Are more women writers what we need?

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People keep commenting to me that we need more women writers in TV and film. They’d know how to write women. They’d change things. The more I think about it, the more I think that’s aiming too low. Even directors often lack the kind of influence we need to change things. What we need, in my view, is more female producers and studio executives. But even then, the results will be disappointing unless we change the brainwashing that influences production at every level.

Writers – of either gender – are fairly low on the totem pole in film and TV, which is why so many of them aim to become producers as well. It’s a bit of a running joke in Hollywood to debate who has it worse: actors or writers? Like actors, writers are told what to write and how to write it. And they’re even more easily replaced than actors, if they choose to ignore the rules.

Even when you write your own script on your own time, then look for a buyer, you lose control the instant you sign the papers. You can write it into your contract that you get to do all the rewrites yourself, but you can always be replaced by someone willing to write what the studio/producers/financiers want, should you refuse. You’ll still get your name on the screen, but now it might be attached to some godawful thing with gratuitous crap or logic holes or “character development” in the form of stereotypes.

And even if you control every last draft up until the actual shoot, directors and producers can rewrite on the set. Some real shit has been thrown into movies in this manner. Some really good stuff has been, too. It just goes to show how little control writers really have.

Directors have slightly more power. But the folks waving the money around can still dictate all sorts of things that wreck creative visions. And since they’re paying for it, they have the right to say what they want.

This is where we need women. We need women in positions where they can greenlight a project or kill it, and that means studio executives and producers. But even then, everyone in an industry as budget-conscious as film – where everything is so incredibly expensive that one false step can bring down a small company in record time – feels pressured to do what’s “proven” to be profitable. Imagine taking $100 million from some investors who trust you and deciding, based on your gut feeling, to make a line of skirts for men, because you’re just sure there’s a market for it even though there’s absolutely no market research that backs you up on this. Now imagine you go through with it and it flops. You’d be lucky if unemployment was the worst thing that happened to you.

And really, why should investors risk insane sums on unproven ventures? Everyone likes a guarantee, right? That’s the problem.

We have an entire industry built around numbers on spreadsheets that can be interpreted multiple ways, and investors are being assured there’s only one way to interpret those numbers. “There is no research to indicate X will be successful” quickly becomes “X is not successful” when in fact no one has ever tried X. Sometimes there are even reasons the people with the numbers don’t want X to look appealing to investors, so they make sure to twist “we don’t know” into “we don’t dare”. Maybe X is more expensive or more difficult to achieve. Maybe it requires talent, and that would mean working with writers, actors and directors who don’t come so cheap (and might push their advantage, knowing they’re needed).

Change most often comes through cheap productions who have little to lose on an idea. Imagine raising $10,000 from investors and spending that on a line of men’s skirts in the San Francisco Bay area. Suddenly, you have a much less risky venture – almost a whim to your investors – and if it flops, you’ll survive. And if it takes off, you’ll be remembered as a genius.

At this point, I should also mention there are plenty of men in film who want good female characters as much as anyone. The real problem is, they often don’t come cheap. Cheap writers – so desirable because they’re both inexpensive and too unsure of themselves to give the bigwigs any attitude – tend to write in broad stereotypes. If that’s what you pay for, that’s what you’ll get.

I think having women in positions of power is a good step. But we’re also going to need a willingness to invest in talent and put up with artists who intuitively understand what the audience wants to see and are willing to fight for it. If you put women in charge of film, but the women you pick are all linear-thinking spreadsheet-regurgitators, the status quo will hum right along unaffected.


  1. Anemone says

    In my study of 914 films, about 1/3 of the producers were women. Of course, I used all producer credits, so some of those producers had more clout than others. But still. It was a lot more than I expected, considering.

    More recently, someone (was it Women & Hollywood?) mentioned a study where female decision makers were less willing to take a chance on female writers than men were.

  2. Dani says

    “I think having women in positions of power is a good step. But we’re also going to need a willingness to invest in talent and put up with artists who intuitively understand what the audience wants to see and are willing to fight for it. If you put women in charge of film, but the women you pick are all linear-thinking spreadsheet-regurgitators, the status quo will hum right along unaffected.”

    This. While reading this article, I couldn’t help but remember the girls’ manga/anime I watched/read as a teen and still watch/read now. The manga authors are always women (I can’t speak to the writers in the anime, however), and yet some of the female characters and messages about gender and relationships are TERRIBLE. You can get the girl who has a power but is still a damsel in distress throughout the *entire series* (Fushigi Yuugi*, which also has the added “bonus” of “you only have your power as long as you are a virgin” to REALLY pump up the sexual tension between the main character and her lover), or the guy who tries to force his girlfriend to have sex…to which the girl reacts by apologizing after she fights him off (Blue Seal…also has the “she (not “he”) only have power as long as she’s a virgin” trope), and if I have to watch one more series where the (nice, potentially romantic partner) guy feels like it’s ok to pin the girl against the wall before telling her something “really important”, I might throw something at the TV.

    I tend to think that we need career paths like that of a producer, or writer, or director to be as open and accessible to women as to men, and that we need people in those positions, regardless of gender, to be more about writing/green lighting projects that good, true characters rather than just following a bunch of demeaning stereotypes because they’ve been “proven”.

    *The author of Fushigi Yuugi was, in my opinion, never known for having great female leads, but, when she started drawing a prequel to Fushigi Yuugi recently, the lead character was actually a stronger, more capable heroine, and the author specifically said that this prequel was aimed at the original audience of Fushigi Yuugi (which was made in the 90s). I wonder if, in her mind, the age difference of the target audiences influenced the type of character she created.

    • Casey says

      “The manga authors are always women, and yet some of the female characters and messages about gender and relationships are TERRIBLE.”

      That reminds me of how much I RAGE whenever I go to the manga section of Barnes and Noble/Waldenbooks/what-have-you and see stuff like Black Bird lining the “MOST POPULAR” shelves, where every cover is a variation of the lead female character crying, slightly bloodied/scratched up and cringing whilst being man-handled by who’s supposed to be her “Draco In Leather Pants” Tengu-demon-guy love interest…AND DON’T GET ME STARTED ON HOT GIMMICK!!!

      • Dani says

        “In general, Japan is at least 30 years behind the US in terms of women’s rights, possibly forty.”

        Which is ironic, considering that, off the top of my head, I can remember more female characters that I think are well-written, believable characters in anime and manga, than I can in American media.

        And, Casey, I had never really paid attention to Black Bird, so I looked up a summary of it and…ew.

        • Casey says

          It’s super-de-DUPER ironic, since not only can I too also think of far more well-rounded female characters in Japanese works, there’s also more women authors (and MALE authors who write believable female protagonists/stories with all female-casts like it ain’t no thing (harem animu notwithstanding)), women animators, music composers, more women in technical things like video game programming, AND (this is semi-OT but a big thing for me) don’t treat women pro-wrestling as a joke/side-show attraction..they also have more inter-gender matches and nobody seems to bat an eye (whereas USian pro-wrestling fans usually complain about their suspension of disbelief being ruined…UGH WTF).

          HOWEVER, more often than not Japanese society expects women to quit their jobs, get married, and have babies by the time they’re 25~27…so yeah, it’s a weird sort of double-think.

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