London Screenwriters' Festival

Good Roles for Women: Where Are They?

Posted on: August 25th, 2010 by Lucy V Hay 3 Comments

After a lively debate on Twitter yesterday, it was largely agreed that female actors, particularly “older” ones (though a general consensus seemed these actresses could be as young as 32!!) got a raw deal when it comes to “good” roles.

Where are all the good characters, played by women? Whilst the debaters posited there were still some good roles available on television – Damages, Ashes to Ashes, NCIS and UK soap opera were all raised – there seems a complete dearth on the silver screen, particularly in the last 5-10 years. In fact, one producer, Zahra Zomorrodian of FNA films felt so strongly, she even threw down the gauntlet, inviting female writers with a “microbudget script and plot-driven female bias” to submit their specs to her by 31.12.2010 (for this opportunity, please contact Zahra on jazadATfnsfilmsDOTcoDOTuk, not LSWF please).

But what *is* a GOOD role for a female actress? Reading spec screenplays, I am consistently shocked by the seeming lack of development of female characters in comparison to their male counterparts. Whilst scribes will strive over the motivations, past histories, character traits and belief systems of their male characters, it is unfortunately seemingly rare a female character (particularly a protagonist) will receive the same kind of privileged treatment. Instead, female characters fall into two categories:

- The facilitator of male emotion. This character is very often a wife, daughter or sister, though sometimes a figure of authority, like a psychologist, police officer or work colleague.  Her appearance in the narrative is usually as a confidante to “draw out” the problems and subsequent emotional response of the male protagonist. This character is usually very passive and accepts whatever is told TO her and stands by her man whatever he does. A good example of this *type* of character would be Rene Russo’s in RANSOM, who despite a few hissy fits here and there for about three seconds, supports Mel Gibson’s character no matter what, even when it appears he’s signed their son’s death warrant (something as a mother myself I refuse to believe).

- The bitch. The bitch is frequently in charge *in some way* (whether marriage or at work), swears a lot and indulges in promiscuity, sexual harrassment, blackmail or other haranguing of the male characters in some way. Very often the bitch is put at the heart of the narrative as one of the few times I see a female protagonist, but unlike her male counterparts in the same *sort* of roles (ie. JUST FRIENDS, GROUNDHOG DAY), she will have nothing to recommend her and she will learn HOW to behave, usually by ritual humiliation throughout the course of the narrative, usually at the hands of a male character.

Now, before we continue – there isn’t a reason in the world neither of those two roles cannot work. What I’m suggesting is there are FAR, FAR more ways a female character can *be* and far more paths she can follow in her narrative arc. After all, male characters come in all shapes and sizes, in all colours, in all states that provide the most conflict for the narrative. Why not female characters, too?

Female characters should not be passive, understanding angels. I don’t know a single woman – JUST ONE! – who is. So why do these facilitators of male emotion exist? If it were only male scribes who wrote this character, I’d say it was wishful thinking, but as I said on Twitter yesterday – gender of the writer appears to make no impact here; women are just as likely to cast female characters in this first, very dull role.

When it comes to The Bitch then, female characters need to be as flawed as their male counterparts, but writers also have to appreciate men and women – their POVS of the world, their desires, their thoughts, their ambitions, their feelings and beliefs – are NOT automatically the same. 9/10 when I see a character a writer insists is a “strong woman”, I see a writer trying to make a female character LIKE a obnoxious man: she fights, she drinks, she swears. Besides anything, why would we want to see that character – female OR male – if s/he is so obnoxious?

Look beyond those two tired categories, make us BELIEVE in your female characters by making them as multi-faceted as your male characters. But how? Well perhaps it’s an idea to divide the two kinds of writer – male and female! Nothing else  - in approaching this, because although the end result is the same, I think writers arrive from two different start points:

Women writers – this is one of the rare case where you CAN “write what you know”. You are female, you know what it takes to be one. I read somewhere once, “Women make up the rules… First rule is: don’t tell men the rules”. Obviously just a silly quote, but there ARE divisions between the genders for whatever reason – society, sexism (on both sides), family, personal experience – and you can use these because you’ve LIVED IT. Sometimes my female writers have told me they’ve lead only “boring lives” but the truth is, women sometimes PREVENT their own voice being heard by saying stuff like this. It’s not vain or boasting to use your own experiences/thoughts/opinions in constructing a narrative. Why shouldn’t you? Men do all the time – and audiences LIKE IT.

Male writers - Sometimes clients have expressed the idea they *can’t* write good female roles “because” they’re men. This is nonsense. Just because you’re male doesn’t mean you can’t write a decent female character; some of my favourite produced movies and spec scripts have contained fantastic female characters written by men. But DON’T look to movies to find inspiration for “good” female roles and don’t automatically assume the likes of Sarah Connor is a “strong” female, as it just promotes a vicious circle. Look instead to the women in your life – why they’re there, how they affect you, what they do and your response to them. You don’t have to write women as all fantastic, wonderful people either – women can be horrible, terrible people too. But make us believe in their emotions and motivations, WHY they are terrible people: don’t just make them bitchy, vain and self-obsessed, not only is that familiar – it’s not actually that *bad* a crime, so it’s not  that dramatic, either.

To sum up, a “good” female character has everything a good male character has – but different. Easy when I put it like that, huh?

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3 Responses

  1. Very interested in people’s opinion on this as I’m wrestling rounding out a female character in a script.

    I think you’re right in the sense that it’s about making them motivated, multi-dimensional and interesting/intriguing.

    Too often it can be easy to feel like you’re damned if you do and damn if you don’t when writing female leads – meaning that someone somewhere is going to have a problem with your portrayal of your female … or any character for that fact that are prone to being stereotyped or marginalised.

    I guess then it also comes down to the story and what the story requires and if ALL the characters provide some different angle or view or style that hasn’t been explored before.

  2. I expect there are some male writers who are completely incapable of writing female characters. This is *their* problem.

    I expect there are more male writers who *think* they can’t write female characters because they think they are some sort of alien specie.

    Personally I have more trouble with male characters. Every script I’ve written bar one has a female protagonist. Admittedly they tend to be young (let’s see 15, 17, 17, 22 for the major scripts) but then I suffer from the Joss Whedon disease :-)

  3. Oli says:

    Hi Bret and Steve – it’s Lucy, not Oli, dunno how to change the admin name (yet).

    Steve – you wouldn’t be the first writer on my list to have the reverse problem!

    Bret – agree totally one can be “damned” whatever way; just recently someone read a script of mine and suggested I was being “misogynistic” to cast my (female) protagonist in an abusive relationship – it was suggested I was inviting people to partake in her pain and fear in an almost voyeuristic fashion. Of course, I don’t feel that way at all, it’s totally NOT my intention – and anyway, writing a film about a successful woman who has everything going for her, all the time, wouldn’t really be that interesting, would it!


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