Friday, March 14, 2014

Be the Change

"The world is round, people."
(Yes, I know it was a Woody Allen movie.)
Sometimes in the morning when neither of us has anywhere specific to be, Beefcake and I lie in bed while I read interesting news articles on my phone. This morning, I read an article about a bill in Iraq that would make it legal for men to marry 9-year-old girls and illegal for women to refuse sex with their husbands. Then I read an article about the Pakistani 17-year-old who set herself on fire to protest the release of the leader of the five men who kidnapped and gang raped her. Then I read an article about the new law in Michigan that requires women to purchase special "abortion insurance" if they think they might be raped. Then I read about Terry Richardson. And we all know about Woody Allen by now. And of course, we can't forget about Roman Polanski.

This is about culture.

In each of these cases, someone in power sanctioned this behavior. Celebrities pal around with Terry Richardson all the time. They defend Woody Allen and Roman Polanski. Governments and police forces support laws that keep women suppressed and abused all over the world. And all of that speaks to a culture that subconsciously (or in some cases, consciously) believes that women deserve what they get.

We as artists have the power to instigate change. Making movies isn't like curing cancer. It's not "important work." Or is it?

A recent study showed that the MTV series Teen Mom helps to reduce rates of teenage pregnancy.

There are no statistics to back it up, but many believe that the magnificent David Palmer, the black president on the TV series 24, helped Americans open up to the idea of a black president. It seems likely that Will and Grace made being gay a more acceptable part of our society.

Art begets change. The Jungle changed the way the government handled meat processing in this country. Look what happened to fast food menus after Super Size Me. Black Fish is already having an effect on our perception of animals in captivity.

We can make a difference with what we write. We don't have to, but we can, even if we write the silliest B movie to hit VOD.

When every black person you see on film is a thug, you are more likely to believe that black people are plotting to shoot you. When every gay person you see on film is a sexual predator, of course you believe that the gay community is coming for your children. And when every woman you see in film is a wife/mother/victim, you're far more inclined to believe that we're not capable of anything more.

This is why I write female protagonists so often. I don't write them just because I'm a woman. I write them because I want to SEE women - women I can relate to, women who aren't just running scared or trying to please the male lead.

This is why Frozen and Hunger Games were so successful this year. Girls are starved for female characters who carve their own path. And guess what? Boys watch this stuff too. Yes, boys are capable of enjoying films about girls.

One year when I was a teacher, the Big Read chose The Joy Luck Club as that year's novel. I volunteered to lead the related activities at our school. As the English teachers were meeting to discuss our plans, one of our male teachers protested teaching his students this novel. "I don't think the boys will be interested in reading a book about women," he said.

Before I could even begin my angry response, the teacher beside me handled it much more simply. She said "Why not? Girls have been reading books about boys forever and they don't complain." And in my classroom, I had no such complaints. I taught a room full of first-generation Americans, and even those without immigrant parents could relate to the parent/child relationships raised in the book. There's more to being a woman than having a vagina. We have a lot of the same thoughts and feelings as men do. And sometimes, we have a different take on those thoughts, one worth hearing.

If you're a boy who can't dare to watch a movie about a female protagonist, you're a fucking idiot.

You don't even have to write a female protagonist to have interesting women in your film. Most writers default to male. The only characters who get to be women are the characters who MUST be women. But when you change a character's race or gender or sexual orientation to something other than the default, cool things happen in your story. Your characters suddenly become more interesting.

So do this for me today: find a character you defaulted to male and make that character a woman instead. Most likely, you don't have to change anything else. Don't make her a love interest or somebody's mom or a murder or rape victim. Just make her a person. Give her some good lines to say that have nothing to do with her gender.

If we all do this in every script, imagine the difference we could make together over time. Imagine the fate of the celebrity rapist. Imagine the rape victim who at least knows that these men are buried so far under the prison that they will never touch another girl again. Imagine the woman who doesn't have to carry her rapist's baby to term because she failed to buy "abortion insurance." Imagine the women who will know it's okay to stand up to their abusers. But most importantly, imagine the courage we give to girls all over the world to become the best version of themselves.

It kind of starts with us. People all over the world watch movies. It's the easiest, most subtle way to send out messages, to influence culture. We have that power.

It's not just words, you know. It's a decision that you make every time you write: BE THE GODDAMN CHANGE.


