(Part II) A Call of Duty: Why the World Needs More Women Screenwriters and What to Do about It
What is rather surprising is the realization that although there are some local differences the percentage of women writers and women directors of narrative features is about the same everywhere in the Western world. Consider these figures in connection with the percentage of films with women as protagonists, which is a mere 16 percent: obviously, there is a correlation here that cannot be ignored.
A writer’s gender matters. There’s no way it could not. It influences how you see the world and how the world sees you. It allows for different experiences, and as a result, it makes you interested in different topics and stories. It is part of what shapes your worldview, your perspective on life, your sense of reality, your imagination. But how does the fact that we as an audience are being told stories coming from the worldview of a certain limited population group influence our own sense of reality and worldview? And how does that sense of reality turn us into an audience that wants more of what it is used to getting?
When more than nine-tenths of movies are made from the white male perspective, it does not only reinforce that perspective. It also reinforces the invisibility of the other perspectives, and the invisibility of women and/or any minorities.
An unbreakable cycle begins – for the sake of argument I will call that cycle ‘replication of the male perspective’:
- An audience that is being told stories coming from the imagination of a certain limited population group is understandably more and more familiar with that population group’s sense of reality, considers it the only one, adopts is as its own.
- That audience wants more of what it is used to getting. New films and shows are conceived and described largely in terms of others that have proven successful in the past.
- As a result of the replication, a certain kind of film or show or certain characteristics will be repeated again and again, while a certain kind of storytelling is formed, established, evolving further (while others are not.)
- In an industry defined by demand, and in order to produce what the audience wants more of, it is clear that the best writers for the job will be emerging, endlessly, from the limited population group that is best in producing that perspective.
- Writers from other population groups will understandably make an effort to reproduce the perspective of the established population group – since that is what the audience and the market wants.
A lot has been written about perception. Critics have noticed, for instance, that female stories get diminished by the media, and male stories get celebrated. And that there’s a tiny aperture for women’s stories – and a presumption that men won’t watch them. It seems that critics, including female critics, almost like the male shows more – or they somehow find them more discussable. (Lena Dunham’s Girls has been discussed a lot, but more as a cultural phenomenon than as a show in its own right. In fact it spawned an intense and frenzied debate about feminism and gender politics.)
Shows written by (mostly) men in the last ten to fifteen years, shows like The Sopranos or The Wire or Breaking Bad have broken ground in terms of narrative technique, and they have reached a degree of perfection that is rare and to be cherished. But what are we missing out? Wouldn’t it be exciting to be able to see more from other perspectives, and how they would evolve if their writers would also be able to produce and experiment in the same continuous manner?
In the words of playwright Theresa Rebeck (from a talk she gave in 2010, reprinted in Women & Hollywood ‘It’s time to hear both sides, to hear all voices, to build a culture where stories are told by both men and women. That is the way the planet is going to survive, and it’s the way we are going to survive.’
So, how can we build that culture? Where do we start? I will list a few options to start with, and I’m inviting you to suggest more:
- Create funds and tax incentives for films and TV programs written by women. Legislation to give tax credits to female writers (like the one the WGAE is currently fighting for in Albany) and/or the creation of funds for the financing of films and television programs (see, for instance, Gamechanger Films) created by women are two necessary steps on the way to greater diversity.
- Establish quotas in production and distribution. The most discussed example is currently Sweden, where the National Film Agreement’s equality directive demands funding be divided equally between women and men (in the key positions of director, screenwriter, and producer) on projects funded by the country’s Film Institute. Similar quotas could be established for film festivals and TV channels (a controversial practice that has kept European cinema as well as national cinema in Europe alive for decades on end.)
- Consume and spread the word about cultural products produced by women. The biggest challenge today is distribution. With or without quotas or funding, making a film is easier than ever before. Making a conscious decision to look out and support films and TV programs made by women, as well as discuss and review them, will increasingly outweigh the systemic disadvantage.
- If you have the power, walk the walk. One has to consider who is making the hiring decisions and what they are responding to when they read a writer’s work. We all respond to work that feels familiar to us. Comfortable. There’s a shared aesthetic, a shared sense of humor. If you have the power, get out of your comfort zone. Hire more women.
- Support income equality. Money gives one the freedom to take the jobs you want to take, to make the films and shows you want to make. That freedom is important if we want to see more from the female perspective. There is no reason on earth why women should be paid less than men. Do not pay them less than men.
- Start repeating the right mantras. In a recent interview, Orange Is the New Black showrunner Jenji Kohan describes how gender inequality has been a thorn in her side since she was a young girl. And how her mother told her that men are “funnier” and “better at this.” Generations of women are being raised with the wrong mantras. It is time to replace these mantras. Women are funny. Women are good at this. Women rock.
- Change the way you think. If you are a man, get in the habit of treating your maleness as an unearned privilege that you have to actively work to cede rather than femaleness being an unearned disadvantage that women have to work to overcome. If you are a woman, do not allow for the state of things to discourage you. The industry is transforming every day and opportunities are shifting constantly. And ultimately, one can buy into the discrimination, or one can create one’s own opportunities.
- Do your own thing. Do not imitate a man’s voice. Do not make an effort for your writing to be indistinguishable or to have a male style. When most of what you have grown up with is in that style, it will be difficult at first. But what an exciting thing to do, to strike out into unknown lands. The world is changing, there’s momentum. Use it. You are the right (wo)man for the job!
We will start seeing the world through other eyes when more and more women start writing and filmmaking, without letting themselves be discouraged by how difficult it is. And when more and more women stop writing what they think people want to see, based on previous successes, mostly made from a male perspective. This is a huge responsibility. I personally see it as a call of duty. Not just towards ourselves, our families and careers or the next generation of women. It is our duty to participate in how humanity sees the world and how it perceives reality. Life imitates art as much as art imitates life. It is through art that we change the world.
If you are interested in reading more, including the full interviews on their process as writers with creators such as Terence Winter, Tom Fontana, Warren Leight, Robert Carlock, Janet Leahy and many more, you can purchase the book Inside the Writers’ Room. Conversations with American Writers here.
Christina Kallas has written and produced several feature films and TV shows in Europe before she relocated to New York in 2011, where she is currently teaching at Columbia University’s and Barnard College’s Film Programs, and editing her next feature film (and her first as a director,) 42 Seconds of Happiness. She is the author of six books in her three writing languages, including the above book as well as Creative Screenwriting: Understanding Emotional Structure (London/New York, 2010). Most recently, she was honored for her outstanding contribution to the international writers’ community in her eight years of tenure as President of the Federation of Screenwriters in Europe. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Facebook or Twitter and join the Writers Improv Studio group page for updates.