People often point to sexism in movies for what happens onscreen, but really, it’s in play before our heroine has a chance to say a line. It happens when she’s cast. It happens when she’s costumed. It happens when she gets her paycheck. But before all of that even has a chance to go down, it happens in the script—the very first keystroke that could make her a well-rounded individual, or a reductive pile of cliché. Far too often, she’s the latter.
Want proof? Just follow @femscriptintros on Twitter. The feed, which a script-reader named Ross Putman started earlier this week, pulls female character descriptions out of screenplays, changes all names to “Jane” (to protect the innocent), and then sends them out 140 characters at a time. The result is a parade of one-note, superficial notes that describe characters’ looks, but rarely anything about them. It only launched three days ago, but in that time has gained nearly 50,000 followers—and sparked a lot of soul-searching amongst Hollywood screenwriters.
Gary Whitta, one of the story writers for the upcoming Star Wars film Rogue One, tweeted that after seeing the feed he began “going through my old scripts to see if my female characters would pass the @femscriptintros test.” He eventually gave himself poor marks for his female introductions in The Book of Eli and After Earth, but then said “I just checked the intros of the last two female protags I wrote, waaaaay better.” (Let’s hope one of those was the Rogue one.) Parenthood writer Sarah Watson tweeted “scanning through my latest pilot and so far I pass the #FemaleCharacterIntro test. I’m guessing that I haven’t always.” Other writers scoured their old scripts and did the same.
It was, as much as Twitter can provide them, a Teachable Moment. (And an actual, real Twitter Moment.) So, what can we learn from it? Back in 1985, comics writer and artist Alison Bechdel famously wrote that one of her characters would only see a movie if it had at least two women in it who spoke to each other about something other than a man. These requirements became known as the Bechdel Test, and that measurement has since become a go-to sniff test for spotting gender bias in film. But what about everything that happens before a movie hits theaters?
To help screenwriters put an end to overly simplistic female characters before they even write them, we went through the @femscriptintros Twitter feed and spoke to its creator Ross Putman (a real-life script reader and producer) to create a few basic guidelines writers can follow to pass muster. In honor of the fact that Putman changes the names on the script blurbs he tweets to “Jane,” we’re calling it the Jane Test.
Does The Introduction Focus on the External Attributes of the Character?
A gorgeous woman, JANE, 23, is a little tipsy, dancing naked on her big bed, as adorable as she is sexy. *BONUS PTS FOR BEING THE 1ST LINE
— Ross Putman (@femscriptintros) February 10, 2016
This is the most common offense, and the easiest one to avoid. Nearly all of the entries in Putman’s Twitter feed involve some description of how the female lead looks: “smokin’ hot,” “a gorgeous woman,” “stunning,” “attractive, but too much of a professional to care about her appearance…” They’re all there. And they’re all insulting. It’s not bad to describe your character’s look, but when every woman’s descriptor puts her attractiveness front-and-center, it makes all of her other qualities secondary—even if she’s an astrophysicist. This is also the rule that Whitta found himself breaking. (See below.)
“The idea would be: Is there anything in this description that actually helps us understand what makes this character tick, or are we simply being given external, aesthetic traits?” Putman says.
— Gary Whitta (@garywhitta) February 10, 2016
Is She a Twenty- or Thirtysomething?
JANE, a 19 year old Bunny girl – honey-blonde farmland beauty queen.
— Ross Putman (@femscriptintros) February 10, 2016
When Tina Fey and Amy Poehler hosted the Golden Globes in 2014, Fey noted that August: Osage County was a demonstration that “there are still great parts in Hollywood for Meryl Streeps over 60.” The joke, of course, is that there are never parts for women 50 or older, and if there are, they all go to Meryl Streep. Look through @femscriptintros and you’ll see why. Everyone is listed as “28,” “23,” “mid-30s,” “19.”
Taking this back to the larger issue of what the female character’s imagined appearance, Putman points out that movies get made based on who is attached to star. If it’s, say, Streep or Jennifer Lawrence, all is well. But, if that’s the case, it’s unnecessary to bother giving detailed descriptions of the characters in the first place.
“Producers have to be pragmatic and go after people that get them financing,” Putman says. “So even just understanding that sad truth of film production, why would we be describing a person in a very specific way (blonde, leggy, insert-overly-sexualized-adjective-here) if we’re simply going to have to get the best and most pragmatic person for the role anyway?”
Is She Dating Someone Decades Older Than Her?
For a while, Putman just ranted on Facebook about the sexism he saw in scripts. He was inspired to start a Twitter feed, he told Jezebel, after “I found myself posting to Facebook far too often, ‘here comes another script with our 45-year-old male lead dating a 25 year-old woman,’ and decided I was going to keep track of the female character introductions in scripts I read for a few weeks.” No one’s saying May-December romances don’t happen, they just seem to happen a lot more in movies.
If You Answered ‘Yes’ to All of the Above…
It’s time to rethink your female lead. Trust us: once you do, she’ll be a lot more compelling. “Sure, writers can take license and use their voice in the way they describe a character,” Putman says, but they should “stick with objective traits. Any good writer should be able to describe a person in an interesting way without resorting to subjective, bland adjectives like ‘beautiful.’ Why not do better?”