  1. Thank you so much for this post! It is so ridiculous that female protagonists are considered risky. Half of the human beings in the world are women, but only 25% of the characters in films (aprx) are women. There is absolutely no appropriate way to respond to this other than WTF, but so many people make excuses for why this is a smart business decision.

    Ignoring half the market seems like a stupid business decision to me, but I'm not a business person so what do I know?

  2. Hey Emily,
    I too am a writer. I happen to not only be a female writer, but I am also an Indigenous one. Talk about odds stacked against me.
    In light of your brilliant post, wanted to share that recently my little film, a movie about three generations of Aboriginal women (yes that's three Indian chicks in lead roles) just won best original screenplay for the Canadian Screen Awards - Canada's equivalent to the Oscars.
    One writer, one script at a time, we can make a difference.
    The film's called Empire of Dirt if you're curious.
    Keep blogging and getting it out there. You rock!

  3. Thanks, Crystal!

    Shan, that is kick ass. I will definitely check it out.

  4. Emily, can you give me the name of your special blend. 3 blogs in one're on a writing rampage.

    I think writers should consider trying a different point of view just to keep things fresh. If you look at me, you'd probably not expect me to have absolutely adored the movie "Muriel's wedding." How would I relate to Muriel, who was dying to get married....but I was so touched by that movie that I watched it 15 times and probably am responsible for 20 other people watching it---I was like "You've got to see this movie! It's so good." Another muscled guy that is invincible to bullets and a thousand punches..... change that into a girl fighting for survival in Hunger Games--- fresh! Movies like Hunger Games pave the way for other future franchise like this where nervous execs will be willing to gamble on that. That movie Divergent looks pretty interesting to me.

  5. Anonymous11:37 AM

    Hey Emily -- it's sc111 from Done Deal. Brilliant post. Thanks for making me aware of that insurance. These issues run deep in out culture.

    As for Hunger Games -- I know for one little girl who lived in chaos for the first 8 years of her life the HG books and films have made a big difference in the potential she sees in herself.

    As her guardian, I can yap away on these topics in an effort to build her self-empowerment but the Story of Katniss resonates with her far deeper. This is the reason stories are so powerful and can actually stimulate a cultural sea change. Or, conversely, set progress back. Peace out - Susan

    1. Anonymous1:27 PM

      Good post. Being male, I do tend to default to male protagonists. I actually do have an action script that might work even better with a female protagonist.

  6. Fantastic blog post!! I most times write scripts and books with female leads, but even I could do better I think.

  7. Ralph k8:23 PM

    Polanski is a convicted sex offender. Allen was investigated and cleared. Why'd you put them in the same category?

  8. Thanks for the comments. Ralph, if you read all the information about the Allen "investigation," it was highly suspect. I believe the victim. So yes, I put them in the same category. I knew someone would say something about it because many people like yourself believe Allen. I don't really want to argue about it because only two people actually know what happened.

    1. Anonymous8:13 AM

      Umm, Ralph never said nor implied that he personally believed Allen, he was just pointing out a huge and central discrepancy between the two cases. It's a fair question and raising it hardly means he's looking to argue -- and there's no reason to jump to conclusions about his own personal beliefs. It's entirely possible to be agnostic about Allen's guilt or ignorance and still recognize his case is very different from Polanski's. --TWA--

    2. Anonymous8:14 AM

      **whoops, guilt or "innocence." Freudian typo I guess. --TWA--

  9. Anonymous3:49 PM

    Great blog, Emily. I wish I could have been so clear in my arguments - in fact, I think I'll just keep linking to this every time the issue comes up. And it *will* come up, again and again, until real change happens. Beautifully written. Nic Hayes (aka nic.h)

  10. Anonymous5:35 PM

    Wonderful post, thank you, Emily.

    Geena Davis would agree:

    "Step 1: Go through the projects you're already working on and change a bunch of the characters' first names to women's names. With one stroke you've created some colorful unstereotypical female characters that might turn out to be even more interesting now that they've had a gender switch. What if the plumber or pilot or construction foreman is a woman? What if the taxi driver or the scheming politician is a woman? What if both police officers that arrive on the scene are women — and it's not a big deal?

