Last month, at a fundraiser for Women In Film, Transparent creator Jill Soloway spoke about the struggle faced by female screenwriters and directors. ‘Male creators, showrunners, producers and directors have to really face the immorality, their own immorality, of hiring their friends, of telling male stories, of perpetuating male privilege through protagonism,’ she said.
Giving a nod to Judd Apatow (who encouraged Amy Schumer to write Trainwreck for him to direct) and Paul Feig (who regularly works with a range of female writers and performers), Soloway insisted that male creators and producers need to ‘offer women the chance to write, to direct, and then to empower them once they are writing and directing, and say, “tell your story, tell your story!”’
It’s a hot-button topic: this year, the issue of women’s place in film has reached boiling point (or is at least very close to it), as increasingly disheartening statistics emerge about just how much film and TV content is created by or stars women: of the 100 top-grossing films in 2014, 12% had female protagonists; of the top 250, only 17% were directed by women.
In April, Jessica P. Ogilvie’s LA Weekly feature, ‘How Hollywood keeps out women’, became a flashpoint for almost disbelieving debate: can it really be that bad? The answer, according to the women interviewed, was a resounding yes. ‘It’s misguided and steeped in patriarchy,’ Selma director Ava DuVernay told Ogilvie. ‘There is an antagonistic context toward images of women by women, images by black people, brown people, indigenous people, that are outside of dominant culture. And the way that things are – they’re run by men, there’s a comfort level there.’
In Soloway’s eyes, empowering female writers and directors to tackle the issue of films ‘perpetuating male privilege through protagonism’ is key to changing the guard; we must ‘tell [our] story’, whatever that story is. It seems like a good stance to take, yet there was something in her call to arms that left me feeling bereft, not vindicated, as though the message implicit in so much recent discussion of female filmmakers and screenwriters were that women need to write women’s stories.
The script I am currently developing features a number of prominent female characters. Let’s say dreams come true, and the script turns into a film, which ends up on screens: will I then be considered a traitor to the cause if future projects ‘perpetuate male privilege through protagonism’? Another script I am working on is about a man in the throes of a nervous breakdown. Am I a sell-out if I tell his story instead of mine?
Or maybe this is all just tied in to my long-held contrariness, the gene that makes me shave my underarms immediately after being interviewed for a trend piece about my dyed pits, or stuff my beloved flares up the back of the wardrobe when the ‘70s come back into fashion.
Whatever the psychoanalytical reading of my response to Soloway’s comments, the idea that As A Woman I must write about women first and foremost is a special kind of hell.
And yet, as an emerging screenwriter whose script predominantly features female characters, I’m regularly reminded of the difficulties that face such a project. I know that ‘women’s pictures’ are judged more harshly than their male peers’ efforts. I know that despite female filmmakers enjoying success at film festivals and even the Academy Awards, it’s more likely that their male peers (often less experienced) will be offered the keys to the next US$150m franchise.
A report by the Female Filmmakers Initiative provided 36 pages of intel as to why women are so rarely permitted to direct blockbusters; most dishearteningly, 12 per cent of respondents simply doubted female directors’ competency. ‘Participants mentioned or speculated about beliefs that women “can’t handle” certain types of films or aspects of production, such as commanding a large crew. Sellers mentioned this impediment more often than buyers. When asked if their authority had been doubted, 70 percent of female directors interviewed answered that they had been challenged by a work colleague.’
And thanks to a study by Suzana Orozco, I know that there are more women in active service in the US Armed Forces (14.5%) than there are female screenwriters who sold scripts on spec between 2010 and 2012 (just 9%).
As my script inches closer to the finishing line, industry feedback continues to zero in on the likeability (or apparent lack thereof) of the protagonist, who is no more or less likeable than similarly cynical male characters. Each time I am reminded of actress and writer Greta Gerwig’s comments this year about the ‘straightjacket’ of likeability: ‘I live in this culture and I think likeability is not just an issue for characters, it’s an issue for women in general. It can be a real straightjacket limiting life. It can feel like you’re operating outside of social norms when that’s your highest value: to be liked.’
And then I wonder whether having a strong opinion either way about all of the above As A Woman – ‘Tell your story, tell your story!’ – hinders my own likeability.