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June 12, 1999: she is susceptible; he is impossible


Another long time between updates. Hmm.

I've been reading through "nobody knows anything", Diane Patterson's web journal. She's a screenwriter (screenwriter to be?). One thing she mentions is the general difficulty women have succeeding as screenwriters of anything other than chick flicks.

She also comments a fair amount about the nature of women's roles in many movies. Of course, as you may recall from my Phantom Menace review, you don't have to be a woman to notice that kind of bullshit.

It's unfortunate the degree to which people unconsciously gender stereotype, though. In a discussion of a visit to Price Costco nee Price Club, when a friend of hers was deciding between two items which once upon a time one would not have expected to find there, she says she said "This is not your mother's Price Club" (empahsis mine, of course). Perhaps, since Diane is a woman, she always substitutes "mother" in this line. Since, however, this is the only example I have of her saying it, the subtext comes out as "men buy cars; women buy groceries".

One thing I've been trying to do while writing is to avoid gender stereotyping. The premise here (which was actively discussed on the Wordplay script forum) is that while men are on average stronger and generally "more physically capable" in certain ways, and while the best men tend to do better than the best women (as is reflected by sports and the Guiness Book of World Records), stories are often about better-than-average people operating in an average world. There's nothing wrong with having Sigourney Weaver kicking the butts of average males. (Note: yes, there are ways in which women are physically "better" than men, and I'm happy to believe that on average all of this stuff balances out. The thing is that action in action movies tend to revolve around those sorts of physical things that men excell at. If you think about it, this isn't surprising, is it?)

My argument is to push this beyond the purely physical. What I'm doing is applying what I call the gender reversal test.

The premise of this test is that people are unique individuals, first and foremost, and their own gender second. Sexual aggressiveness isn't unique to either males or females. Doting parenthood isn't unique to fathers or mothers. But as a society we often have patterned stereotypes about these sorts of things, which are gender biased.

So the gender reversal test is pretty simple. What you do is you read your work (it works for any story, not just screenplays--and indeed, presumably should work for non-fiction as well) and reverse all the genders of the characters as you read it (you'll have to ignore their names or temporarily rename them or something).

Ok, I'm not saying this test is the greatest test ever. And it doesn't work if you have certain plot elements--pregnancy, castration, or even simple gender-based distinctions like the use of perfume.

The notion, though, is that people are people--they're unique individuals. The characters in your story are special people. They should be able to work as either gender--just as you should be able to have a physically strong female or a physically weak male.

Now, a few things could happen. You might find it a little silly to have male prostitutes streetwalking. In that case, you may have to imagine it's an alternate universe. (Alternatively, you might want to reconsider whether it's a story worth telling, if it's not universal across genders.)

You might find that a character is acting in an unconvincing or inappropriate way. If it's inappropriate, then I suspect you're playing on an unrealistic stereotype. That may be hard to fix. If it's unconvincing, then I suspect you simply haven't motivated your character within the screenplay; you're relying on the stereotype to provide the motivation. That is something concrete you can reach in and fix.

I even said this might apply to non-fiction, which might sound silly. "These people really did these things!" But if it sounds convincing with the original genders, and doesn't sound convincing with the reversed genders, it still probably means you're not providing sufficient motivation. Maybe the motivation isn't available, though, in which case you just have to live with it being stereotypical--in which case you're guilty of helping to perpetuate the stereotype. (It may have actually happened, but maybe an equivalent gender-reversed story has happened, but we just don't hear about it due to filtering and stereotyping by the media.)

Not everyone may agree with this. In his Crafty Screenwriting FAQ, Alex Epstein notes an advantage of working out precisely the simple, short description of the plot before bothering to even think about writing a script:

The guys who wrote While You Were Sleeping pitched their story idea for five years before they finally wrote it. That's how long it took them to figure out that it should be the guy who was in a coma, not the girl.

Which is more likely: that While You Were Sleeping shows us truths about humans, truths about gender differences in humans, or stereotypes about gender differences?

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attribution dammit: Three of a Perfect Pair King Crimson