyone finds role models in other people/characters, whether they try to or not.

    Possibly, why I'm a huge whedon fan good/bad/strong/weak his female characters have a role, voice, personality.

    So was this script well written even though it had a huge "steaming pile o' shit" flaw?

  4. My apologies, Bitter. You are correct.

    I feel the love, Lucy. I feel it.

    Peter, the writing was okay. The story itself had a lot gaping holes, so even without the misogyny I'd still have had issues but the writer knew how to string sentences together pretty well.

  5. Not to be argumentative, but I do disagree with you here.

    In the same way that something like Sex in the City may have male characters that are just there to show their abs and be used for sex, sometimes the female character is just there to be a victim.

    And that's okay.

    Now, I can't comment on the script you read because I haven't read it. Maybe I'd agree with you on that specific example.

    But horror movies, and torture porn movies, have a long history of using a stock female character (blond, pretty, big boobs) as a kill character. If done right, we don't need to know her back story.

    It's not sexist in all cases. It's not lazy writing in all cases. And it's not offensive in all cases.

    If I knew my script was great, I wouldn't change it just to make a female reader happy. You write the best script you can, and leave the rest up to the Gods. If you try and mold your script to fit the taste of every possible reader you'll water down your script.

  6. Oh Jack you are wrong on this one.

    I don't care for Sex and the City, but to their credit, not every single male character is eye candy. There are several characters who have whole real personalities.

    And horror movies that have stock female characters whose entire purpose is to be tortured are not great films, particularly if that is the ONLY female in the story.

    If you can't give your characters personality, then yes, my friend, it IS lazy writing. how can making a character better developed be considered "watering down your script"?

    This is not about tailoring your script to fit every reader. This is about acknowledging that over 50% of the population does not boil down to one week bitch who gets beaten over and over.

  7. Leaving aside this particular script for a moment, surely you're not saying that nobody should EVER write a female character like that. You're not, right?

  8. I don't love characters like that generally, but this is about a script where the ONLY female character was written that way. I say if you're going to have a woman like that, you need to balance her with a foil of some kind.

  9. "[...] but this is about a script where the ONLY female character was written that way. I say if you're going to have a woman like that, you need to balance her with a foil of some kind."

    Leaving aside this particular script (and your reactions to it) again, my question would be, Why? I can't stand "helpless" characters (or people) of either gender, but WHY should the sole female character be "balanced?" Maybe the story is about several different male personality types, each of whom interact with the same "helpless" chick over the course of a day (e.g.)?

    I can imagine how a character like that, especially as the sole female in a story, would make a woman such as yourself (or how you portray yourself on this blog) uncomfortable, but you make it sound like anyone who creates a female character as pathetic as that one is a rock-dwelling loser who has no business putting pen to paper.

  10. If you don't get it, you don't get it. I've explained it as best I can. This character was nothing but weepy as she got beaten repeatedly. The story was nothing but an excuse to beat a woman while she cried. I am not okay with that.

  11. I think we're probably on the same page more than you think, but I also think that your reactions are probably due more to the story itself (which sounds pretty "bad" in a number of ways) than with the general idea of the "helpless chick" in film.

  12. For what it's worth, I "get it." When you read a lot of scripts you very quickly pick up on the difference between a scene that victimizes a woman out of necessity for the story and a scene that's just needlessly brutal for its own sake and borne out of the writer's own misogyny.

    The example I always use is the script that had multiple rape scenes... disgusingly violent ones that involved the use of sharp objects to perpetrate the attack. This culminated in a sequence where a woman was strapped down to a table and bisected vertically by a contraption with an axe, which naturally did its business by swinging upwards.

    That's about as explicit I can get without giving up further depraved details that would surely be recognized by the writer. A scene like that leaves the reader physically ill afterwards. It's repugnant and whenver I've been able to exert any influence I've used such writing to dissaude those in power from taking any futher submissions from those individuals.

    I write up the submissions to make sure that every lurid detail is in there, along with the most offensive dialog. I point it out in the review to ensure that even skimming such a coverage report would make clear that this is the product of a sick mind. And I go directly to those who gave me the script and flat out tell them "If at all possible, don't accept anything from this guy again."

    And before I get a host of flames for that, I don't cry foul in a slasher movie when the big-breasted cheerleader gets sliced and diced, or when the next Hannibal Lector kidnaps and toys with his latest victim. Not ever attack on a female character is misogynistic - but you can sure tell when you've read one that is.

