The Press Gallery

K.I. Press on writing • literature • publishing

Tag: screenwriting

Gender Representation in Student Screenplays

In my intro screenwriting class, we do table reads of the students’ short scripts before workshopping them. This year I started to notice that men seemed to be cast more than women.

There’s lot of research out there about unequal representation of gender in a variety of media. The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media is a good starting place–it specializes in research on gender representation in family films. It also has a good list of links to other research, including info on the dearth of female writers and directors.

The Playwrights Guild of Canada’s Equity in Theatre project exists to “remedy existing gender and related inequities in the theatre industry.” In the literary world, Canadian CWILA and U.S. VIDA keep track of whose books are being reviewed and by whom. And here’s an article about research on gender representation in children’s literature.

Many of these groups and research projects either take or are working towards an approach which tracks many varieties of inequity — by gender identity, race, sexual orientation, disability, and more.

So, I decided to see if the funny feeling I was getting in class played out by the numbers. I’d like to emphasize these are quite preliminary, rough numbers, using only the cast lists provided by the authors. “Lead” roles are determined only by the cast list and my gut feeling. I’d like to re-do this someday actually counting lines and perhaps taking other notes on the nature of the roles.

Narrators reading the scene directions were not counted. I counted speaking parts only, with the exception of silent films, where I counted all the parts. My sample size is relatively small, though bigger than many creative writing courses. Fifty-seven scripts were analyzed. I’ve analyzed only for gender.

overallparts

One part was written for a trans man, about 48% parts for women, and 51% parts for men. So far, so good. Men and women both tended to write slightly more parts for their own gender, an effect slightly more pronounced with male authors, but which worked out into roughly equal numbers of parts since the class makeup is over 60% women.

That’s for overall parts. Things look at bit different when we look at leading roles, a difference which is probably the source of the funny feeling I was getting in class:

overallleads

That would be about twice as many male leads as female leads. Here it is broken down by gender of author:

Male authors wrote male leads about three-quarters of the time — which I don’t find surprising. The most interesting number in all of this for me: women authors wrote leading roles for women only 39% of the time.

As an instructor, what can I do about this? Some ideas:

  • keep tracking numbers
  • include issue in curriculum before embarking on script writing  (e.g. readings from the links I posted at the top)
  • source and use more examples in class that feature women in leading roles (I admit I haven’t done this at all, and usually use commonly referenced or easily available examples)

Any other ideas?

 

 

 

 

Sometimes A Light Sabre is Just a Light Sabre

Happy New Year! It must be time for me to post on my blog.

What I Did with My Winter Holidays

First, why do I hardly ever post? It’s not just “time,” because, let’s face it, we make the time for the things that we want to make the time for. I was telling folks in class today, I had “Watch Netflix” on my to-do list over the break, and as a result, I didn’t even, because putting it on a to-do list made it into work. (Hey Matt, the one thing I did watch was In Bruges, though! Thanks for the tip.)

Instead, I played video games and read books. I mostly only play one game. Final Fantasy VII. I played it when it came out in 1997, and I am too old to learn anything new, and I don’t really play games enough to justify buying anything else anyway. Plus, though I do have the original game and console somewhere in my basement, there’s an iPad port, and I always have the ol’ iPad with me.

There was absolutely no good reason for me to spend my precious leisure time playing Final Fantasy. This was just absolutely classic procrastination, with a strong hint of dopamine. I mean, sometimes it seems you are just SO CLOSE to earning a W-Summon in the Battle Arena, but then it takes another five hours for some reason. But to compensate for this phenomenal waste of time while pretending to be a little cartoon dude wielding a sword bigger than he is, I also spent some time reading a Very Serious Book which has itself been influential on storytelling in, among other things, games: Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

The Hero’s Journey

Oh, yes. I have been trying to read this book on and off for years, as I find it a bit of a slog. I’ve made better progress this time around, but I’m still only maybe a third of the way through, and man, I sort of want to punch him, except that he is dead and also may have been a nice man.

You can’t study screenwriting (or novel writing or game writing or comic writing or whatever) without hearing about The Hero’s Journey, ever since Christopher Vogler’s influential book on the subject in 1998. Vogler, who was a story editor at Disney, based his book on Campbell’s theory, applying it to story structure for screenwriting.

Campbell basically says that stories from around the world follow the same patterns, and then elaborates on those patterns. Which I’m willing to go with him on, because saying that you should recognize pattern in storytelling is kind of another way of saying that you should read a lot and learn from what’s successful in what you read (or consume in other media, too, but no matter what medium you want to write for, if you want to write, you need to read).

