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THE is­sue of poor fe­male rep­re­sen­ta­tion in movies has been ex­am­ined from many an­gles, from the lack of women in po­si­tions of power to in­vestors wary of fe­male-led films. But do the prob­lems start be­fore or af­ter the cam­eras be­gin to roll?

How fe­male char­ac­ters are de­scribed in screen­plays is rudi­men­tary com­pared with how male char­ac­ters are de­scribed. In other words, rep­re­sen­ta­tions of women are poor be­fore they even make it to the screen.

This is­sue re­cently came to the fore with the Twit­ter feed @FemScrip­tIn­tros, where Amer­i­can film pro­ducer Ross Put­man tweets the first de­scrip­tion of fe­male char­ac­ters in un­pro­duced scripts he reads.

It re­ceived a bunch of me­dia at­ten­tion last week. This Twit­ter feed ef­fec­tively demon­strates a pat­tern.

Given that cast­ing calls are usu­ally copied from scripts, th­ese flimsy char­ac­ters have a real im­pact on the de­vel­op­ment of the show.

It’s fairly com­mon for fe­male char­ac­ters in screen­plays to be de­scribed only or pri­mar­ily in terms of their looks. Film and tele­vi­sion are vis­ual me­dia, to be sure, but male char­ac­ters are usu­ally de­scribed visu­ally and in terms of their char­ac­ter, at­ti­tude, and per­sonal qual­i­ties In the pi­lot episode of

by Aaron Sorkin, Leo Ja­cobi is in­tro­duced as 55 and pro­fes­so­rial” and on the fol­low­ing page CJ Cregg, played by Al­li­son Jan­ney, is de­scribed as 38, compact and ath­letic”. In the en­su­ing pages, Don­natella Moss is in­tro­duced as:

25 and sexy with­out try­ing too hard, Donna is de­voted to Josh.”

Her boss Josh, on the other hand, is: A youth­ful 38, Josh is Deputy Chief of Staff and a highly re­garded brain.” It is clear that women in

are val­ued for their phys­i­cal­ity and ser­vice to men, but men are re­spected for their in­tel­lect. For many fe­male char­ac­ters, they are in­tro­duced only as an ap­pur­te­nance to a male char­ac­ter. In Don­ald Mar­gulies’ The

male lead David Lipsky is de­scribed as: A boy­ishly hand­some 43-year-old, quick­wit­ted, tightly-wound, smokes and types speed­ily from scraps of hand­writ­ten notes, sur­rounded by books on his cur­rent jour­nal­is­tic sub­ject, cli­mate change.”

The fe­male lead is de­scribed sim­ply as: His pretty girl­friend.”

In (2015), the story of Lon­don mob­ster brothers writ­ten by Brian Hel­ge­land, Reg­gie and Ron­nie Kray are in­tro­duced on the first page with both char­ac­ter de­scrip­tion and voice over nar­ra­tion ex­plic­itly de­scrib­ing them for the au­di­ence.

By con­trast, when the prin­ci­pal woman is in­tro­duced in this screen­play, she is de­scribed only as the fu­ture Mrs Kray”. Ap­par­ently there is noth­ing to her, but who she will later marry.

Some­times, the fe­male char­ac­ters are barely given any de­scrip­tion at all. Shasta Fay Hep­worth speaks on screen for the first five min­utes of

(2014), by Paul Thomas An­der­son, but the only de­scrip­tion of her is a vague age: 20s”. Sim­i­larly, Nancy ap­pears on about 20 pages of the script for

(2014) by E Max Frye and Dan Fut­ter­man, but she is never given a char­ac­ter de­scrip­tion at all.

It is hard to know what to make of the lack of de­scrip­tion given many fe­male char­ac­ters. On one hand, it means the role is open to in­ter­pre­ta­tion, on the other hand, it leaves a con­cern­ing whiff that all women might be generic or in­ter­change­able.

So far I have con­cen­trated on de­scrip­tions of named char­ac­ters, as the name­less are con­sid­ered very mi­nor parts and may be cast by ex­tras. Nev­er­the­less, it is worth not­ing that mi­nor male char­ac­ters are more likely to have names than equally mi­nor fe­male char­ac­ters.

In the open­ing pages of

(2014) by Peter Lan­des­man, a pair of mi­nor char­ac­ters is in­tro­duced: one is

Ronny Quail, 40, nose col­lapsed from a life­time of blows.

Whereas the other one: Lit­tle Hot­tie, 19, top­less and G-string.”

He is a per­son with an af­flic­tion. She sim­ply is her sex­u­alised body. (Her char­ac­ter name in the is Quail’s Girl­friend”.)

It’s worth point­ing out here that play­ing the role of a named char­ac­ter com­mands a higher level of pay than play­ing an un­named ex­tra.

Ma­jor char­ac­ters in a screen­play are cre­ated through an ac­cu­mu­la­tion of de­scrip­tion, ac­tion and di­a­logue over dozens of pages.

But male char­ac­ters also dom­i­nate screen time, so their in­tro­duc­tory de­scrip­tion may take on greater sig­nif­i­cance.

Does de­scrip­tion of char­ac­ter re­ally mat­ter?

Be­cause a screen­play is usu­ally the ba­sis for screen pro­duc­tion, and film and tele­vi­sion both re­flect and shape our so­ci­ety.

Char­ac­ter de­scrip­tions are of­ten sim­ply lifted from scripts and posted as cast­ing calls. Ac­cord­ingly, fe­male per­form­ers may be cast sim­ply be­cause they fit a cer­tain phys­i­cal de­scrip­tion. Of course, they may put in con­sid­er­able work to build a char­ac­ter with­out di­rec­tion from the page, but this con­trib­utes to the dif­fi­culty ac­tresses re­port in find­ing good roles.

Lengthy de­scrip­tions trans­late to a lin­ger­ing cam­era, so when men are de­scribed in more de­tail, they spend more time on screen.

The screen­plays cho­sen here have all been suc­cess­fully pro­duced and lauded with nom­i­na­tions or awards.

Th­ese are sup­pos­edly the best that Hol­ly­wood has to of­fer, so should be ex­em­plary in how they write of women. But they do not.

More im­por­tantly, this is­sue is broader than any sin­gle screen­play. Women are sys­tem­at­i­cally marginalised on screen and th­ese char­ac­ter de­scrip­tions are only one in­di­ca­tor of that.

Ul­ti­mately, how women are de­scribed in screen­plays mat­ters be­cause screen rep­re­sen­ta­tions con­trib­ute to the nor­mal­i­sa­tion of sex­ist gen­der roles in our so­ci­ety.

O Meara is a lec­turer in screen writ­ing at the Univer­sity of Mel­bourne. Source: https://the­con­ver­sa­tion.com

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