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Get Confident, Stupid!

Photo attribution: By Antonio García Rodríguez (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo attribution: By Antonio García Rodríguez (Flickr) CC-BY-2.0

 Good news! Journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman have discovered the underlying cause of sexism. Women, they’ve determined, get paid and promoted less than men for one simple reason: we suffer from “an acute lack of confidence.” Their book, The Confidence Code, draws on studies showing that women ask for raises less often, assess themselves more negatively, and seek out fewer opportunities than men to argue that if women would just adopt lower voices and more expansive body language and be more willing to take risks and less willing to take the blame, we would advance at the same rate as men.

Setting aside for a moment the idea that acting like a man is the same thing as acting confident, let’s consider why women might hesitate to embody these characteristics. Could it be because when we were young our teachers didn’t value assertiveness in girls as much as they did in boys? Could it be because we know we get paid less whether we negotiate aggressively or not? Could it be because of the regularity with which we are sexually harassed in the very workplaces where Kay and Shipman think we should be more comfortable taking risks?

You don’t have to look hard in Hollywood to find confidence killers. Literary agent Nancy Nigrosh recently published a piece on Indiewire claiming that women’s films don’t get produced at the same rate as men’s because we don’t know how to write good log lines. (I kid you not.) Aaron Sorkin made a similar point when he responded to a question about gender parity with a claim that more scripts by and about women would be produced if the ones getting written didn’t suck so much. And we wonder why women are more willing to take the blame when something goes wrong.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that people with power are eager to blame inequality on anyone other than people with power. Nigrosh’s argument that “the ball is in the writer’s court” when it comes to competing, conveniently excuses producers and agents from failing to support women writers. She also conflates representation of women on screen with the number of women writers, when in reality male writers create the bulk of negative representations of women and, since they write most of the movies, are the ones responsible for the lack of female protagonists. Similarly, Sorkin ignored the question, “When are you going to write a female protagonist for a feature?” and instead blamed the lack of such protagonists on the failure of women writers to create them.

In reality, both men and women are perfectly capable of writing interesting female characters. Sorkin has written a few of them himself. In fact every writer, regardless of whether they have a social investment in representation, should want both their male and female characters to be compelling. This is what most people call good writing.

Sorkin also erroneously claimed that “There are roughly as many women who can green-light a film in Hollywood as there are men.” If it’s entirely up to women to greenlight films about women, then I guess it makes sense that only 15% of films have women protagonists, since women only made up 15% of executive producers of the 250 highest grossing films of 2013. But contrary to this pass-the-buck mentality, I would argue that male producers are just as capable of recognizing good scripts by and about women as women are.

Better log lines are not going to make unwilling producers any more likely to greenlight scripts by women, just like women writers acting more confident isn’t going to magically enable producers to get past their preconceptions about women in film. In fact, a woman who deliberately adopts masculine behaviors in a pitch meeting is just as likely to be seen as arrogant and unfeminine, as confident.

What is going to change the ratio? For starters, male writers could take responsibility for writing better female characters. Agents could do as much to promote scripts by women as they do for scripts by men. Producers could ask agents to send them scripts by women and scripts with well-written female characters. And that’s just for starters.

But I’m not naïve enough to think that I’m going to change anybody’s mind in this column – most of you reading this probably already agree with me. The only thing that will persuade producers to make movies by women is the fact that movies by women, about women, with well-written female protagonists, do, in fact sell tickets. (Heck, I’m not even sure they have to be that good. Case in point: More people saw the female-revenge comedy The Other Woman during its opening weekend than saw Captain America 2.)

As to Sorkin, I think he’s letting his demons shout down the better angels in his brain.  The women of Sports Night and during the first three years of The West Wing were ballsy, funny, and sexy. Recent work notwithstanding, I’m holding on to my faith that Sorkin could – should he choose to – write an interesting female protagonist. Assuming he’s confident and writes a good log line, I bet one of those female producers would greenlight it.



About Holly L. Derr

Holly L. Derr is a feminist, director, and professor of theater who writes about theater, film, television, video games, and comics. She holds an MFA in theater directing from Columbia University and has taught at Smith College, the ART-MXAT Institute for Advanced Theater Training, Brown University/Trinity Repertory Consortium, The California Institute of the Arts, and the University of California at Riverside. Holly has been published by Ms. Magazine, Bitch Media, Women and Hollywood, XX Factor/Slate, and The Atlantic Holly’s favorite pieces include “Gender Flipping in Hollywood, “What Really Makes a Film Feminist?” and “A Feminist Guide to Horror Movies Parts 1-6.” Follow her @hld6oddblend and check out her tumblr, Feminist Fandom.