It’s no secret that Hollywood doesn’t just sway but full-out topple toward a male perspective when it comes to portraying women. Instead of complaining about it, however, maybe it’s time to follow Matthew McConaughey’s Golden Globes advice and “Go get ’em.”
It all started when I found myself the victim of an apocalyptic cold. After parking myself on the couch with a tankard of orange juice and a stack of DVD rentals, I decided to pop on Looper — it’s a not-so-proven fact that a Bruce Willis action flick is as good for a sick day as a bowl of chicken noodle soup. But about 20 minutes after hitting “play,” I stopped focusing on the movie (which was subpar anyway) and start wondering: why does the main character have to be male? A woman could easily be a time-travelling assassin trying to kill her future self. In fact, a woman could do most of the things men in action movies do, so why are there so few female-led films that aren’t chick flicks, biopics or indie dramedies?
I went on to do some research and found some pretty startling numbers. The year’s more popular films — The Heat, Gravity, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Frozen — have been relatively female-focused. Many media leaders called 2013 a great year for women in the cinema world thanks to the magnetism of Sandra Bullock, Jennifer Lawrence and Melissa McCarthy. A recent study showed that films that passed the Bechdel Test made more money than those that didn’t this year, albeit because two of the top earners, Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World barely passed.
But what is this Bechdel Test I speak of? Developed in 1985 by comic strip writer Alison Bechdel, the test rates films based on three criteria:
Are there two or more female characters with names?
Do those female characters talk to each other?
Do those female characters talk to each other about something other than a man?
Sounds like a simple test to pass, right? Well, think of it this way: of 2012’s top five grossing films, only The Hunger Games was the only one to pass all three tests — Marvel’s The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises and Skyfall each passed only one test and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey failed all three. The top grossing films for 2013 all passed, which means Hollywood is either changing its ways or, more realistically, last year was an anomaly.
Rather than sit around and wait to see if filmmakers will ever get in high-heeled step with the gender they often ignore or objectify, I decided to start writing my own screenplay that would pass the Bechdel Test. After all, one of the reasons that women are so rarely portrayed as lead characters with dynamic personalities and more interesting things to talk about than men is that few screenwriters are actually female. Think about it: only a handful of ladies have won an Oscar for Best Screenplay (Nora Ephron had the most nominations with three, but no gold statue). Diablo Cody, who won for Juno and has since written Jennifer’s Body and Young Adult, is the most recent female writer with a recognizable identity — and that’s partly because of her past as an exotic dancer.
Before I start going into my brainstorm process, character creation, plot development blah, blah, blah, here’s a little background on my screenwriting experience. In college I caught the Film Bug and decided that because I couldn’t act, didn’t have the money to produce and would never be technically savvy enough to lead a special effects team, screenwriting would be the only way for me to win an Oscar. More importantly, in one of my journalism textbooks, Nora Ephron wrote “Too few journalists become screenwriters. I say to all the would-be screenwriters: Become journalists. And I’ll say to working journalists: Do not stay journalists. Become screenwriters.” And I always do as Queen Ephron says.
I took every available class there was to learn the intricacies of screenwriting, namely “Adaptation of Literature for Film.” That’s where I wrote my first full-length script, based on the newly released My Chemical Romance concept album, Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys. The story was based on the two videos, four band members’ alter-egos (Party Poison, Kobra Kid, Fun Ghoul and Jet Star) and countless themes running through the 15-track album. I even created the movie poster for it:
Looking back at the project, I wasn’t too far off the Bechdel mark. I did make a point of including two named female characters to accompany the main band of four: Shourai, the future incarnated in child form, and Mad Gear, a fellow rebel with whom Party Poison initiates a relationship. The villain CEO of evil conglomerate Better Living Industries (BL/Ind) is nameless but a woman nonetheless. Somewhere in there, I’m sure Mad Gear would say “Hi, how are you?” to Shourai to meet Bechdel’s second and third requirements, but I’m pretty sure the whole thing would barely pass. Luckily, MCR frontman Gerard Way (Party Poison) has since written a comic version of the album and been more Bechdel-friendly about his casting.
Not to be outdone by one of my favorite pseudo-Goth musicians, this new project will break the Bechdel bank. If major releases in all genres during 2013, from comedy’s The Heat to sci-fi/fantasy’s The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (for a full list of the best, check out Lydia’s top woman power films of 2013) taught us anything, it’s that woman-led films in all genres can be enjoyed by diverse audiences, from feminist Lydia readers to blow-‘em-up Vin Diesel fans.
So that’s where I start. What are some things that make a film something that everyone wants to see? Action, relationships, witty dialogue, suspense, stunning visuals and a smart story all contribute. But the number one thing that makes a movie quotable, marketable and all-together loved? The characters.
For a film to be Bechdel-approved, there have to be at least two named female characters. Because I’m particularly ambitious, let’s make that five named female characters, two of whom are the leads, none of whom are objectified and all of whom kick ass.
