I’ve just finished writing my first feature film screenplay and no one gets naked in it. Whether this will impact its saleability remains to be seen, but one thing I do know is that lately I’ve been thinking a lot about film sex. And it’s not just because I’m single.
I was at a screenwriters conference last month and there were a number of big names there. But most of them were men, you see, because until relatively recently the disparity between women and men working in film wasn’t seen as a very big deal.
One of major drawcards, however, was an American female screenwriter who has written for some of the biggest sitcoms in history, within writing rooms in which she was usually the only woman. And in some rooms, she told attendees, during her long career, she’d often be asked whether the female characters she’d written could perhaps be topless, or at least be partially naked, when it had nothing at all to do with the story.
Since going to the conference, I must admit I’ve been watching film and TV with a more critical eye and I don’t really like what I see. Just this week, one of the main entertainment stories online was about a new TV series starring Elvis Presley’s granddaughter, Riley Keough, in which she plays a “high-class call girl”.
It made me think of the many, many TV shows and movies I’ve seen that feature prostitutes when, you know, I’ve never actually met one in real life but seemingly they’re bloody everywhere and their lives are so very interesting that they deserve to be on screen more often than, say, female doctors, lawyers or politicians.
Not that there is anything wrong with being a sex worker, of course, but they do seem to be disproportionately portrayed in cinema and television. No doubt because they are regularly naked. Ditto with so many business meetings that happen in strip clubs. I mean does that actually happen in real life or do we just put up with it because film and TV are still seen as nothing more “harmless” than make believe?
One thing I did begin to notice was that TV shows that I thought I’d enjoy, like Vinyl and Mad Men for example, began looking like nostalgia pieces produced by rich, old, white dudes wanting to relive their glory days when they were young, virile, coke-addled chain smokers who fucked anything with big tits and no conversation skills.
A 2014 study on the representation of women in film backs up my observation with its findings showing that female characters are more than twice as likely to be either partially or fully naked (24.2 per cent vs. 11.5 per cent) and comments made by characters that refer to appearance are directed at women at a rate of five times that of comments directed at men.
Female characters are also more than twice as likely to be wearing sexy and sexualizing clothes (24.8 per cent vs. 9.4 per cent) and more than twice as likely to be skinny (38.5 per cent vs. 15.7 per cent). Also, out of all speaking characters in film, usually only 30 per cent are female with less than a quarter having a woman as the lead or the co-lead of the story. Last time I looked, women were 50 per cent of the population but I suppose that’s just in the real world not the imaginary one.
But, I guess, when we consider that the study found that only seven per cent of directors, 19.7 per cent of writers, and 22.7 per cent of producers are female, well, then it makes sense that the representation of sex, or gender, on screen has been biased for a very long time but the tide does seem to be slowly turning.
It made me consider my own film, which has equal numbers of strong male and female (fully-clothed) characters but I did come to the realisation that the main protagonist (by a small margin I believe) is a man. Someone at the conference suggested I change the story so the lead was a female to address this long-held gender bias and I must admit I did consider it.
The problem I have is the story is the story (and it kind of wrote itself around two particular male and female actors I have in mind) and I also don’t believe that something should be written in a certain way to fulfil a political agenda – no matter how worthy I believe that cause to be.
The story always has to come first, but maybe my own writing experience was impacted by the hundreds of films I’ve seen since I was a child when it was usually the man who saved the day, while the woman looked pretty and mostly silent. Not that any of my characters are overly heroic or good looking for that matter. Shit… it’ll probably never get made, now I come to think of it.
So, that said (perhaps on a soapbox and possibly to the detriment of my future career), surely in 2016 , it’s time that more women were given opportunities behind the camera and not just in front of it? Then they can write and direct truthful stories about their own lives, experiences and imaginations, using a more realistic equilibrium of both sexes – and remain fully clothed while they’re doing it. I can only hope I am one of them.