  13. I see your point, Steve. Perhaps if the script was flawlessly executed I would not have been so offended.

    Then again, Bitter, I've heard you write about this on your blog before and it's still astounding. Do you think the writers know they do this? Do they think they're making some kind of statement?

  14. "I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability."

    That doesn't mean helpless.

    And who wants to watch a movie where we watch someone WAIT to be rescued? Fuck that.

    Emily do us a favor and send that writer a link to "Sunflower".


  15. Between the Bechdel Test circulating on August's page and others, Kid in the Front Row's recent posts on Women in film, and now this - I must say I am totally heartened by the thoughtful and insightful comments made by men on these posts (females, too, but far less of a surprise.) If there's such an abundance of sensitive male screenwriters lingering about what accounts for the persistence of female stereotypes in film? The powers that be who believe in the status quo?

  16. Even reading Bitter's (may I call you Bitter's?) description of that scene he read made me feel ill. Who. The. Fuck. Writes. That?

    Whilst I would never say never that there won't be occasion that for whatever reason I need an utterly weak character, be they male or female, I would at least feel the need to flesh them out somehow. Torturing a character just because you can doesn't sit well with me. There must be a reason - plotwise - for it. It has to lead *somewhere*.

    Reading this post reminded me of watching Wolf Creek, which, although it was competently, even well, made, nearly made me throw up in the cinema. What that film did to it's female characters was beyond reproach, particularly when they dressed it up with the "based on a true story" bullshit, when the film is structured so that the only witness could not possibly have seen what happens to the women. It was just so much sadistic crap.

    When I do have horrible things happen to characters, I like to make the audience feel for them, so I always try and write them as well I can before the event. In one spec, one of the victims is very loosely defined by her physical appearance (it's crucial to the story in this case) but if/when I direct the movie, bloody hell, I will make the audience feel sad about what's happening to her. And naturally, there is payback, because I'm all about the villain's comeuppance.

    I'm pretty sure I could never write something the way you described this, Emily, and I'm very happy about that. Hell, I've spent the afternoon crying as wrote character's death scenes a couple of times (but maybe that just means I'm a wuss)

  17. Yeah. Sunflower did it right. I didn't like the ending, but the script was terrific.

    And Simon I think if your characters make you cry, you've got great characters.

  18. To answer the question "Who writes this shit," I'd say 50% are assholes who were trying to ride the torture porn wave at the time and were completely unaware of what their writing was revealing about them. The thinking went as far as "Gore is good. Torture is good. Girls are usually the victims so how can I torture them in a shocking way that's never been done?"

    The other half are just sick misgynistic fuckers with serious issues and a potentially violent streak. There's a subtle difference in the way the first catagory of writers handles the scenes as opposed to the second catagory. When you can tell that the writer got an erection just painting this picture for the reader, you know you're dealing with one sick puppy.

    The dead giveaway is how every other instance with a female character is treated and if you're really lucky, you'll see him set one of the "good" male characters loose on one of the woman and find a way to make her look like the bad guy.

    I wouldn't want to "spoil" too much of that script, but I'm talking about, say, a scene where our young hero and heroine are escaping the bad guy and our heroine suddenly finds herself in a state of undress. Our hero gets a look at the heroine's alluring body and can no longer contain his own lust.... He has to have her, even if she doesn't want him. But see... it's her fault because she's just so damn sexy.

    Yes, I've read that exact bullshit. No, I'm not making it up for the purposes of an example, and yes, years later I still shudder thinking about that scene.

  19. Wow. That's seriously fucked up.

  20. You know what's really sad, Emily? Occasionally when I post "examples" on my blog, I'll fudge the details of the script a lot and a couple times I've even invented it out of whole cloth or a composite of several scripts. Every now and then on one of these "total bullshit" examples, I'll get a couple of emails from people hinting that they think I might be referring to their specific script.

    I laugh because I always get those notes on cases where it's impossible that their script is the one I'm referring to. But it's a good lesson in how many people stumble on the same bad writing ideas and use them in exactly the same way.

    What I'm getting at is, I wouldn't be surprised if somewhere down the line I end up with three angry emails from people pissed that I mocked so much of their spec in public. I also won't be surprised if none of them is the actual writer of the original spec.

