How to Write Movies For (Ladies And) Gentlemen

Graphic by Rae Shuman

Graphic by Rae Shuman

By Molly Dannenberg

Four years ago I was a person who today feels very far away, and I was deciding between majoring in playwriting or screenwriting. I went with playwriting, but I knew that I’d try my hand at writing for film eventually, and this autumn marks my crossing of the first threshold into working in both mediums. I always knew that I wanted to write some weird shit, and I needed to be sure the medium I went with could—and would—get weird with me. In college I’ve learned from professionals about these two artistic industries, and I’ve come to think of the theatre and the movie business as having very different personalities:

Think of Theatre as a tweed-wearing professor who pontificates over his wild past experiences and questions why you haven’t lived your life to the fullest too.

Then, think of Movies as an arrogant asshole in an expensive suit at a strip club who snapchats a picture of the woman giving him a lap dance and sends it to you with the caption, “JEALOUS MUCH?”

Granted I am new to both industries, having never written a movie or a play that was professionally produced, but I still have my conceptions and my preconceptions.  While I love the potential for social change dormant in theatre and films, I often find myself unenthused by how they manifest in practice. Rather than being devices for voicing different people’s stories, I find films defaulting to handsome white male actors as the leads with one or two ancillary women playing the role of his girlfriend, his potential girlfriend, or his mother.

The most important thing for me as a writer has always been telling stories and trying to express ideas. When it comes to writing stories with one main heroic character I’d like to write about someone I myself would want to emulate. The list of people I consider heroes includes admirable women, therefore I would like to write about some badass ladies doing some badass shit, and yet it seems as though Hollywood and the theatre (although thankfully the latter is to a lesser extent) aren’t too keen on female protagonists who live in worlds that aren’t constantly both romantic and comedic… or pornographic.

I’m learning more about how the movie industry functions and I don’t like what I see. The source of my newfound knowledge is a book entitled “How to Write Movies For Fun and Profit.” Yes, ‘Fun’ is intentionally crossed out. The book was introduced to me with a note suggesting to not be put off by the blatantly misogynistic cover, because the two authors did it intentionally… as a joke. Because sexism is so funny! Especially in a world where male dominance still prevails! LOL OPPRESSION! HA! HA! HA!

Wary, I found the book and took a good look at the supposedly tongue-in-cheek cover:


Quickly, I’ll explain what about this bothers me the most. It’s the clothing choices. What is it about men wearing expensive suits surrounded by naked or nearly naked women that can somehow be passed off as ironic or as parody, rather than recognized as blatantly sexist? Yes, Robin Thicke, I’m looking at you. Fuck you Robin Thicke, who literally said that degrading women is fun. Fuck you, and not in the way you’re asking to be fucked.

My feathers got ruffled at the obvious display of male power and female servitude (yes I am an angry feminist, what of it?), but I gave the book a chance. After reading the chapters, I realized that no, this image is not a joke, but a hyperbolized reality. While useful for an aspiring screenwriter who wants to make a decent paycheck from her labor, the book also unintentionally exposed me to a gender gap (or canyon) in Hollywood.

I should be clear, Hollywood and blockbuster films are separated from the arty indie movies that that one friend always illegally downloads and convinces you to watch with them. The authors of this book differentiates their high-grossing movies with art-house films, adding that they still “do have an appreciation for art-house films, especially the ones where you see Helen Mirren’s boobs” (xii).

Wow, lovely. Reminds me of another Hollywood screenwriter with an affinity for boobs and only boobs (at least when it comes to what he likes about women), the grossly successful Seth McFarlane, who this year was literally the representative of the industry at the Academy Awards. And holy hell, what an irksome and sexist voice Hollywood has become.

The movie industry, excluding art-house and indie films, has become centered on making mucho mucho profit, and that means mass appeal, which apparently equates to mass masculine appeal. Hollywood producers select movies that are intended for a wider audience in order to sell lots of tickets. In order to get the widest audience to take interest and identify with your protagonist, they assume your hero needs to be male. Because, apparently, females don’t feel excluded when watching males deal with masculine life problems, but if you put a lady center stage and have her talk too long without doing a cute little dance, NO ONE WILL CARE, AND YOUR MOVIE WILL SUCK.

Let me give a bit of evidence before I return to my tirade. Have you heard of the Bechdel Test? Allison Bechdel, writer and illustrator of “Fun Home,” proposed a three-part test directed at movies to call out the lack of strong female presences in film. In order for a movie to pass the Bechdel test:

  1. It has to have at least two named female characters,
  2. Who talk to each other,
  3. About something besides a man.

This sounds absurd at first, yet I assure you that not only is it real, but that nearly all films fail. Doubt this if you’d like, but be aware next time you watch a movie. Odds are it won’t be one of the rare gems that represent women as autonomous, or represent us at all.

Even stories that center on only female characters are liable to fail the Bechdel such as in Sex and the City, where the four women talk solely about men and the sex they either do or do not have with them. The Bechdel test has also been modified to apply to groups often unacknowledged or simplified/stereotyped in film such as people of color and those who don’t conform to heteronormative lifestyles and desires.

The chapter in “How to Write Movies” centered around creating characters emphasizes the importance of making your hero heroic. Standard coolness and likability are key, as is attractiveness, though they add that “sometimes an ACTRESS [no that wasn’t my emphasis, they put it in uppercase themselves] will play her one “ugly” role, to try to win an Oscar” (155). Then there is a massive footnote filled with characters who fit the mold of memorable movie heroes. I counted, reader, just for you. 61 heroes, and 3 were female. But wait! There’s more to this appalling example! One of these three was Maid Marion, the love interest of Robin Hood, who I always picture as an animated fox because of that Disney movie. Another was Trinity, the love interest of Neo from The Matrix. Note that neither of these women are the heroes of the story, in fact their only purpose in the plot is to serve as an incentive for the protagonist to succeed in whatever it is he needs to do. The third woman that made their list is Lieutenant Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver, from Alien. If you want an example of how to write a movie for men and women, watch Alien.

Four years later, Molly thanks the Molly of yesteryear for her decision to go with theatre. Being more aware than ever of how women are portrayed or omitted in storytelling has served as a sort of call-to-arms. This book teaches writers to aggrandize a macho masculinity by keeping women on the peripherals of a story. If these lessons continue, then the sexism captured on screen will perpetuate itself into our futures. I think it is high time for more female characters to kick ass in full view of the audience, preferably without their ass in full view of the audience. I want to see more women writers representing my gender, instead of passively watching, choking on our silence, as a constant stream of male writers unintentionally create one-dimensional female characters since they themselves cannot and will not try to fathom the recesses of a woman’s mind.



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