    Step 2: When describing a crowd scene, write in the script, "A crowd gathers, which is half female." That may seem weird, but I promise you, somehow or other on the set that day the crowd will turn out to be 17 percent female otherwise. Maybe first ADs think women don't gather, I don't know.

    And there you have it. You have just quickly and easily boosted the female presence in your project without changing a line of dialogue."


    Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media:

    1. Anonymous12:43 PM

      (Susan/sc111 again, here). Great points by the Davis' institute. The thing is, in real life I see women in all sorts of non-traditional roles. Including those you mentioned.

      One time I had to call a plumber for a repair. Picked one from the phone book because it was a family business not a chain. A woman around 30 shows up, toolbelt and all. Turns out she learned the trade from her dad and took over the business. And if you're visualizing a tough gal/tomboy flip that to a slim, petite, feminine blonde. And she was a damn good, fast plumber, too. I've seen women on road repair crews. I've seem women working for the cable company shimmy up wire poles for installations. I know a woman who's licensed to do real estate home inspections. She climbs on roofs, crawls through attics and basements, to do her job and prepare her reports.

      There are many women taking these "guy" jobs, not out of any great feminist sentiment but because they pay better than working class jobs that women usually do (secretary, cashier, sales person),

      These women exist in real life yet we rarely if ever see them in films. And when we do they're characterized as oddballs.

      My main complaint with Hollywood is its tendency to showcase dated, hackneyed, gender stereotypes that, in real life, are breaking down. It's as if the studios are stuck in the 50s/early 60s to the point that TV programs are far more aware, progressive these days when it used to be the other way around.

  11. Great article. When I was writing my first script I realized that even I (a woman) defaulted to writing male characters so with that story I decided the default for me would become female and only characters who needed to be male for the story would be. And, yeah, it did create some really interesting dynamics and new twists.

  12. Thanks for the excellent comments, everyone. I'm glad to see so much interest in this topic.

  13. Anonymous8:55 AM

    I think I whole-heartedly agree with your overall point, but a lot of your arguments seem pretty off-base and even undercut the point you're trying to make. Roman Polanski was aggressively investigated and prosecuted and was facing real jail time, despite his celebrity. The only reason he didn't serve time is because he fled and has been living as an international fugitive. US authorities have made actual efforts for decades now to extradite him, which show how seriously they take the laws and the charges against him. I don't see who in authority ever sanctioned or permitted his behavior. The claims of an underage victim of sexual assault were taken very seriously, a famous dude got investigated and convicted -- no one looked the other way or gave him a pass because he's a famous director.

    You can disagree with the result of the investigation into Woody Allen, but the investigation was thorough and aggressive and involved thousands of hours of investigation and interviews and interrogations and evidence and was heard on multiple levels by judges trained in such matters who know infinitely more about the law and the evidence than people who've educated themselves by reading a few blog posts. The fact that he wasn't convicted speaks more to the problematic nature of the charges and the evidence than to anyone in authority protecting him or the idea that no one was taking Ronan Farrow's accusations seriously because our society doesn't value girls.

    The differences between the Allen and Polanksi case are significant in almost every respect -- not just their outcomes -- and lumping them together doesn't really make any particular point.

    The question gets very problematic when you talk about representations of women in film, because which director in the modern era has FAR AND AWAY created and directed the most Oscar-nominated female characters? It's not even close. Woody Allen has directed women to something like fifteen or sixteen Oscar nominations, for characters he created from scratch. Is Cate Blanchette just not strong or smart enough to refuse to work with him? Did she get to where she is by being a pushover and not sufficiently feminist?

    Compare Woody Allen's body of work with say, Katherine Bigelow, who has created and directed virtually zero interesting or memorable female characters in a career that has spanned decades (Chastain in ZERO DARK THIRTY is the only exception, in a role written incidentally by a man).

    If representation in the medium is your concern, the question of Bigelow (yay! female director!) and Allen (boo, gross old man!) becomes very problematic when you look at their actual work and the opportunities they create for accomplished actresses looking for challenging roles.

  14. Anonymous (PLEASE leave a name): This isn't just a legal issue. Society continues to excuse this behavior. People instinctively defend Woody Allen because they don't want to believe someone whose work they admire would do such a thing. At least in Allen's case he hasn't been convicted, but plenty of respectable actors still work with Polanski. He's still lauded all over by fans who help him maintain his lifestyle. Remember, I'm talking about culture, a culture that tends to side with the man as the default setting.