And let’s make these women played by Jennifer Lawrence, Melissa McCarthy, Helen Mirren, Octavia Spencer and Sofia Vergara. Before you roll your eyes and comment that I’m just being diverse for diversity’s sake, let me direct your attention to the fact that only 10 African-American women have been nominated for a Best Leading Actress Oscar — and only one, Halle Berry, has actually won (in the supporting actress category, they’ve had a bit more luck, five out of the 18 nominees winning). So, yeah. You better believe I’m featuring minorities.
So Jennifer Lawrence and Melissa McCarthy are sisters named Margaret and Pauline (I’m in a Neko Case mood today) and they’re doing…something. They’re opening their own cupcake business! No, that’s too 2 Broke Girls, which passes the Bechdel Test but still perpetuates way too many racial and gender stereotypes. They’re on a road trip-slash-sexual-discovery-mission! No, that’s too Thelma and Louise. I’ve got it now — they are avenging their mother’s death.
Mom has to have a pretty big stake in the story for them to want to go on a killing spree filled with laughs and Tarantino-style blood. No, Quentin’s not going to direct this one. He’s known for his tough female characters (and their feet), but this film’s going to have a female director. Let’s get Kathryn Bigelow — she knows how to kick up the intensity and, unlike Sofia Coppola, won’t get caught up in the loud soundtrack and artistic camera angles. You know what’s sad, though? Those are the only two female directors I could think of to potentially helm this project. Mostly because they’re the only two women nominated for the Best Director Oscar in the last 20 years.
But anyway, the mother. She’ll be played by Helen Mirren and lead her daughters through sarcastic commentary — hell, if Morgan Freeman can keep popping up as God in the Almighty movies, Mirren can show up in the back of McCarthy’s Chevy Camaro to backseat drive. And possibly join in on an argument over the meaning of Frieda Kahlo’s unibrow.
She’ll be their guide on their “heroine’s journey,” because after all, the mythical “hero’s journey” is one of the most archetypal stories and lucrative plot lines. Lawrence and McCarthy will have to face down the mob responsible for their mother’s death, possibly with the help of their mom’s boss, Octavia Spencer, who’s still pissed that she lost her CFO — at least, that’s how it looks on the outside. It turns out Octavia Spencer is the head of an elite team of undercover cops, which included Helen Mirren, investigating the mob. She blames herself for Mirren’s death and charges Sofia Vergara, her new top agent, to find the killers. Oh, and Bryan Cranston’s in there as Spencer’s husband and second-in-command.
After all, men have to be in there somewhere. Let’s have Bradley Cooper play Jennifer Lawrence’s fiancé because they’re this generation’s Hepburn and Tracy. Melissa McCarthy’s got to have a fan club, including Matthew McConaughey (the hot one), Paul Rudd (the intelligent one), Leonardo DiCaprio (the sensitive one) and Seth Meyers (the funny one). And if the whole Indiana Jones reference pans out, we’ll have Harrison Ford make some kind of cameo, perhaps as an agent disguised as a cab driver who rear ends them during their getaway.
And the villains? I’m seeing Amy Poehler and Tina Fey as the most unexpected but perfect Mob Bosses. You know, for that added star power.
The important thing to remember while writing this — or any screenplay, really — is that these characters have to be real. They may be dealing with a very unreal situation, but they need to keep the humanistic qualities that make them relatable and likable. The way both men and women are portrayed in most films today is unrealistic. Men are either goofs or gods, and women are either bitches or beauties. But while men are told from a young age to never compare themselves to the male characters in movies because they are special enough as themselves, women are raised to aspire to look like Jessica Alba or wait for their hero to save them like Mary Jane Watson waits for Spiderman. If they act like Sandra Bullock’s savvy but dowdy FBI agent before her transformation in Miss Congeniality, they won’t be taken seriously by their coworkers or achieve the most important thing for a woman in the movie world: getting a man.
Of course, my pipedream of a movie is pretty outlandish and not even Paul Feig would want to touch it. But before you resign it to the pitch pile, think of it this way; what would you think if it were two brothers going after their mother’s male killers, aided by her former male boss and colleague? Because believe it or not, 2005’s Four Brothers had a very similar premise. The only thing that made it more “sellable” was that it starred Mark Wahlberg, Tyrese Gibson, Garrett Hedlund and André Benjamin instead of a group of (arguably far more talented) women.
The female characters in my movie are going to be going after the same thing men usually go after — revenge — just as all of us female screenwriters need to start avenging the way our gender has been portrayed in the movies. Jennifer Lawrence and Melissa McCarthy want to get the killers who murdered their mom, and we want to get the bastards who decided that women were for decoration and token use only.
Photos c/o the author
Kate Everson is Chicago journalist and University of Missouri alumna. By day she is an associate editor for four HR industry magazines. By night, she reviews films, outlines fiction novels with tough female leads and dreams of being the first person to win two Oscars in the same night for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Screenplay. When her fingers aren’t getting exercise bouncing across her keyboard, she’s reading Palahniuk and Vonnegut, practicing her Batgirl skills in the dojo or waiting by the mailbox for her Hogwarts letter. As Katharine Hepburn said: “Life is to be lived. If you have to support yourself, you had bloody well better find some way that is going to be interesting.”