    And that might be the scariest thing of all to consider.

  21. This is a great article (and comments section!) and I can see why you've won Lucy's heart. She posted a piece on why some of the new wave of "Tough Women" characters don't do it for her - citing Buffy as one example, and she brought up a point that I hadn't considered. In makng your female character tough enough to dal out the ass-kicking, you have to be careful not to make her a man in drag. Bruce Lee in a bra.
    Luckily for me I only write about whiny, ineffectual men struggling with their own inferiority, so I don't have to worry about women in combat...

    Thanks for the great thinking matter.

  22. The back and forth with Steve about what you should and shouldn't do is interesting. There are hundreds of scripts with one named female character where she's not there to be a real character. She's there to serve a purpose -- kidnapped, saved, killed, etc. I imagine that Emily has read dozens of those scripts and probably didn't appreciate them but this one got the passionate reaction. Why? Because I think she hit one of those feared "zipper down" scenes in this script.

    Sometimes you read these scenes where you know the writer is typing with one hand. The rest of the script is flat as Kansas and suddenly you read a scene that's needlessly long and detailed. It reads like wish-fulfillment. And it seems more "real" to the writer than anything else in the piece.

    Years ago I was reading for a festival and I got a script where the writer was obsessed with a real actress. He named his female character after the actress and then midway through the script the female character and the male lead kidnap the real actress and have a ten page long violent threesome.

    It spooked me. It was so much like a how-to manual. I told the festival, they didn't do anything and I ultimately violated my confidentiality agreement with the festival by contacting the actress' rep. They already had the guy's name on file.

  23. I tried commenting yesterday but Blogspot wasn't working. I just wanna say, what a great, excellent post. I agree 100% with you.

    I just wanted to show you this new blog post from a male screenwriter talking about female leads, this made me feel gross and icky:

    What do you think?

  24. oh Archie that is disturbing.

    DIMA, that guy's posted on Bitter's site before. He's all satire.

  25. Alan, in my years of reading, I thought I'd seen it all. I couldn't conceive of a situation that was any more disturbing than those I related above. Today, I sadly stand corrected. That was chilling.

    I salute you for contacting the actress's reps. I'm not sure how many people in your situation would have taken things seriously enough to do that.

  26. HOSTEL 2 probably sent filmmaking, not to mention the human race as a whole, back 200 years.

    I'm no prude (hell, I was there opening night for the re-release of John Waters' Pink Flamingos) but the 'torture-porn' trend baffled me quite a bit. I understand pushing the envelope for the sake of envelope pushing but good lord. I was doubly baffled by the lack of outcry when the stuff was being peddled to the MAINSTREAM marketplace.

    Excellent post Emily. Sadly, I've met other writers (and viewers) who would take no issue with the script you described. To them, what other kind of female character is there?


  27. Why would anyone write an under-developed character in the first place? That's dumb in itself.

    I can't tell you how many scripts I read when I was a script reader where I finished, put it down, and silently thought to myself:

    "This guy must have had some shitty experiences with women."

  28. "Sadly, I've met other writers (and viewers) who would take no issue with the script you described. To them, what other kind of female character is there?"

    Maybe not (god, hopefully not!) to the degree of the script Emily read and scripts others have commented on, but Leigh's question a while back about why the "powers that be" keep greenlighting scripts with "helpless chick" characters makes me think there must be market data or something that supports Jeff's comment, above. Sad and a bit scary (in 2010), if true.

  29. Anonymous8:53 AM

    Hey Emily I was reading Raving Dave Herman Blog and I got a reply for both you since he linked your article to my attention.

    Hey Dave and Emily.

    It's disturbing when writers think they know what its like to direct and produce a specific genre or they know what makes a guy or lady click? Is this a psychology course?


    For the record, I hate so many chick flicks and will not watch it.

    But I will not criticize or prevent your from making chick flicks.

    I just don't watch it. And I respect Chick Flicks. And will buy them as Christmas/birthday presents etc.

    An by the way, I read for contests and sometimes I select daring and guys and chick flicks. And there are contests out there that only like guys films. And there are only cable station that only buy and play guy films.

    Did you see the movie CRASH by Cronenberg. Folks hated it. Such a silly wet dream kind of movie. But the top directors of the world respected it. Including Coppola and Lumet and the director of THE LAST EMPREOR.

