Saturday, February 13, 2016

Rewriting the Male Gaze: How Widespread Is This Problem And Can It Be Fixed?


Hollywood producer Ross Putman is generating some buzz by putting intros of female characters in scripts he is reading on twitter @femscriptintros. The point, it seems, is to highlight another aspect of the “male gaze” in film and television, in effect, men writing for other men about women. Some of the tweets Putman has already put up include (he changes all the character names to Jane to protect the writers’ anonymity):

JANE (30s) -- Beautiful, but pissed.

JANE, late 40’s, naturally attractive, is having a glass of wine on the island of her spectacular kitchen.

As we get closer we see that JANE is an attractive girl, but a little worn out looking at the moment.

Across from him, his wife, JANE. Also 40, still a knockout. The soft candlelight makes her beauty glow.

JANE pours her gorgeous figure into a tight dress, slips into her stiletto-heeled fuck-me shoes, and checks herself in the dresser mirror.

JANE (late 20s) sits hunched over a microscope. She’s attractive, but too much of a professional to care about her appearance.

His wife JANE is making dinner and watching CNN on a small TV. She was model pretty once, but living an actual life has taken its toll.

A gorgeous woman, JANE, 23, is a little tipsy, dancing naked on her big bed, as adorable as she is sexy. *BONUS PTS FOR BEING THE 1ST LINE

I think the issue may be nuanced than it appears. I could see many writers worrying that if they don’t describe their female characters as attractive, a producer will assume she’s not supposed to be, won’t think of a pretty leading actress for the role and it’s the trash bin.

That having been said, as a writer, I want both my male and female characters to read as realistically as possible, so I asked myself, “how guilty am I of Putman’s complaint?” I like to think of myself as pretty even-handed when it comes to gender. My scripts are about 60-40 male protagonists to female protagonists, and my script “Jen-16” which just won the Other Worlds AustinScreenplay Contest, features a female protagonist (although to be fair, it may have been judged exclusively by men, I don’t know). That being said, some introspection is definitely called for.

From reading his account, I infer that Putman’s issue falls broadly into three categories:

1) Always describing women as “pretty” or “attractive” as their first or most important attribute. 

2) Descriptions that purely sexualize the female character (like tipsy bouncing on the bed lady) 

3) The dreaded “attractive, but,” an apparently clichéd way of giving a woman dimension while still making it all about her looks. Pretty, but life has taken its toll, attractive, but not too concerned about her appearance.

I decided to go through my scripts comparing a random sample of both male and female descriptions to see how guilty I am of this particular form of chauvinism. Mostly what I found is that my descriptions of characters tend to be pretty sparse, as I prefer to leave that kind of thing to the casting director. But I also made some other observations. Here are some descriptions from some of my scripts and my notes regarding this issue:

From A Christmas Survival Guide to the Modern Vampire

Into this picture steps VICKI HARDING, late 20s, attractive,
slim, and right now, disheveled, as she stomps into the
bedroom in her pajamas holding a large bowl of cereal.

I’ll give myself a C+ on this one. I lead with “attractive” and it’s sort of an “attractive but” but not really. Also, I don’t think I could be accused of oversexualizing with stomping into the bedroom in PJs with cereal.

Vicki’s sister NICOLE, late 30s, similar in appearance to
Vicki but more put together.

Not the most evocative description but nothing offensive, I think.

Nicole’s husband RICHARD, early 40s, attractive, fit.

For the record, here’s a male character that I describe entirely based on his physical features and I lead with attractive, so some evidence here that I’m an equal opportunity offender.

In front of the store window stands BRENDA, mid 20s,
approachably pretty.

I think “approachably pretty” is well-known shorthand for “she’s not going to overshadow the main character, but she won’t be hard for audiences to look at either.” It probably shouldn’t be.

Vicki looks past Bob to see STEFAN standing the corner.
Stefan is tall, dark and handsome. He lights up a cigarette.
He shoots Vicki a glance and smiles, cool as can be.

I use handsome instead of attractive, but this is a somewhat "sexy" male character intro, I think.

From “TRAP”

On one side of a steel table sits KARL DUNCAN, 55, but in
killer shape, like he could take out someone half his age
if he needed to.

Male character, described in terms of physical fitness, although I frame it as a clear self-serving attribute rather than something that would, for example, help him attract a woman.

LISA BRYANT, 21, lies on the couch, her head propped up
with one arm, reading an Art History textbook.

Points! Not only do I not mention Lisa’s physical attractiveness level, when we meet her she is engaged in a completely non-sexual activity.

From “Jen-16”

Within another glass-walled unit stands ALEX-17, 20, handsome,
fit, he does appear as if he could be a perfect specimen of
humanity. He stares coldly at the men.