Vogler acknowledges the problem of the inherent maleness of the “hero” in the narrative journey, and the model he presents is flexible enough that the gendered nature of the journey didn’t seem like a big stumbling block to me when I read him. Not ideal, but it was something you could take and mess about with.

But now I’m reading Campbell, the legendary man himself. I’m paraphrasing here, but he says stuff like the hero needs to get past competing with the father in order to become “master of the world,” but that, if the character in the story is a woman, she has to similarly get past competing with the mother to become “the world that is mastered.” If I’m reading that right, he’s saying that the woman is the prize. People who defend this kind of thing will go all “you’re not meant to take it literally,” but if you’ve been paying attention you should know by now that language and symbols and stories matter and change the way that we see ourselves. (See Rebecca Solnit’s as-usual-excellent recent essay “Men Explain Lolita to Me.” )

The best part of the Campbell book for me, so far, is all the examples of stories from around the world, which he cites at length– the comparative mythology part. But he pulls the whole comparison through the filter of psychoanalysis (the book is from 1949), relying heavily on the traditional family as the be-all and end-all of human existence and leaving no room for anything other than a straight, male, cisgender hero.

Much more can, and has been, said about this, not by me. In Vogler’s nod to the topic alone, he cites a number of feminist takes on the hero’s journey. But my frustration with Campbell so far has just been one of those moments for me, you know, when you go WHAT THE HELL PEOPLE, IF THIS IS WHAT YOU HAVE BEEN CONSCIOUSLY BASING HOLLYWOOD MOVIES ON THEN NO WONDER!!!!!!!!!!!!! DIDN’T YOU NOTICE?????? DON’T YOU CARE????

Sometimes a Light Sabre is Just a Light Sabre

Which naturally brings me to Star Wars. George Lucas famously used Campbell in crafting the original series. A good article in the New Statesman the other day cited Campbell in a less than flattering way while discussing the seeming rise in female heroes lately (Rey, Furiosa, Jessica Jones). Let’s hope this rise is not a blip, because we’ve been here before. Thelma and Louise (1991) was supposed to usher in a whole new era. Did it? And that’s just at the edge of my adult memory – I’m suspecting there were moments like it before.

I’m a Buffy gal from way back. Reading Campbell has given me a new tingle of appreciation for a certain last-season episode in which Buffy gets transported back in time, to a mythic time, to meet the men who created the first Slayer, so they can basically give her a power boost for the final battle against evil. Thing is, it turns out that what they did to create the Slayer, and what they want to do to her again, is kidnap her, chain her to a rock, and force a demon on her to imbue her with demonic essence. Buffy says, no way, old dudes, I’ll find some other way to fight evil, and kicks their asses.

At the end of the series, of course, Buffy figures out how to fight evil by sharing her superpowers with others—she rejects the whole lone hero thing. My point? This mythic structure stuff can totally be messed with in a satisfying way. Buffy’s heroism still follows the pattern – descent to the underworld, fighting both inner and outer demons, encountering shape shifters, guidance from a wise mentor, death and resurrection, using her powers to change the “regular” world, check, check, check, check! Even her sharing of her superpowers fits the “return with the elixir” stage of the journey – the elixir being, in this case, heroism itself, which is the real twist on the structure.

Anyhoo. Enough Buffy talk. A casual glance at current Star Wars fan chatter does reveal some people commenting on how the essence of the Kylo/Rey conflict is potentially very gendered – not just, hey, a female hero! But, hey, a different manner of heroism! I’m not totally getting that yet, since there’s an awful lot of emphasis on daddies and light sabres. There was some interesting sexual subtext in the mind reading scene, though. (I’ll be murdered for likely misquoting, but is the line something like, “You know I can take from you anything I want?”)

It’s Late and I’m Tired Now

I also wanted to talk about Outlander and Game of Thrones. See, now I have something for next time. All part of the plan.

Back full circle: why I don’t much like blogging, and don’t do it often. Clearly, one reason is that I haven’t mastered the form. I’ve now been noodling about this topic for three hours (nearly four hours after a couple quick read-overs) and am at about 1400 words.

Also: I really put off making known my circuitous thoughts, because I feel like there’s no point in saying anything unless I’ve done a cartload of academic research to back up what I am talking about. Or at least, you know, finish the darn book before I shoot my mouth off about it. I’ve just committed all sorts of sins, not only in potentially misquoting Star Wars, but in, say, making sweeping generalizations about psychoanalysis without ever having studied it.

I’m basically reluctant to commit my informal noodlings to publication. I think I just have to get over this, because, heck, at least I’ve written something, and maybe someday with time and motivation aplenty, and after having finally achieved that W-Summon in the Battle Arena, I’ll take up Buffy scholarship and feminist comparative mythology and write an awesome paper.

But not today, and not on a blog.