I first learned about the rather new and rarified job ‘Sensitivity Reader’ through producer and development exec, Alexandra Creswick. She responded to the growing mandate for accuracy in representation in storytelling by becoming a Sensitivity Reader herself. I want Ms. In the Biz readers and filmmakers to know about how to start making this position a regular on your crew lists. Alexandra was kind enough to share her thoughts with us about sensitivity reading in an interview.
What exactly is a Sensitivity Reader?
Sensitivity Reading (sometimes also called “Expert Reading” or “Authenticity Reading”) is an emerging practice of doing a notes pass on literary works–manuscripts and film/TV scripts included–for issues with representation, unconscious bias, unintentionally insensitive language, cultural inaccuracies, and recommending changes that alleviate those concerns without undermining the integrity of the story.
When someone hires you as a sensitivity reader for a film, what is your primary goal in terms of the feedback you give the filmmaker?
In a very basic way, my goal to make sure a writer’s intent makes it onto the page. Writers spend a lot of time and effort crafting their story and worlds, but our unconscious biases have a tendency to sneak in and affect the text in unintended ways. Sensitivity Readers help writers craft narratives that are diverse, authentic, and multi-faceted, and offer guidance when writers are working outside of their own identities.
What are some of the types of projects you think most benefit from hiring a sensitivity reader?
Any and all of them! Sensitivity Reading is an accepted part of the publishing world these days, with many publishing imprints making sure all manuscripts get notes from a sensitivity reader before publication. But I’d definitely recommend Sensitivity Readers for projects that highlight any kind of: racial issues; sex, sexuality and gender; violence, particularly gendered violence; unfamiliar subcultures; writing outside of your cultural expertise; and anything you would want an Intimacy Coordinator on set for.
As filmmakers, we are all seeking projects that ‘ring true’ or present authenticity in the communities they represent. How do sensitivity readers assist with giving a project greater authenticity? In short, what does the work product /notes look like that a filmmaker would receive from a sensitivity reader?
Sensitivity Readers help reframe the story, often in really exciting and inspiring ways. For example, I worked on a really funny meta-horror movie that starts out with a very stereotypical setting: a bus full of cheerleaders breaks down outside of the abandoned town, and the murder starts picking them off one by one. The guy who wrote it knows their horror—the movie flips in the middle and ends up being a very well executed joke.
But I pointed out to them that there was a lack of men in the movie— only one man in our pool of victims, and he survives for most of the movie—this meant we ended up killing a lot of women. Instead of making commentary on the proliferation of violence against women in horror movies, we unintentionally ended up doing the thing we hated. My suggestion was making a couple of our cheerleaders guys, which means not only can we now play with some more gender tropes in the set up, it actually solved a couple of problems down the line—like how there’s an abattoir of murdered cheerleaders in the third act, and we can foreground the guy cheerleader corpses, which lets us visually side step any worries about adding to the list of movies that fetishize dead female bodies.
That’s a very general sample of what I do, and that kind of layering and complexity can happen in multiple ways. You can see in the example how problems stack—but also how the suggested change might open new, more interesting opportunities for the story. Those writers were super excited to play around with this new dynamic in their next draft. Someone who’s lived through the reality of a thing will always surprise you with the details, and it’s those very small moments that can make your script feel alive.
As an indie producer adding a sensitivity reader to a budget, nuts and bolts- should we expect to pay a flat rate like a clearance report might or are there different ways of structuring this collaboration (reviewing more than one draft, for example, after giving notes)
So far, each project I’ve worked on has been completely different, and had different needs. I strive to be as collaborative as possible, so there’s a flat “for notes and a couple of follow up conversations” (clearance report is a decent analogy) that’s always available. If I’m already familiar with the project and a producer circles back, I’ll discount subsequent drafts. I’ve done retainer deals as well.
What advice do you have for producers seeking to work with a sensitivity reader about when to engage them in the development and production timeline?
It’s never too early to engage a sensitivity reader! It’s also never too late. For example, if you tell me you’re developing an action movie with a bisexual lead, I could generate a list of tropes you’ll at the very least want to keep in mind as you craft your story—like Bury Your Gays or Not Bisexual By The End or Homophobic Hate Crime—and send my fun primer Bi Culture in Memes: Plaid, Hoodie or Leather?
Having the support of the whole creative team is important; if everyone is committed to being diverse and aware, that has a really positive effect on the end result. At the end of the day, the writer still has control over implementing any changes.
What is your advice to writers who are attempting to include characters outside their own personal experience? Are there some key questions you would encourage them to ask themselves as they approach a project?
Writers should very carefully contemplate the difference between writing a minority character into their story (aka representation) and telling the stories of minority characters (too often and easily turns into appropriation). Take a step back and looking at the world you’ve built from a holistic point of view—what’s the gender break down here, who speaks, what races are specifically mentioned, what jobs or socioeconomic status have I given them, etc.
What are some of the key topics or blind spots you’re seeing trending right now that filmmakers should be seeking you out to address?
Consent issues in general—please run anything with sex in it past someone who is trained in recognizing structural problems with the stories we tell about and around sex. No creative work exists in a vacuum, and context is important.
And there seem to be a lot of trans stories out there being told entirely by cis people.
That ‘blind spot’ is ableist language—I second Raphael Orlove’s nomination to replace it with the German term, “toter Winkel,” aka the dead angle.
Anything else you’d like to share about the way sensitivity readers can improve the success of our projects?
It’s been proven time and again that film and television shows that embrace diversity and inclusion are more profitable–and increasingly so. Sensitivity Readers are a beneficial and important component in the push for diversity and inclusion and can be an invaluable tool in helping project creators avoid unwanted criticism and cultural insensitivity.