    Respect folks. And stop thinking you can tell us (yes, I'm a 17 year old guy in Vegas going to University to study film and screenwriter)what to write or not write. Stop this hiding behind blog crap. It you think you are so good, make a good chick flick and win awards and get box-office gold.
    Stop wasting my time.

    Get used to the real world ladies.

    I know some female screenwriters who are so cool and it does not bother them what guys like or write about. They are cool. The love all kinds of writing.

    Why is it its always the female screenwriters who are upset at guys who write stuffs they like this. Guys write stuff they like. If they like R-rated humore - that is what they will write. If they like hard-core violence, that is what they will write about. So what.

    Some female screenwriters write about feminist lifestyles or bi-sexuality or romance, affairs etc.

    WHY IS DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES, the uncensored edition in Europe a huge hit with with married men and women?

    Why don't you tell Lady Gaga or Tarantino or Guy Ritchie or Rob Zombie or Megan Fox or Lidsay Lohan what you think.

    See how far that gets you. They'll laugh at you, because you don't know how hollywood works.

    Stop wasting our time.

    Get a reality check. Its called hollywoodism. And so far its only for the few of us. Hollywood is an exclusive club and its for folks who are not sensitive and have hard skin.

  30. At 17, God knows, you certainly know all about life, don't you?


    With that attitude, I foresee a long and illustrious career in "hollywoodism." Go git 'em Tiger!

  31. Aw, kid, you are adorable! Good luck learning things.

  32. Ironic that the guy who says "stop hiding behind this blog crap" won't even sign a fake name to his post.

    Folks, these are the people reading your contest submissions. Still seem worth the entry fee?

  33. Dear Anonymous (if that is your real name),

    I hope your comment is actually satire. If it is, well done. If not, good heavens, you have problems with spelling and grammar. I think before you can tell us what to write, you need to learn HOW to write.

    However, I must admit you are entitled to your opinions on this, just as Emily is entitled to hers, and I'm entitled to mine.

    As I am entitled to mine, I shall now put it in my usual, English, upright, polite way:

    You sir, are an asshand, and if we were having this conversation face to face, I would drop a brick into a glove and slap you around the face with it, Warners-style.

    All clear? Wonderful.

  34. Anonymous11:26 AM

    Yes Bitter and all ,If you look at the movie industry.
    Tons of screenwriters made it big between 17 and 25!
    And if you look at the music industry tons of singers/composers made between 17 and 25!
    How old was Cody or Taylor Swiff or PT Anderson, when they made it?
    Some of the best over the top, raunchy screenplays were written by guys in their 20s!
    Writing raunchy scripts is proportional to youth and being calculatedly irresponsible and living the New American Dream with the passion of someone like "Jesse James" and with the style of Robert Rodriguez(who made it at the age of 21, writer and director)...

    And Bitter, why don't you embrace the new trend in screenwriting.
    Guys like Seth Rogen &
    Evan Goldberg who are turning hollywood on its ears!
    Look at the Rap music industry, its full of rich punks and youth. Look at Facebook, its full of attitude driven punks. Look at the video game industry and the Youth Revolution, rebelling and writing in a neo-grammar style - what you want to write. FREEDOM WRITING. And look at the horror genre, HOSTEL 1 AND 11 and SAW 1 AND ALL, made tons of money. Do you know that SAW was written by two punks in their 2OS.

    So why can't we get along and stop getting us upset by not respecting the FUTURE OF THEATRE, CINEMA, SCREENWITING AND MUSIC INDUSTRY.

  35. I think my favorite part of that is the phrase "calculatedly irresponsible."

  36. Jesus M, this shit's still going on here.

    Anonymous, I don't usually do this but you remind me of a young me. I'd have sent this as a private email, but... well.. "anonymous."

    You're close to the right attitude to go far in this business. For all any of these people know maybe you are the next Taylor Swift. But I know you're not.

    How? Because I guarantee that before she broke in Taylor was not wasting her time getting angry about what someone said on a blog and then flamed them for saying she would never make it. She just FUCKING WORKED HARD! She didn't need the validation of a bunch of idiots who'd never sell a song (or script, or whatever.) She'd read shit like that and laugh to herself, grateful that these brain-dead numbskulls were what passed for her competition.

