There’s a trend I see in the female characters in the scripts I read. It’s actually not a trend, it’s a norm in Hollywood and the media of the world. Women are kidnapped. Women are assaulted. Women are harassed. Women are obsessed over, stalked. Women are the victims over and over again.
I remember at one point in my acting career looking at my resume and realizing that in almost every role I had played, I was the victim. Later, as a professional script reader analyzing screenplays every day for years, it became clear that the reason for this wasn’t that I had a knack for playing the damsel, it’s because this is the typical portrayal of women on screen.
I began documenting the ridiculous roles that I see written for women on my Twitter account @femcharacters where I tweet out actual female character breakdowns from auditions. Where these terrible breakdowns originate is the screenplay. The writing is where it starts, and this is where we have the power to help change the narrative for women.
By writing ‘women are victims’ stories, telling them repeatedly, and seeing them all around us in television and film, we re-traumatize and normalize abusive behavior towards women. Humans learn by what we see and experience. It’s like saying smoking is bad, but we show people smoking everywhere the eye can see.
Repeatedly exposing yourself to what’s toxic isn’t what heals or shifts things. Our society has a habit, an addiction, of seeing and treating women as the victim, as weak, as sexual objects – rather than fully capable, complex human beings. Those recovering from an addiction are offered new choices, other avenues rather than the same habitual choice. Something new has to be introduced.
There are many new choices that we can make to help in shifting this, including more women in leadership roles in the industry and more women making movies, and another is that we have more writers crafting dynamic women in their scripts. Not once. Not twice, but over and over again.
It’s how you change any habit. if you’re changing your diet, you have healthy food options. You don’t eat a salad once or twice a year and have a new body. You don’t fill your pantry with chocolate and peanut butter cups (although that sounds delicious). You make sure that you’re always stocked up on and have access to new food choices that will help you move into a healthier place in your life.
Just one or two movies each year with an empowered female character is not going to shift things. We need an abundance of narratives of complex, empowered women to repeatedly expose our world to, so that we and future generations, no matter their gender, will get used to seeing women in a different light.
As writers, we need to keep stocking the pantry of Hollywood with as many options and choices as possible. Our duty as storytellers is not just to bring a mirror up to society, but it is equally important to help portray a version of events, worlds and societies where a new normal is presented. This plants seeds in people’s minds. It introduces a new element, a new energy, an example.
When we create these examples, we create energies that others can tune into so that they can move that energy into their own lives, which affects the world. This is the power of stories, of a screenplay, of films.
Plus, here’s the thing, when you write more dynamic female characters, or what’s often referred to as strong female characters, your writing moves above average. I see this in my work as a story analyst and can whole heartedly attest to well-developed female characters making a script and/or writer stand out among the rest. It doesn’t necessarily have to do with the women in the story, but it has to do with better writing.
Women are written the same way over and over again. If you’ve heard any advice about what to do to make your script stand out, then you’ve probably heard that you should present something fresh and original.
By crafting better female characters, not only are you showing your talent as a writer that can create well-rounded and relatable characters, but you stand out from the pack, because the norm has been to write women a certain way rather than fully developing them. Really, you can’t go wrong with making an effort to ensure the women in your screenplays are dynamic, complex, and developed as much as they can be.
Changing the narrative for women is a long game. Not an easy fix, not instant gratification. It takes time. The more we digest different stories as a society and the more Hollywood sees that these stories are wanted and turn a profit, the more change can take place. Each person plays a part in this – from the screenwriter, to the producers and directors that choose which movies they’ll make, the actors that portray women in those stories, and the audience member who chooses which stories to invest their time and money in. We all play a part and have the power to make this change happen.