    The reason I said I don't want to argue is that the argument itself is pointless and misses the point of the post. I believe the victim and you're not going to change my mind. If you believe everything was fair and Woody Allen is innocent, I'm not going to change your mind. And neither of us is in a position to know for sure, so arguing is not going to get either of us anywhere.

    As far as I know, Katheryn Bigelow has never been accused of sexually assaulting a child, so the comparison you've made is an odd one.

    This is not about female creatives vs male creatives. There is no reason men can't write women. I don't care what gender the writer is - we all need to do more to make our female characters more than just wives/mothers/victims. Although is you're going to bring up ZERO DARK THIRTY, there's a movie with two female characters who did indeed fit that mold of being complicated, rounded women. We definitely need more of that. And hey, yes, it was written by a man. Look at that, men are capable of writing great female characters! I don't believe I ever said otherwise.

    So please do not attempt to put words in my mouth that say this is some "us vs them" debate. It's not. Women and men need to do more in equal measure.

  15. Anonymous12:45 PM

    Great post. Though I cannot directly relate, here's my little comment.

    I'm a male script writer who has written a script with a female protagonist- maybe a MOW. I don't know if it's just me, but the contests I've entered looking for such a character, the the script does well. If I send queries addressed to a specific female, I've received more requests.
    Unfortunately (or maybe sadly), in either case, I can tell who is a male reader because they're much harder on the script than a female reader. Females are much more open to the script and possibly can relate more than a male one.

  16. Anonymous12:45 PM

    I don't particularly care for most of Woody Allen's work. And I always assumed any allegations against him I heard were correct, that he was just some HW big shot getting special treatment. Now I realize that was wrong of me. The justice system only works if it works for everybody, especially those we don't like.

    A side note... most of my protags are women, maybe too many of them actually. Maybe it's just the "guy" in me that feels like he's getting to be around cool "chicks."

    Eddie (not any of the above posters)

  17. Anonymous6:23 AM

    Great post Emily!

    I recently finished a western-adventure with a female character. When I started working on it, there were plenty of naysayers, but I soldiered on because I thought it would be a fun story to tell.

    Reaction to it so far has been overwhelmingly positive, including someone enjoying how it's "a refreshingly new take on an old genre."

    I've always enjoyed writing female characters because I just find them more interesting, and a nice change from male-dominated stories that, more often than not, feel like we've seen them many times before.

  18. Anonymous6:25 AM

    Argh. That should read "female MAIN character".

    Sorry about that.

  19. Anonymous6:47 AM

    Hi, Emily! Nicely written piece here. Having heard and read the words of many in discussions on this topic, I was moved to write a screenplay with a female lead because, like my protagonist's core belief in her story, actions speak louder than words.

  20. Anonymous10:21 AM

    Hi. Like most of the others commenting, I'm a writer. I'm also a woman. If anything I tend to default to female protagonists, and I've been trying to even up the balance a bit. That is, I'm trying to let male protagonists have their say. Not always easy since I'm used to writing tough-as-nails women and somewhat softer men.

    But yes, I do see that women are underrepresented in scripts, or else someone up the line chooses to "correct" the work of the original writer in favor of traditional gender stereotyping. Example: It is never the man who gets caught knitting by a surprise visitor (although that would be hilarious). Seldom if ever are women depicted, say, smoking a cigar, or swaggering about in goofy pajamas. I've seen women who smoke cigars, although it does depend on what part of town you're frequenting.

    On the other hand, you do not have to turn a female protagonist into Charles Bronson with boobs. You do not have to make every male character June Cleaver with certain anatomical differences. It would be amusing if such a script were to make the rounds, but I don't know how easy that would be to sell. Regardless of gender, it's often too easy to reduce someone to the cardboard cutout action badass you might have fantasized about when you were younger and didn't know as much as you do now about writing.

    But supposing the role was gender-neutral and you still wanted to give your protagonist basic skills like cooking and cleaning? That would be interesting in a male character (who is not necessarily gay). Or your character knits like it's going out of style, but burns the toast and has to have a neighbor broil the turkey to impress someone they like--again, this could describe either a man or a woman.

    With all that said, I think you've raised some intriguing points. Thank you for that.


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