    But you couldn't do that, could you? You read M's post and got all defensive. The comments got you all worked up in a lather until you came in here and shit the bed like a five year-old screaming "Daddy! I do SO know what I'm talking about!"

    You've got "the fear," man. I can smell it. You try this Type-A confidence bullshit but it's all coming from deep insecurity. Deep down, you're scared because maybe one of these guys hit the nail on the head and got a little too close to describing your script. You're scared they're right.

    If you weren't scared, you'd have kept moving along. You'd be thrilled that nobody knows what you know, and celebrate that you and you alone had the inside track.

    But you can't do that because you're not that. Not yet. In a few years, maybe. So think about this, and come back and play with M and her merry bunch when you're ready to be a big boy.

  37. haha, oh man. the music industry...? bawwhahaha. Sorry, too hilarious.. I think there was a mention of Taylor Swift in there too..? Something about respecting mainstream stuff... like... RAPE?! Anon, you sir are a madman.

  38. Anonymous3:49 PM

    Taylor Swift is not a hard worker. She is talented because if you look at her very cool lyrics and cool compositions, you will see she's natually talented. Maybe her DNA is solid and she was born"ed" with special destined talent.

    I do work hard like a dog. I love reading and writing all kinds of cool scripts and watching most HOLLYWOOD movies and I don't insult and dehumanize other writers. Like some do. I might scripts are pretty good. I have proven myself. Let it be. Let me write what I want. And you have NO NO NO right to insult or criticize me. If you do I will insult and criticize you too. I'm OKAY with firm notes and blogs that are cool but some readers and writers and hobbyists are too dictatorial and offensive and stubborn.

    So (:))) : all demographic of writers etc shold respect each other.



  39. Wow.

    My two cents:

    It's Emily's blog, so it IS her business to tell you how she feels about what she reads.

    That's why we're all here and why we're all coming back.

    We can agree or disagree (which we all do on occasion) and have a healthy conversation.

    On the actual subject: people write shit like that because they see shit like that.

    I couldn't help thinking of that scene in an early episode of "24" where Bauer's wife and daughter are lost somewhere in the woods.

    They keep acting dumb and helpless until brave old Jack comes to help them out.

    It's a societal thing and it's not going away anytime soon. I'm a great advocate of teaching kids in school how they're being manipulated by film & TV into believing certain things are 'normal', while they're not.

    But I'm sure you already do this, Emily.

  40. Forgot to mention:

    "Maybe her DNA is solid and she was born"ed" with special destined talent."

    In all honesty, I don't think this discussion is going to give you the insight you need.

    I trust you will learn the hard way...

  41. My sister's are badass already, but everyone finds role models in other people/characters

  42. This is a great article - and some fascinating comments.

    The problem isn't that these scripts are being written, but that people have no awareness of why they're writing them. They are ignorant of how screenplays like this oppress women and they are unaware of their own inner feelings about gender, and their attitudes towards women.

    Therefore, unfortunately; you or I aren't going to change things by writing a blog post. But it's a start. MOST male screenwriters are COMPLETELY unaware of how women are represented/misrepresented/underrepresented in films; and it's going to take a lot of work to bring more awareness to that.

    "But horror movies, and torture porn movies, have a long history of using a stock female character (blond, pretty, big boobs) as a kill character. If done right, we don't need to know her back story.

    It's not sexist in all cases. It's not lazy writing in all cases. And it's not offensive in all cases. "

    First of all, "It's not sexist in all cases." Yes it is, it always is. Just because there's a history of women being used in films to service the wants of us men, just because we've carelessly bombed countries throughout history, just because the Jews have been persecuted throughout history, it doesn't make it okay. Come on, we can do better than that.

    Every time we write a film or watch a film or direct a film, we're making a choice about how we see ourselves, and the world. If I relate to films that show interesting, dynamic men and women, that says something about me. If I think women getting raped and beaten and sliced up on screen is interesting, that says something about me. Or at least how I've been conditioned.

    This is a great blog post but it's limited in that it is like every discussion on gender ever. A woman writes "this is fucked up, let's pay attention, maybe you guys will comprehend this." And us guys say "It's not fucked up, it's just what it is, and you're overrreacting.. it's normal!"

    It IS normal. But THAT is the problem.

  43. One of the reasons why I like visiting your blog so much is because it has become a daily reference I can use in order to learn new nice stuff. It's like a curiosities box that surprises you over and over again.


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