Inside the unit is JEN-15. 18, beautiful, fit, she really is
just about the perfect specimen of humanity.

I put these two together intentionally. If viewed on its own, the depiction of Jen could definitely be flagged as being all about how hot she is. But I describe Alex in almost exactly the same way. It’s actually central to the plot that these people be almost perfect. While many of Putman’s tweeted intros may be legitimately sexist, it’s hard to know out of context which ones are gratuitous and which ones aren’t.

BLAKE TRUDEAU, 20s, fit, American, sits in a prison cell.

Think this one would have been flagged if Blake were a woman.

Inside it crouches KATYA-9, 16 years old, slim and feline. She has cat eyes and a perpetual snarl.

Nothing objectionable here, I don’t think, unless you believe that the trope of comparing feline and feminine is in and of itself objectionable.

From “Coldwater”

PIGGY’s name is well earned, as his round face and protruding
belly seem more suited for a farm animal than an SS Sergeant.

BLOOMFIELD, late 20s, has a physique that is the opposite of
Piggy’s. A U.S. Air Force Captain with a confidence that won’t easily be beaten out of him.

Here are two male characters basically introduced according to their physical appearance, although Bloomfield’s intro does give him credit for supreme confidence.

ELSA DANZIG, 30s, quite attractive, powerfully self-confident.

I did the same thing here that I did with Bloomfield! If taken by itself, would Elsa’s description be okay or sexist?

From “Hereditary”

Hereditary, a TV script that I am actually rather proud of, is the most problematic when it comes to Putman’s complaint. I know this, because some of his Twitter intros match some of these intros almost exactly. It’s disheartening, but in the interest of open, honest, conversation, let’s have a look.

JASON CLAY, 27, attractive, confident, stands in the wings as
a nervous NOAH TIBER, late 50s, gray, distinguished, clad in
a five thousand dollar suit, gives him instructions.

On Jason’s other side is MARTIN LOPEZ, 40, shorter and more
rugged than Jason.

I do describe these male characters based on their appearance, leading with the male protagonist being attractive, but there’s nothing sexual here, so it’s not quite the same thing.

Sitting next to each other at a kitchen island, enjoying a
bottle of wine, are STACY MILLS, 27, conservatively
attractive, and her friend DEBBIE FLYNN, 26, blonde, a bit
more relaxed in appearance and demeanor.

Ouch. One of Putman’s tweets looks just like this one. However, while two women drinking a bottle of wine at a kitchen island might not be the best choice because it’s cliché, I don’t know if it’s necessarily sexist. Women do drink wine in kitchens, I think, and there’s nothing wrong with it. Is it okay that I made one conservatively attractive and the other more relaxed as their introductory descriptions? Was it wrong for me to make the more “relaxed” one blonde? It seemed innocent at the time but not as much anymore. Unfortunately, it gets “worse.”

Martin opens the door to his home, a typical suburban duplex,
nowhere near as upscale or roomy as Jason’s home, and seeming
even less so due to the four children racing around the
kitchen as Martin’s wife, VERONICA, 37, pretty but tired,
attempts to cook dinner.

The computer belongs to one SPECIAL AGENT ALYSSA BRATTON, 30,
attractive, but clearly not too concerned about her looks,
with hair unkempt and a bare minimum of makeup.

Aaah! Two clear examples of “attractive, but!” I have an instinctive sense that this is wrong, but I’m not sure exactly why. Is it the implication that women should make every effort to make themselves pretty even if they’re tired, or job-focused, or whatever? Is it that I mentioned pulchritude at all when the point is that she’s an overworked mom or a hard working FBI Agent? It's probably both. It it more than this?

Walking behind Drew in a string bikini is MARY TOWER, 30, but
looks 40. Still pretty enough to get away with having breasts
that aren’t quite as big as they should be for this job.

I hit the trifecta on this one. I lead with her physical appearance, she’s sexualized, and there’s an “attractive, but.” I’m sure this one could easily make Putman’s list. However, it’s my only stripper, and her being one is not gratuitous, it’s a part of the plot. Also, I kind of feel like I can get away with some of these descriptions because I know these characters get fleshed out as complete human beings later in the script (or the series), but maybe that's a cop-out.

The point I’m trying to make is that while I know I can do better, I don’t think this kind of thing boils down purely to male chauvinism or a desire to objectify women. Like women, male screenwriters have the expectations of society (and Hollywood) to deal with. Also, as hard as good male writers try to view things as women would, or, more accurately, as anyone should regardless of gender, we are still men, and while hopefully we have women helping us out, a mistake from time to time is inevitable. I’m afraid Putman may paint male writers with too broad a brush, and I’m hoping that his observations, and others like them, are engineered to educate, rather than to shame.

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